Libertarianism, Anarchy and the Modern State

Libertarianism: The past, present and future

The modern nation-state was forged in the climate of anarchy of late medieval and early modern Europe (1500s and 1600s). Prior to the modern state, Europe was divided among hundreds of more or less sovereign units, none more powerful than the next. In the absence of a common, accepted authority, these sovereign units (principalities, duchies, manors, fiefdoms, kingdoms) were constantly at war with each other.

Only when the modern states (France, England, Spain, Netherlands, etc) coalesced from this bubbling mess was internal peace and security assured. With the advent of a single, common and universally accepted authority, with a monopoly on violence, individuals and organizations could interact and live their lives under an umbrella of safety. In return for the provision of peace and stability, the state demanded recognition, loyalty, money and that subjects give up some of their freedoms.

The absolutism that resulted (in the 1600s and 1700s) was the historical spark for the rise of political liberalism and liberal revolutions (18th and 19th centuries). And that is where we find the roots of modern libertarianism. However, in its zeal for "liberty" libertarianism has often thrown into doubt the very underpinnings of modern civilization--the nation-state--that has made its political project possible.

Many libertarians fail to recognize that while the tyranny of the state is extremely dangerous, the tyranny of statelessness can be even more dangerous. This is precisely why Europeans were willing to surrender freedoms--sometimes huge freedoms--if they could have confidence that they would not be assaulted when traveling on a highway, their children would not be kidnapped, and their property not seized at the whim of roving criminals. The basic human need for security explains why populations in the developing world today, from China to Iraq, often will embrace a dictatorial government that can at least enforce a set of predictable rules over a democratic government that proves impotent in the face civil war, terrorism and gang violence.

Insofar as the zealous libertarian pursuit of privatization undermines some of the most central functions of the state—such as security or defense—it strikes at the heart of the modern order. The fact that this privatization is pursued in the cause of "efficiency" and lower costs is only tangential to the actual phenomenon at work: the dismantling, undermining or at least questioning of the very sociopolitical unit that is responsible for bringing western civilization out of the anarchical barbarity of the middle ages and into the rationalized and organized stability of the modern world.

Unless and until libertarianism can provide an alternative means of ensuring stability and cohesion among a large population in the absence of the traditional "nation-state" (which it very well might), it fails to constitute a compelling socio-economic-political vision.

This is not to argue that the nation-state is the be-all and end-all of human political life. It has proven to be the most effective and most efficient form of political organization in history to this point. But as civilization advances, as globalization becomes more consolidated and nation-states must accommodate ever larger numbers of people, perhaps new forms of political organization will become ideal. In which case, libertarianism will have an opportunity to make its case outside the bounds of the traditional nation-state. But one thing is certain: it will have to meet or exceed the nation-state's power to banish anarchy.

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Comments 4 comments

kathryn1000 profile image

kathryn1000 6 years ago from London

I think this is very interesting.I like it,Very welll written


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 6 years ago from New York City Author

Thank you, Kathryn. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I'm not sure but it seems you have confused libertarians with anarchists. Anarchists want no government whatsoever. Libertarians want small government. I have read a fair amount of Libertarian literature and have never heard them call for the abolishment of the police, or the military. They call for legalization of drugs and prostitution. And they call for the elimination of most of the federal bureaucracies. They call for eliminating the nanny state. But our own Founding Fathers would agree with that. James Madison said:

"I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."

Benjamin Franklin said:

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 6 years ago from New York City Author

James, thanks for coming. I can see how you might interpret it that way. But what I'm arguing is that libertarianism brings the state closer to an anarchical situation, which is problematic. Rhetoric about the "nanny state" and "freedom" avoids the essential effect of libertarianism: to question some of the fundamental functions of the modern state.

For example, the modern state includes police and defense forces. Libertarians often want to privatize security functions. The modern state includes provisions and initiatives for public health (sewage, clean water, hospitals), while libertarians often want to privatize these functions. The modern state includes provisions for public education, development initiatives, shelters for the homeless, etc. Libertarians often want to privatize all these functions. Thus libertarianism constitutes an effort to roll back much of the modern state.

I'm not necessarily against this effort on some level, but the main point of the article is to see it for what it is, in the historical context, and what the consequences may be. Libertarianism has often pursued this project without regard to where the modern state has come from, and the state of affairs it replaced.

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