While all agreeing that individual freedom is the highest social value, libertarians disagree on a number of issues. A profound divide concerns the question whether government is necessary to protect people’s lives and property, as well as maintain the peace required to actualize the benefits of social co-operation. Classical liberals, or minarchists, insist that government is necessary, though they stress its powers should, as a general matter, be limited to the prevention of murder, assault, theft, fraud, and foreign invasion. Anarcho-capitalists, on the other hand, argue that these functions can be successfully accomplished by private agencies operating in a stateless environment.
Ludwig von Mises is definitely on the classical liberal side of this debate. Â There will always be some individuals, he figured, who fail to understand their real, long-term interest in maintaining social co-operation. Others might recognize it, but lack the will-power to resist the illusory short-run gains in violating the basic norms of justice. Â The state exists to forcefully remind this minority of their true interests. Â This is precisely what the anarchists fail to acknowledge, according to Mises:
The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life. Even if we admit that every sane adult is endowed with the faculty of realizing the good of social cooperation and of acting accordingly, there still remains the problem of the infants, the aged, and the insane. We may agree that he who acts antisocially should be considered mentally sick and in need of care. But as long as not all are cured, and as long as there are infants and the senile, some provision must be taken lest they jeopardize society. An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government. (Human Action, Ch. 8, Sec. 2)Â
Lending support to Mises’ view is Steven Pinker’s latest book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Â Pinker is a leading evolutionary psychologist with wide-ranging interests and a capacious mind to match them. In his book, reviewed in the NYT Book Review yesterday by Peter Singer, Pinker gathers all the evidence on the rates of violent death from pre-state societies (mostly hunter-gatherer) versus state societies (primarily, agricultural and industrial). This is how Singer summarizes what Pinker has found:
Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death. In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods â€” the 17th century and the first half of the 20th â€”Â deaths in war were around 3 percent. The data vindicates Hobbesâ€™s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be â€œnasty, brutish and short.â€ In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.
Pinker also echoes another Misesian point — one going back to Locke, Montesquieu and Hume — that commerce tends to reduce violence. Trade not only provides a more peaceful mechanism to acquire goods than war, it exposes us to people outside our traditional social boundaries, rendering us more tolerant and sympathetic.
One must, of course, read this book, and all the research it cites, to more definitively settle the debate about the necessity of an agency wielding a Â monopoly over the legitimate use of force. But what Pinker’s book says on this matter does ring true.