Minarchism, in brief, is the belief that somehow, via some means not yet devised (but perhaps the Founders were on to something, though their own plan was flawed), The State can be kept limited; it can be constructed such that it keeps to a few functions, and constructed in such a way that it performs them well, or at least not so poorly as anyone would be overly bothered by it (one can see the attraction of this even in non-minarchist, philosophical anarchists, who believe that while the state isn’t morally justified, and it is at best difficult and at worst impossible to limit government, but who nonetheless believe that it would be at least an improvement if we could move in the direction of minarchy, and thus they promote tools and means by which the behemoth of centralized statism can be rolled back).
In brief, minarchy is a government that sticks to three things: external defense against other states, internal protection against crime, and adjudication. Preferably it has divided responsibility, and not entire responsibility, over at least some of that (localization-federalism).
One possible idea for maintaining that over time is a somewhat hobbesean one of having the government feel itself secure; this is sort of Hoppe’s argument (though he is not a minarchist or a monarchist); a government that is securely in possession will want “its” lands to be prosperous, and profitable, and thus adopt better policies (less interventionism, less vote-buying, and so on). I’m not sure this works.
I do tend to agree with Randall Holcombe, despite the critiques (that I do recommend be taken into consideration). I think even on Holcombe’s own terms his article (“unecessary but inevitable”) is misnamed, because in it he argues that people will impose a government upon themselves to perform the above functions (external defense, internal security, and adjudication).
I respect Robert “Bob” Murphy but have found his arguments for private security (here and here) to not be satisfying. In part because I think it is backwards, indeed IMO many libertarians argue backwards on this: Murphy argues that the difficult thing is internal security (police functions), and once that is overcome, external defense is comparatively easy. Then he makes arguments on external security that IMO may not obtain at all (and if they do, will quite possibly result in…a government; not for Nozickian reasons, but for Rothbardian ones: cartels fail on the free market because they lack an enforcement mechanism. However, the security agencies that he posits will cooperate and obtain interoperability in confronting external threats, will not cooperate and use their armed force to impose their cartel internally. Note this is not a moral objection to anarchism; it does not argue that such a state would be justified).
Plenty of libertarians also argue that defense against external threats would be easy for a libertarian society because there is no central authority for a foe to target, it would be “hard” for an external force to impose control because they’d have to go door to door, and the like. These things are not problematic at all for an army (especially a ruthless enough one): usually in the “modern” world’s total wars when an invading army conquers an area (say, the Soviet Army moving into Berlin), the opponent’s government does break down, and the conquering army has no real difficulty imposing itself on the population and subduing them.
There is also the argument that a libertarian society will become “so rich” they will be able to outspend, and be much more efficient in doing so, any potential enemy. This has some merit but ignores the “transition point” – it is a form of static equilibrium, ignoring the fact that moving from the wealth-state of nonlibertarian society to the wealth of a libertarian society will be a process, not an event; and in the interim there will, at minimum, be a period when it is wealthy enough to be attractive to capture but not wealthy enough to be so powerful as to be immune to attack.
Another libertarian argument is that “no one will want to attack, precisely because the wealth of a libertarian society is a process, not an event, and capturing it will be useless to any attacker if it destroys that wealth;” however, this possibility has never stopped invaders from coveting wealthy areas before, or indeed benefiting from shearing the sheep on an ongoing basis once they have succeeded.
Also, the very decentralization of a libertarian society – or, rather, societies – can potentially work against them. As one successful conqueror put it “quantity has a quality all its own”; that is, the Soviet Army may have been inefficient, it may have squandered its soldier’s lives on a massive scale, but it was successful nevertheless. And this is not a unique situation; armies of economically weaker and culturally more backwards areas have not infrequently conquered superior places, including ones with more efficient armies (note they have also lost to such places, and usually do, but the point is: they do not always lose, so that indicates the problem is not so easily dispatched).
Even in internal security/private security, IMO there are things that trip up the theory. Just the other day Robert “Bob” Murphy had post suggesting that the actions – or, rather, inactions – by the Cleveland PD on the three abducted girls constituted “a point in favor of private competing police services.”
IMO, while that example did constitute an argument against state/government police forces, it did not necessarily constitute an argument in favor of private ones. After all, if a neighbor heard screams from the house, and called his PDA (Private Defense Agency), on what grounds would the defense agency act? Ariel Castro had not committed any aggression against the neighbor phoning in the tip, and the PDA would not know if anyone in the house was a client of theirs until after the fact (that is, after someone got out). For all they would know someone was engaging in consensual S&M, and the PDA would be committing an act of aggression (trespass) by going on Ariel Castro’s land to investigate the report. The three women, and/or their families would probably have contracts with a PDA, but not necessarily the same one, and again no PDA would know where their client was until after the fact of their discovery. Thus any argument to the effect that PDAs, with their profit motive, would have been more efficient in investigating the crime (while also not aggressing against anyone suspected of being an abductor) is purely hypothetical.
In closing: none of the above objections I made are dispositive against libertarian anarchism. Only a few of them potentially address the moral justification for a state (in other words: a lot of these critiques have little to do with whether a state is morally justified, and only to do with if it is possible). I myself would be happy to be proven wrong. For better or worse I do not think this will be a problem in our lifetimes, and am happy to be in the company of AnCaps working towards the same goal. I’ll stay on the bus as far as it goes and if it stops in the endpoint they desire, and that enpoint is stable, I will not be unhappy to be proven wrong.
Thus in general I do not spend too much time arguing against their moral case for anarchy (note again that in the above I point out the practical difficulties, because I do not think they have done enough work on those, and I like to pour encourager les autres).
One of my personal intellectual projects is to try to come up with a mechanism for keeping a minimal state minimal. That is the distinct problem with my position, and the anarchists can rightly say that all work done so far to devise a system that will prevent the state from growing and transgressing rights (any more than a minimal government already infringes upon them by its very existence) has failed. So we each face our technical-practical problems.
Which also makes me not much of a “salesman” for minarchy. Overall I think that all the moral arguments against the state, while not necessarily compelling (I mean this in the sense that David Gordon might, about being careful about too quick in dismissing other philosophical positions, even though he himself is a Rothbardian), have a lot of weight and I am thinking them through before concluding, myself, whether they are entirely correct that no state is justified, or if there is a flaw. (I haven’t yet found a flaw, so this is one reason why, in the above, there the central issue is not the moral justification of minarchy). I have concluded that if there is a flaw in the argument for libertarian anarchy, it is in overlooking something: that is, a consideration that is missing, rather than a step that is in error.
If I were to make a moral case for minarchy it would be Rothbardian in nature, Eudamonist: if humanity can flourish without a state, then it should do so, but if cannot, if a state (government in the conventional sense) is necessary for human flourishing, then a government (in the conventional sense) ought to exist, but involving the least possible infringement upon human liberty (all states/governments-in-the-conventional-sense, involve some infringements upon liberty; which is why libertarians conclude they are not morally justified). Experience, IMO, so far teaches us that some government is necessary (I distinguish “government” from “governance” – Rothbardian anarcho-libertarianism has governance and the rule of law, without the state). But I’m not only willing to be proven wrong, I want to be proven wrong.
In any case, we’re all on the same page when it comes to reducing it to the maximal extent possible; if that means we end up in minarchy, AnCaps will be unsatisfied, but at least feel their lot has improved compared to what it is now (a Misesian improvement in utility! – greater satisfaction than at present). If it means we end up at libertarian anarchy, great.