Between anarchy and minarchism: the redistributive state

While sometimes we think of ideologies in strict terms of left and right, more and more frequently we look at political schemes that incorporate a dimension for statism. Big government is possible for both conservatives and progressives; so, maybe, is minarchy. If minarchy is possible, and achievable, it must attain popular support less it be thwarted by revolution or contrarian voting. From this, maybe it makes sense that a minarchism utilize fundamental values from each side, in order to be pragmatic and achieve democratic (and thereby maybe stable) ends. Here there may even be room for an ultraminarchy.

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick defended a minimal state slightly more restrained than traditional classical liberalism. This minimal state arises through natural market forces from statelessness, and serves to enforce contracts and produce monopolistic law. Nozick, although countering his fellow academic Rawls, was also responding to the natural law anarchists, who criticized coercive states for violating human rights — which, in many interpretations, boil down to rights of property and self-ownership.

However, before arriving at the minimal, night-watchman state, Nozick articulates an ultraminimal state, i.e. a private protection agency that claims exclusionary right over the use of force for a given geographical area. It has its voluntary clients; the extension of coverage to others makes the agency a “state” as it introduces taxation.

In ASU the state is an entity formed from an invisible hand to produce heavily libertarian functions of government like protecting rights. Because of this, the minarchist state was a refuge for archist libertarians to claim as their own, relatively consistent with centuries of Western liberal thought. Accordingly, in response, the anarchists question the viability of a lasting minimal state — cue David Friedman in Machinery of Freedom:

“It took about 150 years, starting with a Bill of Rights that reserved to the states and the people all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government, to produce a Supreme Court willing to rule that growing corn to feed to your own hogs is instate commerce and can therefore be regulated by Congress.”

Government grows; modern government grows really, really fast. Minimalism hasn’t seemed to last. So the question is, what sorts of minimal governance could last?

The traditional ultraminimal and minimal state are concerned with, as stated, traditionally libertarian public functions such as police, the judiciary, and possibly roads and maybe even national defense. The problem with these utilities is that they feel wildly inadequate to the modern American used to entitlements, welfare, or a president. The privatization of nearly all federal departments is seen as wild enough for John Oliver to entertain millions of viewers, at the blight of Gary Johnson, and make hardcore eliminativism a losing electoral program. The contemporary world is too complicated, or our enemies are too powerful, or the market is too corrupt for the reinstitution of laissez-faire in the 21st century.

Nevertheless we want a smaller government, or no government, and losing to the tide isn’t a good death; we’d rather fight, and we’d rather win. A lasting minarchism satisfies the broad purposes of limited governance — liberty, protection, and preserving the benefits of the market — while sufficiently completing basic democratic demands, lest it erode into statism or collapse internally. (Keep in mind that anarchism, at least this week, is not a winning platform.)

Here’s what I think lies between anarchism and minarchism: the redistributive state. We can make a couple assumptions which I think are likely true: (1) every public service currently offered by the state could be provided (and, maybe, could be provided better) by the market and non-coercive communities instead, and (2) the entitlement theory of distributive justice offered by Nozick is correct, i.e. holdings are just if acquired by peaceful initial acquisition, voluntary exchange or gifting, or rectification of a previous unjust acquisition. Taking these assumptions, and leveraging the fact that the American populace will not currently settle for brutalist governance, the redistributive state (RS) seeks only to collect tax revenues and redistribute money progressively.

Instead of offering vouchers, EBT, or public options like housing, schools, security and roads, a RS would only tax its citizens and reallocate revenue based on some progressive variables like income, net worth or consumption. (These details are less important, for now.) The only administration is something like an Internal Revenue Service, Census Bureau, and investigation unit suffused together, with over ninety percent of the current staff eliminated, with tax escapees adjudicated in private courts and sent to private prisons or some other form of punishment.

