Almost two-thirds of Americans believe that distrust of government is a major barrier to solving issues in public life. As we witness a marked decline of faith in both the government and the stability of our democracy, some are arguing that it’s the perfect time to take a serious look at the historic libertarian premise: Maybe government itself is the problem.
While libertarianism has many variants, perhaps the most controversial is its anarcho-capitalist faction—those who believe in removing government influence from all industries in favor of privatization. One intellectual arguing in favor of anarcho-capitalism is Robert P. Murphy, an economist and senior fellow at the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank. Dr. Murphy has written for decades on libertarian economics and the effects of government intervention, and has maintained that his economic views are compatible with both Christianity and the doctrine of natural law.
I asked Dr. Murphy to explain some basic arguments for anarcho-capitalism, the extent of American distrust in the current two-party system, and the current state and strategy of the libertarian movement. He holds a B.A. in economics from Hillsdale College and a Ph.D. from New York University, and has taught at both institutions. He is currently a senior fellow with the Mises Institute.
Talk a little bit about your career and specific areas of study.
In my work for the public, I try to explain economics in terms anyone can understand, usually explaining how government intervention makes things worse. This even includes “radical” ideas like saying government monopolies in police and military defense are bad ideas, and for the same reasons we wouldn’t want a government monopoly in food or car production.
In my technical work, I focus on what’s called capital and interest theory, but also banking, monetary theory, and the business cycle.
Summarize the basics of anarcho-capitalism for readers who aren’t familiar with the more technical political terms.
The term is a combination of “anarchist” (meaning against political institutions) and “capitalism.” The term is used to distinguish from “anarcho-socialism” and “anarcho-communism.” The basic idea is that all legitimate state functions should be privatized. So all the schools and libraries should be privately run—either as for-profit businesses or civic organizations that still have private donors/owners—but also all the roads, police, courts, and military defense services.
I realize for someone who hasn’t been exposed to this literature, these proposals sound outlandish. But by the same token, if someone from today went back in time to the Middle Ages, when there was a guild system, and tried to explain that a free labor market would work where everybody was allowed to choose his or her occupation, and that wage rates would adjust to make sure society had enough plumbers, carpenters, and trash collectors, the people back then would have thought such a proposal was nuts, too. To see explanations for how privatized police and military defense could work, see my pamphlet “Chaos Theory.”
Public perception of anarchists is largely not favorable, as evidenced by HBO’s The Anarchists (reviewed by David Bahnsen in September). Have you seen the show? Does it illustrate a problem with the media’s general portrayal of anarchists?
I saw about 20 minutes of one episode when I was in a hotel. I understand that it made for good TV, so I don’t fault the people making the documentary, but I do think it reinforces the stereotype of “these anarchists are idealistic, but wait till reality smacks them in the face.” Since I think anarcho-capitalism really is a more humane and viable approach than the current model based on political coercion, this is a shame.
I know some of the people involved in that event, but I don’t really know enough about the details of the crime to say anything more specific about what happened or what lessons we might draw from it.
As of my writing these questions, Joe Biden’s approval rating is sitting at 42.6%. How do you rate his presidency so far, and what sentiments are others in the movement voicing? What’s the biggest issue?
Biden’s presidency has been a disaster. The two things most libertarians stress are the economy and foreign policy. On the economic front, the main culprit is the Federal Reserve, which isn’t directly Biden’s fault. Specifically, it was loose Fed policy following the coronavirus panic that is now fueling the highest price inflation in 40 years. But on foreign policy, the Biden team is flirting with starting a hot war with Russia. I believe that we are witnessing in real time what future historians will refer to as the start of World War III.
There’s been an increased focus in American public discourse on building a third party, even as Democrats and Republicans are growing more polarized. Do you think American libertarians are going to be able to fill the gap between right and left?
No, I don’t. I think in both the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election, the stakes between right and left will be so high that most people will feel they can’t “waste their vote” by supporting a third-party candidate. Don’t get me wrong—this is faulty logic. On the margin, your individual vote is not going to be the decisive one in your state, meaning you won’t change the electoral college vote. So you might as well “vote your conscience,” as they say, because voting strategically doesn’t make sense when your individual vote literally won’t alter the outcome.
But, notwithstanding that logic, most people don’t think like that. And so, to repeat, I believe the Libertarian and other third parties won’t do as well in the 2024 election as they did in previous ones, at least in terms of getting votes at the presidential level.
Both Democrats and Republicans are demonstrating not only increasing policy differences but also significant levels of personal animosity toward one another. What do you see as the primary area of policy/moral failing on the political right? The political left?
