Against Libertarians Who Want to Shrink the State by Capturing It

There is a sentiment among many self-described libertarians that I sympathize with to some degree, but ultimately view as misguided and completely unfavorable. It goes something like this:

If we are to have a state, the lesser evil solution is to have only certain groups of people vote.  

Net taxpayers are a popular go-to example. In this scenario, those who earn an income in the private sector and pay taxes on that income and in other ways, but find themselves ultimately receiving an array of benefits from the government that outweigh what they pay in taxes, would be disqualified from voting. That automatically means anyone employed via the public purse (government department bureaucrats, the military etc.) would not have the ability to vote. 

Although some come to this kind of recommendation simply from a hatred for those they view as living off the state, others put forward justifications for this idea more thoughtfully. The main thread you see pulled through most higher quality arguments for this position — and the one I can find some sympathy and common ground with as far as an end-goal — says this would ultimately all be in service of shrinking (and perhaps eventually eliminating) the state. The fewer people participating and getting mixed up in the business of statecraft, the better. And, even if it’s not zero just yet, it’s the right direction.  

It’s frequently noted that a bonus of the net-taxpayers-as-voters-only scenario would be a decreasing likelihood that more pork, giveaways, or government expansion would be voted in by (what is alleged to be) a more self-sufficient, responsible, and anti-government crowd.

All of this may sound nice to some in a superficial sense, especially when it comes up in a Tweet or some feel-good back and forth on Facebook about shrinking the state, but more serious thinking about these kinds of prescriptions is exactly where I, and others should, diverge from almost everyone that favors this kind of policy. 

For starters, let’s quickly review a common libertarian position.* It’s safe to say that many libertarians think the state — either by simply existing or through its current methods of operation — cannot be justified. It’s noted (correctly) that the state does not only commit a form of violence or violate my rights when it literally sends its enforcers to my property to abuse me. By simply claiming a monopoly on force, and then leveraging that monopoly to create laws and a regime of taxation I have no choice but to live with, the state is violating my consent and autonomy with its basic structures. In this way and others, libertarians often claim the state is by default violating the rights and freedoms of everyone living under it.

Many libertarians supplement the point above by (again, correctly) adding that the levers of state power are prone to capture by specific groups (e.g., an elite political class) who end up with more power and influence than other groups or the rest of the population, and use it on them. These points render the idea that the governments of today are of, by, and for the people serving the general will or good as a sham in practice.

On the other hand, proponents of democratic principles counter that every individual having one vote at least means power is equally dispersed over the arrangement — the amount of leverage and influence over the mechanisms of injustice is equally available. Of course, libertarians press, that’s not the reality: What we have in real life are people and groups whose actual power and influence range from nearly nothing all the way up to extreme — some have just a vote on paper; others have the ear of the president bought and paid for. 

Since this is the case, it becomes quite puzzling how some libertarians simultaneously claim to understand points of democratic injustice while calling for the exclusion of their preferred targets from one of the tools that enable some sort of say or influence on these institutions — if not fully in practice, at least on principle and paper.

Again, many reiterate the idea is to begin by reducing the number of people who influence the state and hold power — the less state and the less power to go around the better. However, to get to all destinations we must choose a direction to follow, and it’s clear the journey down this path would be one that brings us to a reality that completely excludes some from having an influence on democratic processes while leaving others to reap the benefits of strengthened influence that is even more concentrated. In the fantasy where the state heads toward zero by decreasing suffrage and political involvement, there would be a growing number of people with decreasing leverage put against those increasing their share of influence. It’s a solution that worsens the exact same problems it claims to fight — the unjust balances and uses of state power.  

It’s especially interesting to see that so many self-described libertarians find this strategy appealing on the one hand, but in other instances claim it is unacceptable on principle that certain groups (that aren’t them) have some kind of disproportionate influence over their lives via public affairs. Of course, American libertarians proudly unveiling their pet way to fashion the democratic system in a manner that they claim pushes us toward the best endgame (while, in reality, privileging their preferred groups over others) isn’t novel, and it’s not exclusively their thing. It’s simply another form of what political history seems to be plagued with — theories that justify particular groups having influence over dynamics and structures that affect everyone. But, when “our” side is in charge it will all be in service of what’s best for everyone, of course! 

Those most interested in limiting voting in favor of certain groups (or re-arranging governmental privileges in inequitable ways) don’t tend to be part of the group that’s on the worse end of the deal. If a self-described libertarian believes it’s acceptable for certain groups to have a say in dynamics and structures they already grant affect everyone’s rights and autonomy, but others (for a variety of reasons) shouldn’t have that same privilege — either permanently, or on the way to a distant goal — it would seem the discussion that first presents itself as merely a tactical one addressing how to shrink or limit the state is asking for too little attention.

At that point, the discussion should really go back to square one, and we need to take a look at whether the people putting forward these schemes are coming from a foundation of liberal principles, and convictions on liberty for all. The person making recommendations about limiting the state in favor of a particular group needs to re-assess whether the solution they’re proposing is truly meant to address the problem they’re claiming it does, or whether it’s simply a justification for why particular groups they favor, or are part of, should gain power while others lose it. 

*In this piece I do not address two very important points that could (almost by default) discredit lamentations about the so-called burden of net taxpayers, and the supposed easy ride all individual recipients of state payments enjoy: 1) Most of the largest private incomes go to beneficiaries who have used their existing political and economic interest to extract undue benefits (e.g. returns on IP ownership, direct subsidy, protectionist policy, etc.); 2) Most people commonly regarded as the ones leeching off the government are, in many senses, essentially receiving payments of one kind or another that compensate for merely a small portion of what a tilted playing field favoring those with large “private” incomes has cost them.

I take the argument presented by some at face value in this essay and set aside the points immediately above to highlight a crucial point about power dynamics and democratic sensibilities, not to say the points noted here are not important.

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