An RS violates rights based on a Lockean conception; it also does something which sounds pretty socialist to right-wing circles. For this reason, though minarchist, it may not be libertarian. However, the pragmatic element is also highly utilitarian, which may interest bleeding-hearts; and, being essentially one big welfare program, it may intrigue American leftists currently eyeing universal healthcare and socialized education. We would do well to keep in mind that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were not averse to basic income either — a redistributive state operates a universal basic income and abandons the proactive functions of the state. I think it is generally clear that, in a situation where we are already giving a person $X in the illiquid form of schools, transfer payments, utilities, roads, defense, firefighters, planning, retirement funds, mail service, etc., instead we should just give that person $X to spend however they see fit. If anyone disagrees, they might be too authoritarian and top-down to consider minarchism in any scenario.

The RS has many benefits over our current, vague understanding of contemporary government. In the first case, the reductionist perspective of right-wing anarchists, such as the stationary bandits theory, is validated, and a lot of the mysterious machinery and ivory-tower political philosophy is dissolved. Some of the bright spots of recent formalist thought are validated, too, without the unpleasant elements. (And armchair philosophizing about the Rousseauian general will collapses.) And, for the Marxists, their critique of the state as a tool of the capitalist class, true enough, is answered, since the state now greatly serves labor more than capital. Some of the income of the upper classes is directly allocated to the lower classes. Also, the state ceases to be paternalistic — it no longer chooses what food is available through SNAP, or issues health and safety warnings; it just straight-up hands out the money without assuming value for consumers. It doesn’t determine what is taught in schools, or what color the roads are, or which country gets bombed on Tuesday.

Perhaps best of all the RS has the potential to all but eliminate bureaucracy. With one small administrative branch which functions like a hyper-specialized agency, there is little room or need for massive proliferation and government by permanent staffers. Likely, all seats will be elected positions along with some underlings, with the marginal tax brackets pre-established constitutionally. But, that can all be figured out later.

Now, there are some obvious flaws for an RS. First of all, the very wealthy, prima facie, have little incentive to stay in a redistributive state. Their money is seized and without tangible benefit for themselves, like roads or security. They have to buy those things on their own dime. The redistributive state is the antithesis of Galt’s Gulch. The only solution to this I can think of is that, in a society with less state omnipotence, community ties will be closer — the rich will want to pay their “fair share.” This is the Hoppean trust in private charity, except that it’s now “forced private” charity. Also, taxes would be much, much lower than the current situation and hopefully tolerable. The taxes are also going directly to other citizens instead of politician’s wallets, oil tycoons, and potassium chloride. Furthermore, they’re paying to live in — the government still has a coercive monopoly on land — the freest nation in the world. An RS is significantly freer than the other statist regimes, and less stressful. Government plays no role at all in everyday life.

One other flaw — maybe an inherent flaw of government brightly illuminated by a raw redistributive state — is what Murray Rothbard saw as an eternal tension between net tax-payers and net tax-consumers. To the extent that the RS administration is elected, and to the extent that politicians have platforms, a lot rests on whether or not taxes will be raised (read: redistribution will increase) or not. The left will continually be concerned with income inequality, regardless of whether or not the poor can afford sustenance. The goalposts might keep climbing. Dialectically, the very wealthy will want to keep the maximum amount of their money and protect profit, regardless of my arguments above. Raw societal tensions like these require a dynamic form of governance, with fluctuations in party dominance, but the RS is too minimalist to feature such parties or other contrivances. The only hope here, I guess, is that the tension will be less than in the current system. And very likely it will be. (Also, the market will correct much of the gratuitous wealth disparity presently built upon rent-seeking.)

In conclusion, a redistributive state would be baldly organized around theft (in a libertarian interpretation) and using people as means rather than ends. To that extent it is hardly libertarian. It achieves Nozick’s end of minimal government but distorts the typical functions we correlate with small government. Still, it’s ultraminarchical, preserves innovation, balances right-wing virtues like liberty and industry and left-wing virtues like equality and positive freedom, and, for a radical populace not quite keen on revolution, has the potential to be politically viable. It serves welfarist functions demanded by 21st century citizens without the corporatist empire of the present. Also, no one starves. For all of this, even if a redistributive state is not perfection incarnate, it seems far better than the current system, and provides such a culturally-celibate political framework to possibly achieve acceptance in totally disparate societies from the United States. I don’t advocate a redistributive state quite yet, but I think it’s a useful, radical place to look for bipartisan solutions to a complicated and overwhelmingly statist world.