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, my answers would have been a lot different. But right now, I think the biggest failing on the right is that they completely dismiss the legitimate concerns of the left, rather than acknowledging that there are real problems but just disagreeing with the left’s proposed solutions. Two obvious examples are policy brutality and COVID. People on the right sometimes come off as if complaints against the police are based on nothing, and a lot of the rhetoric during 2020–21 was implying (or sometimes explicitly stating) that, “Hey, if it’s just old people and those with pre-existing conditions who are dying, no big deal.”
As far as the left, their biggest failing is that they have no principles. They will order people around and take their money without hesitation if they think they have a good cause to justify it.
Going off those failings, how does libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism address those issues more effectively?
In principle, yes, libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism could acknowledge that political solutions don’t work and seek to solve genuine social ills through more personal liberty. This would satisfy the left’s desire for helping the downtrodden while respecting the rule of law and property rights, which the right cares about.
In practice, however, actual libertarians have tended to fall into the same right/left divide as regular Republicans and Democrats; they are just more sophisticated in their disputes.
One issue the Libertarian Party and the movement more generally have struggled with is a lack of cohesion, with libertarians unable to come to consensus on issues ranging from abortion to border policy. Do you think that’s the biggest struggle for the movement? If not, what is?
I agree that members of the Libertarian Party, and the libertarian movement broadly defined, disagree pretty fundamentally on some of these policy issues, but I think the reason goes deeper. Specifically, the reason someone is a libertarian matters a lot. Some people believe in rules of ethics/morality and take them quite seriously, so that they apply them even to government officials. (If it’s wrong to steal, then the IRS shouldn’t be able to take money from your paycheck. If it’s wrong for you to enslave your neighbor, then oops there goes the draft.) On the other hand, other people don’t believe in morality at all, and so they don’t want the government telling them what to do. Both types of people are attracted to libertarianism, but you can see why they would end up disagreeing on specifics, especially issues of culture.
As a Christian, are there any specific issues/policy positions espoused by modern libertarians/anarcho-capitalists that you find particularly difficult to square with your Christian values?
Yes. There is a strand of libertarian thought that says abortion is simply a matter of the mother “evicting” a “trespasser” from her womb. In this approach, it doesn’t matter when life begins, just like a guy kicking someone out of his house isn’t denying that the trespasser is a human. As a Christian, I reject this approach. (That doesn’t mean I support agents of the State throwing abortion doctors in cages, though, because I’m also a pacifist due to my Christian views.)
Also, like I said earlier, I was really turned off by a lot of the libertarian commentary during the lockdowns, even though I agreed that State officials had no business telling people or businesses what they were allowed to do. But because a lot of libertarians were so angered by the violation of their liberties, they ended up saying things like, “If you want me to wear a mask, put down the box of Twinkies, fatso,” etc. For the first time in my life, I totally understood in 2020 why “regular people” hated libertarians.
Let’s focus on one of those single issues. As a Christian and an anarcho-capitalist, what do you make of the overturning of Roe v. Wade? How have you seen the movement react?
I must confess: I was stunned that it happened. When activists on the left would warn that “right-wing justices” threatened to overturn Roe, I thought they were engaged in fear-mongering.
In the libertarian ranks, I’ve mostly seen it come down to left/right based on cultural values. In principle, there should be a huge faction of libertarians saying, “I think abortion is a tragedy, and we should do everything in our power to convince women to consider other options, but I also don’t want the State to have power over women and doctors.” But in practice, I don’t see too many people talking like this; it seems they are either for government action in this area (because they think it’s murder) or they are “pro-choice” and think people shouldn’t even condemn it.
Regarding disdain for religion, how prevalent is that in the movement? Does it generally take the form of skepticism or outright dismissiveness/hostility? How do you handle it?
This is one area where things are a lot better. When I was in grad school, it was courageous to admit you were a Christian in the libertarian community, because people would heap all sorts of abuse on you. In the early years, I had Christians email me and thank me for speaking up, and they admitted they kept their head down.
But at this point, there are enough of us who have been speaking openly about our faith for enough years that it’s not as “shocking” as it used to be.
My own approach is to be loving and understanding. I myself was an atheist up until God grabbed me in grad school. (I had been raised Catholic and fell out of my faith by the end of high school.) I think a lot of the people who are truly hostile had bad experiences with religious authority figures in their past.
What’s next for the libertarian movement? Are you anticipating increased success for more libertarian candidates at the state and local levels? What do libertarian-minded Americans have to do to increase their policy successes?
I think there might be a lot of success with libertarian candidates at local and maybe even state levels. These are more practical positions, and voters are more willing to vote based on merit, in which case the LP candidate might just be the most compelling.
I think the LP needs to keep hammering the idea that the Republicans and Democrats have been in charge as the country has slid into a decadent empire, and so it would be naive to expect either of them to save the Republic. It will be tough to do, however, because in the age of social media, a lot of LP outlets are trying to get attention through “shocking” tweets, etc. This makes gains in some dimensions in the short term but, I think, turns off a lot in the long run.