From time to time, our work at the Tenth Amendment Center comes under attack from anarcho-capitalists. (Or if you prefer anarchists, voluntarists or simply libertarians.)

These folks object to our emphasis on the Constitution because they argue that “the state” and its various governments lack legitimacy. The argue that by its very nature, even a “limited” government exists by force and coercion. On the other hand, minarchists, constitutionalists and many conservatives argue that society can’t function without some form of government, but that it should remain very limited in scope.

We can argue these points at length, but I think we can all agree that the system, as it exists, resembles neither side’s ideal. We have a political system in America that increasingly centralizes and expands the power of government. The anarcho-capitalists can scream about the illegitimacy of government until their lungs bleed, but all of their well-reasoned rhetoric means nothing to the agent of the state with a gun strapped to his waist. I know people who refuse to get a driver’s license because they don’t believe the government has the authority to force them to obtain permission to travel. They have a good case philosophically. But their logic won’t keep the cop from locking them up when he pulls them over.

From a practical standpoint, we all want more liberty. This poses a question perhaps best articulated by Murray Rothbard.

We face the great strategic problem of all “radical” creeds throughout history: How can we get from here to there, from our current State-ridden and imperfect world to the great goal of liberty?

Freedom expands when government power becomes more decentralized. By and large, monopolies don’t serve the general population. Diversity and competition do. This proves as true in the realm of government as much as it does in commerce. The Constitution created up a decentralized system, delegating only specific powers to the federal government, leaving most authority dispersed throughout the states. While a far cry from the anarchist ideal of a stateless society, a constitutional system would certainly represent greater liberty than the monopoly government we have centralized in D.C. today. Therefore, simply forcing the system back to its constitutional roots would represent a net-gain in liberty.

Holding any force in check requires an opposing force. Reining in the increasingly powerful federal government will require some counter-force, and states can serve that purpose.

J. Michael Oliver swerves into this point in his book The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism.

…internal checks and balances on governmental power and the alleged mechanisms for the defense of minorities are … flimsy constructs…Genuine competition, whether from another coercive agency of from a non-coercive business, can serve as the only real “limit” on State power…” (Emphasis added.)

So, while state governments do represent another coercive agency, we can use them to limit the greater threat – the ever-present and rapidly growing federal government. By devolving power to the states, we create 50 smaller power-centers instead of one gigantic one. The people can exercise somewhat more control over smaller government units, and competition between the state government creates at least a limited “market” of government options from which to choose. This should lead to a net-gain for liberty.

That explains why we focus on state nullification at the Tenth Amendment Center. The constitutional structure provides a built-in tool to limit federal power. The majority of Americans believe in that constitutional structure, so it becomes a logical starting point for expanding liberty.

Of course, for many it should not stop there. Devolving power to local government will increase the scale to an even greater degree. Ultimately, some would want to break it down to the individual level – a system based on voluntary cooperation instead of state aggression and coercion.

Rothbard advocates just such a strategy.

At this point, any radical movement for social change, including the libertarian movement, has to face an important, realistic problem: in the real world, the goal — for the libertarian, the disappearance of the state and its aggressive coercion — unfortunately cannot be achieved overnight. Since that is the case, what should be the position of the libertarian toward “transition demands”; i.e., toward demands that would move toward liberty without yet reaching the ultimate goal? Wouldn’t such demands undercut the ultimate goal of total liberty itself?

In our view, the proper solution to this problem is a “centrist” or “movement-building” solution: namely, that it is legitimate and proper to advocate transition demands as way stations along the road to victory, provided that the ultimate goal of victory is always kept in mind and held aloft. In this way, the ultimate goal is clear and not lost sight of, and the pressure is kept on so that transitional or partial victories will feed on themselves rather than appease or weaken the ultimate drive of the movement.

I understand the passion and tenacity of those arguing against the legitimacy of government. In fact, I believe we need those people to continue making the case. When properly articulated, it becomes hard to refute. But we also need to take practical steps to limit government, and our work at the Tenth Amendment Center blazes that trail.

Mike Maharrey