I’m pretty sure I’m the first one to suggest a state organized baldly and singularly around redistribution of private income, either because it’s too stupid or it’s too grossly unattractive, so I welcome all feedback. But, if voluntarist alternatives are possible at all, this implies all the state is is a redistributor anyway. The idea of an RS just accepts this conclusion and makes it efficient. Keep in mind I haven’t elaborated on the many complications of UBI, which is an entire field to articulate more extensively, and which has its own numerous difficulties. For now the only question is would this form of government be possible.

7 thoughts on “Between anarchy and minarchism: the redistributive state

  1. “For now the only question is would it work.” Ok, then I guess this is a sub-question, How do you get there from here?

    • Cultural viability -> political viability. I don’t know if a redistributive state is anymore viable than any form of minarchy, so maybe it’s in the category of unviable governance for now. But if an idea gets cultural acceptance, and people aren’t lazy, it can get a political foothold, I’m sure. Lower taxes + welfare, what’s not agreeable to the masses?

    • Thanks. I think cultural change is possible given time. IMO you’ve touched on an important point “…it makes sense that a minarchism utilize fundamental values from each side, in order to be pragmatic and achieve democratic (and thereby stable) ends.”

  2. Seriously. While I can imagine selling points for each side (“lower taxes” and “doing more for poor people at lower cost”), there’s too much to stumble over in this plan (eg. “slashed military budgets” and “extremely angry unions”). If you don’t change the Constitution to get there, it would be far too easy for someone to say, “Hey, the Supreme Court already said we’re allowed to do X, so let’s bring only the X part back of the enormous state” and we wander back here.

    I think the easiest path right now there lies through the universal basic income camp, which is already using dismantling most of the government bureaucracy as one of its selling points.

    • I mostly agree. But of course we would have to change the Constition — namely, the Articles detailing other branches of government, and the Article dictating the role of the executive. I don’t pledge allegiance to this idea, I’m just throwing it out there — but maybe we could all benefit from a decisive plan of action.

  3. I came up with another version of minimalism- time-share governing. Citizenship would be voluntary. If an adult chooses to be a citizen of their locality, then the cost would be that for 11 months of the year, they would perform some part-time community service (fire-fighting, paramilitia, road patrols, rescue services, etc.), and for 1 month they would be the government of their locality. Seniority could decide speaking-order. They would review past laws, and see if their locality needed another law. This should mean 12 new governments each year, but there would be no politicking as we now it, so no need for governments to expand, especially as they would be creating jobs for themselves- those community services become the public service. With government positions being automatic and rotational, newcomers would have an easy time integrating into the society. As for the larger world, they can send people to Conferences, and come back with proposals to discuss. My fancy name for this is Meridocracy, with the slogan ‘Share Power’.

  4. The main issue I see is how does the state enforce this theft? I understand that social bonds might be closer, tho still people might not want to collaborate. In such a case, the state must have some sort of police/enforcement force either owned or under their payroll. This enlarges the baggage of the state.
    Then while drafting the legitimate cases of a legal use of force (or the corresponding trial structure), you’ll start to see that you need to define things like: what is your territory, who are your citizens and how do you recognize them, which are your companies/what does it mean that a company operates in your territory.
    All questions that keep on enlarging your reach as a state.

    But all this is sprouting from the case of an exception, before even considering some other jucier questions: ie. the supposed clarity of information that the state disposes of to choose who to give money to, and Hayek wouldn’t agree with this availability.

    In any case, we can still be sure that any (partial) knowledge was collected thru cooperation, which leaves us again in the need of a coercion bureau. Now I see the reach of the enforcement bureau (and by extension the state) a bit larger that we pretended, and hazy enough as to admit an interesting amount of corruption.

    I doubt that the state could ever get to this pure redistributing function; mainly because this is not one clean function, or if it is, it is already asuming many others (as the enforcement bureau).

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