The Battle Between Libertarians and Anarcho-Capitalists on Privatizing National Defense

A recently completed 3-part series on PolicyMic, written by self-proclaimed libertarian Michael Suede, argued the merits of the radical anarcho-capitalist idea of privatizing national defense. To associate the idea of privatized national defense with libertarianism would contradict many of its core principles. This article seeks to clarify the difference between the two ideologies, specifically when considering the provision of national defense.

In his first article, Suede claims that if there is no national military, and free trade was allowed, no country would ever attack us because, “…the cost of an invasion far outweighs any possible gains…” His article ignores the number one concern of libertarians: individual liberty. 

Invasions do not always happen for economic reasons. Religious wars for example have cost much more in both blood and treasure than they have ever gained. A libertarian would never look at national defense from a completely economic viewpoint, because it is so intertwined with protecting our liberties. Contrastingly, when it comes to privatized national defense, Anarcho-capitalists can only make purely economic arguments.

The second article explains, “why the state creates wars and waste when it funds defense forces through taxation." Libertarians can readily agree with this article, but still disagree that national defense should be privatized. Libertarians understand that interventionist tactics create blowback and that war is wasteful and expensive, but admitting this does nothing to justify the need for privatized national defense. Again, this argument focuses 100% on economics, something people concerned with liberty will never do when debating war.

The third article argues for, “the total privatization of all security and court services," which requires its own article in and of itself.

So far, Suede has provided two economic arguments for why national defense should be privatized. The first conflicts with libertarian ideology in that it ignores the fact that suppression of individual liberties, or plain hatred, can be the sole cause of war. The second only provides reasoning for why war is bad and inefficient, something that libertarians agree with, but does not inherently mean that national defense should be privatized. I will now provide a counter economic argument for why national defense should be nationalized.

National defense is a public good, meaning that it is both nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. If am benefiting from national defense, as I am right now, it does not mean that there is less national defense for you to benefit from (nonrivalrous). Also, if I am sitting at my desk in Washington, D.C., it is impossible for me not to benefit from national defense (nonexcludable). Because of these two features, a free-rider problem exists, meaning that even if I didn’t pay taxes, I would still get all of the benefits just by sitting here. Free-riders include children, tourists, the extreme poor, undocumented residents, ect. The market under-supplies public goods because of this free-rider problem, since firms cannot ensure that they get paid for the protection they provide. This causes making a profit to be extremely difficult and results in national defense being under supplied and inadequate. 

A publicly-provided national defense has always aligned with libertarian ideology. Roger Pilon, the Cato Institute’s Vice President of Legal Affairs and founder of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, wrote, “The power government exercises to secure rights is legitimate, even if specific applications of the power may be illegitimate, and even if government’s monopoly claim may not be deeply grounded." 

Even though the government can use the military in illegitimate ways, and it has a monopoly over national security, this power is still legitimate because it is exercised to secure our rights as citizens. Anarcho-capitalists reject this claim, and in this case, hold a distinctly non-libertarian view.

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Ian Yamamoto

Ian is a Public Policy major with a minor in Law, Science, and Technology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has studied at Oxford in the UK and has interned for the trade and immigration department of a think tank in Washington, DC. He has two years of research experience with open source software and economic freedom. His current focus is on using technology that enhances voluntary exchange, such as the internet, to advance political interests and economic knowledge.

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