Commentary for the Molinari Society’s 2008 Symposium

by Christopher W. Morris

Anarchism vs. Minarchism: Some Notes

0. Some very rough notes.

1. Our main topic is the debate between anarchists and a species of statists, minarchists.

2. I am a somewhat conciliatory person and think that anarchists have a strong case against the legitimacy of states (of all kinds), but that statists are right in thinking that anarchy is a problematic way of organizing political or social life in modern times. This said, a less conciliatory formulation might be that both camps have lots of things wrong.

3. I shall use Crispin Sartwell’s text as a foil for some theses. His book is spirited and engaging, and there is much good sense in it. But there are some errors. These are to be found elsewhere, but I shall concentrate on Sartwell’s. (Parenthetical references are to Sartwell’s against the state.)

4. Sartwell characterizes ‘anarchism’ as “the view that all forms of human association ought to be, as far as possible, voluntary” (p. 4; see also pp. 17). This formulation might be tightened up lest childrearing be a counter-example. But what is odd about this characterization is that it makes anarchism into a kind of consensualism – political associations must be voluntary if they are to be permissible or legitimate or just. This would arguably make Locke and Nozick anarchists. I should have thought that a more useful characterization of anarchism would emphasize, as customary, the statelessness of anarchist communities. Now early anarchist communities were quite illiberal, so anarchists like Sartwell would want to defend only liberal anarchy or something like this. The point I make is not terribly important, but I’d prefer not to adhere to Sartwell’s characterization of ‘anarchy’.

5. Sartwell, along with many of the authors in the Long & Machan volume and most contemporary American political philosophers, overemphasizes the coerciveness of states. This is understandable. States coerce a lot, and many resort to force and violence quite often. And fans of liberty are sensitive to this fact. Still, states can do well with much less reliance on coercion than it is said, and coercion is not as central to their being as most theorists think it is. And these facts are important for our understanding of states.

“The state rests ultimately on force, of course ...” (p. 8). Political theorists say this all the time. Much depends on what ‘ultimately’ means in statements like this. In the sixties we used to claim that state power was really just force and that inciting the forces of order to beat people up would reveal this for all to see. (It didn’t; it rallied supporters of the state.)

Consider some facts. Something is not a state if its government does not control its territory (e.g., Somalia and Afghanistan are quasi-states or something else). A state or its agents cannot control its territory solely or even mostly by coercion, much less by force or violence. Many people must obey and support the state without being forced to in order for it to survive. Many people will in fact be paid to support their state (i.e., they are employees of the state). It is hard to imagine how a state could force its population to obey if a good number coordinated their acts of refusal. The collapse of the Soviet Union and of its satellite states is instructive here, as are many other examples. (Cf. Greg Kavka’s discussion of “rule by fear.”)

More importantly, coercion is not the main instrument of state rule. Law is. And law cannot plausibly be understood as naked coercion. (See p. 88 for a remark about legal positivism which could be true at most about Austin , and certainly not about Hart or Raz.) Law claims authority. Not all laws can be understood as commands (e.g., laws establishing powers); laws which might look like commands need not be backed up by sanctions; and if they are backed up by sanctions, the latter are themselves constituted by laws. Coercion and sometimes force are what states often resort to when the authority of their laws is not recognized by their subjects; it is a response to the violation of law (i.e., a punishment).

Constitutional laws are sometimes good examples of laws not backed by sanctions. They need not be – and could not be if they needed to be. They are complex conventions supported by the beliefs and practices of different groups of people (e.g., officials, citizens). (Cf. Rod Long’s important passing note on p. 140 of his essay.)

6. Sartwell notes the state’s presentation of itself as a deity (p. 8 and elsewhere). This is right and of some importance, at least for the state’s (modern) history. Hobbes call the state “that Mortall God” for good reason. The authority states claim for themselves is remarkably sweeping. They claim to be the ultimate source of political authority within their realm, what I call sovereignty (see some of my publications listed at the end of these notes for more detailed analyses and defenses of this and related claims). If anyone or anything has the power to make something right or wrong, that is, to create standards of right or of justice, then the Deity does. (Note I specify norms of right, not of good.) And the powers that Hobbes and others ascribed to the state were just those. (Leibniz thought only the Deity could have these powers. The Church – the Catholic church – was long sceptical of the state’s claim to sovereignty.)

7. “Although the state does not strictly need legitimacy ... it needs its people by and large more or less to behave as thought it were legitimate” (p. 10). Certainly, it has always been hard to believe Hobbes’ thesis that all well-constituted or genuine states are legitimate (not his words, of course). It seems that some states have clearly been illegitimate but nevertheless have been states. This claim is denied by some, but it usually turns out that they are thinking of a kind of legitimacy – legality or recognition by other states – that will interest none of us. This raises the question as to what we are thinking of when we ask about the legitimacy of states.

