August 15, 2017 3:40PM

Does Liberty Need the State?

Writing at the Niskanen Center, Samuel Hammond has some harsh words for libertarians. It's a short step, he says, from anti-statism to some particularly ugly forms of nationalism:

The appeal of white nationalism to libertarian anti-statists should not be surprising. After all, nationalist and revanchist movements have historically represented powerful tools for mobilizing secession and other forms of political resistance to “the state.” Their common cause is all the stronger in multicultural, liberal democracies where ethnic grievances can be called upon to portray “the state” less as a political compact between competing groups, and more as tyrannical sovereign infringing on some sub-group’s right to self-determination.

To the extent that he's right about this, that's pretty embarrassing. Hammond cites AnCap YouTube to argue that there have been all too many who took this path. I'm not sure that it's fair to judge anyone else by AnCap YouTube, although his judgment on some of them is certainly correct.

Other parts of his essay I think are quite wrong: It's not necessarily crazy or evil to think that the state should be at least somewhat congruent to the nation. That proposition does not necessarily entail ethnonationalism, and certainly doesn't when I assert it. A nation, as an imagined community, need not be ethnic at all. A pluralist nation may include people of many different ethnicities, religions, and other affiliations. The American nation has always been pluralist in its aspirations. Throughout our history we have increasingly delivered on the promise of pluralism, not just to favored groups, but to all. That work should continue, and if saying "you too are a part of this nation" can help with the task, then we should say it loudly and often.

Hammond also claims that "liberty needs the state." On this point I am sure that the Niskanen Center will get the usual howls of protest from exactly the people who should be the least surprised. Of course the Niskanen Center would say something like this. But is it true?

It's clearly correct to say, with Hammond, that in many cases "state sabotage automatically empowers the most dominant and dominating subgroups in our otherwise open society," it's much less clear that this must always be the case.

The way forward for radical libertarians and others who dream of a stateless (or just a less state-dominated) society consists of figuring out how to manage these tendencies toward domination, so that when the state does retreat, it is individual that liberty advances, rather than some other form of unjust domination.

I don't know quite to what extent the project can succeed. But I think it's reasonable to expect that we can enjoy a much smaller state than the one we have right now. Reasonably as well, this development could leave the vast majority of citizens, and particularly the least well off, better off by a range of widely acceptable criteria. What seems in order is not a broad declaration for or against the state, but a constant and relentless tinkering on the margins, with the aim of delivering less arbitrary domination of one person or group by another. Racial groups most certainly included.