“The notion that the state is legitimate is equivalent to the notion that the state should exist” (p. 14). That is very unhelpful. Better is to say that legitimacy “is the quality of a state in virtue of which its coercive force is morally justifiable, or in virtue of which its laws impose prima facie duties” (p. 33, see also, pp. 32, 37). These two – the justification of coercion and the power to create duties – are not the same, as I shall note below.

Now Sartwell thinks that states cannot be voluntary. He even says that the ‘cannot’ here is conceptual (pp. 4, 40, and elsewhere). This is an exaggeration and an unnecessary one. It certainly seems to be a conceptual possibility that states could be voluntary. After all, some people seem voluntarily to perform acts that seem to constitute consent, and they seem to do so with the requisite understandings. Were every member (e.g., citizen) of a state to do so, it would be legitimate.

Or, better, if legitimacy is a relation between a state and an individual, then all who do genuinely consent would be in the requisite kind of relations to their state. I’ll defend this claim if pressed. (Note it could be that consent might only be necessary and not sufficient for legitimacy.) I’ll concede that at most a small number of subjects of states have (genuinely) consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to their state. So, if as it seems likely, consent is necessary for legitimacy, then few states are legitimate.

8. Now much more needs to be said about legitimacy, though I don’t have the space to say much of it. A few points. Sometimes when we talk about the legitimacy of a state we merely mean that its existence is permissible or that its acts are. Sartwell often speaks this way (pp. ). But there is much more to the claims to legitimacy of states and of their agents. On my view, legitimacy is a status which confers a number of rights and powers. The two most important are the right to exist and the right to rule. The former is not emphasized in the literature, but its importance is made clear by an example of a state which is often said to lack the right to exist, Israel. By (conversational) implication, people who deny this right to Israel concede that many or even most states possess this right.

The theoretical literature focuses much more on the right to rule and, importantly, on the implications for subjects’ obligations to obey. Usually legitimate states are thought to have a right to rule entailing an obligation on the part of subjects to obey all valid laws that apply to them. Some accounts add to this. I and many other contemporary philosophers are sceptical that states, even relatively just and efficient ones, are legitimate in this sense. (I list some of my publications below. Some of the most important defenders of what is now called “philosophical anarchism” are John Simmons, Leslie Green, and Joseph Raz. An oddity: the works by these philosophers go virtually unmentioned by the authors of both of the works we are discussing.)

John Simmons thinks we should distinguish the legitimacy of states (in the sense above) from their justifiability. The latter focuses on questions about acceptable or the best ways of organizing political life. He does not think that establishing that a form of political organization is good or best secures its legitimacy. Particular political arrangements may benefit people without being legitimate. (See his essay, “Justification and Legitimacy,” and his text, Political Philosophy.)

Recently I have sought to distinguish between stronger and weaker notions of legitimacy. The usual or classical ones are the stronger ones; weaker ones claim only that subject of a state (as well as others) have obligations to support it and its institutions in various ways, even if they lack an obligation to obey each and every valid law. I think states lack strong or classical legitimacy but many have weaker legitimacy.

9. An important worry for anarchists. Note some facts about our world:

(a) There are virtually no anarchist communities today not under the protection of a state (e.g., kibbutzes).

(b) Virtually every piece of land on our planet is now the territory of a state (and almost only one state).

(c) Note that there are virtually no classical empires (not the empire of a state), no Christendom, no city-states or leagues of cities, no medieval kingdoms, duchies, principalities.

Very little is left of the world that the (modern) state displaced, and what little is left – e.g., the Vatican, Monaco, San Marino – is a shell of the past.

What is the significance of these facts for our discussions? It is that anarchy is not, under our conditions of life, evolutionarily stable. Anarchist political communities don’t stand much of a chance surviving, much less prospering. That may change, but it looks like the state will be with us for a while.

10. There’s more to be said.

Christopher W. Morris
Philosophy, University of Maryland


“State Legitimacy and Social Order,” in Political Legitimization without Morality, edited by Jörg Kühnelt (Heidelberg: Springer, 2008), pp. 15-32.
“The Modern State,” in The Handbook on Political Theory, edited by Gerald Gaus and Chandran Kukathas (London: Sage Publications, 2004), pp. 195-209.
“Sovereignty,” Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought, edited by Paul Barry Clarke and Joe Foweraker (London & New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 673-676.
“The Very Idea of Popular Sovereignty: ‘We the People’ Reconsidered,” Social Philosophy ∓ Policy 17, 1 (Winter 2000), 1-26.
An Essay on the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
“A Hobbesian Welfare State?”, Dialogue XXVII, 4 (Winter 1988), 653-673.