Robert Murphy tries to defend libertarianism from the charge that, without the state, there would be problems with provision of public goods like roads.
First, it is important to note that the “libertarianism” we are talking about here is an extreme form called Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism which believes in the total abolition of the state and the privatisation of everything.
Unfortunately, the problems with such a system go far beyond the issue of who would build the roads.
What would such a society look like? What would you discover if you woke up and found yourself in such a society?
To answer this question, we can turn to the writings of Rothbard to see how he imagines his anarcho-capitalist world (Rothbard 2009; 2011), and we can also use inductive arguments by analogy to suggest probable outcomes in such a society, on the basis of instances in modern history where modern nations (usually during the 19th century) have left things to private enterprise.
First, would an anarcho-capitalist society have a good system of transportation, sanitation, drainage, water, and electricity infrastructure, if built from nothing?
The Rothbardians claim that the private sector would build all such infrastructure, but historical instances where these things are left to the private sector suggest that such a system has definite disadvantages: not enough provision of such goods/services, and often privatised services which are too expensive for many people to afford (e.g., health care).
A case in point: if you found yourself in a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism system, I submit that you would quickly find serious problems with justice.
The anarcho-capitalism system abolishes the state and all state-based criminal law. There would no longer be any criminal laws at all (Rothbard 2011: 407).
All crimes – even the worst possible – would simply become offences only punishable under a system of private tort law. In “common law” nations, a tort is a wrongful or harmful act against a person other than breach of contract (in “civil law” nations torts are generally called “delicts”). Under tort law, the victim can obtain redress or justice only if they privately bring a law suit or legal action against the perpetrator or aggressor (Rothbard 2011: 407). But what if you do not know the perpetrator or aggressor? You would need to hire private investigators even before you can bring a law suit.
But, unfortunately, both private investigators and law suits require money, and probably a considerable amount of money: if a victim cannot afford legal services and the fees to bring a private law suit under tort law, then no trials or punishments of many criminals will ever happen in Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist paradise.
More importantly, the principle of no public investigation or punishment of crimes through criminal law when a criminal, even if caught, can simply buy off his victim strongly suggests that the rich and super-rich in Rothbard’s world will simply have a licence to commit crimes and bribe victims to stop prosecution. This is a world where justice has become a travesty and a joke.
Let us move on to social security. You would also find that, if there is no basic social security in society, people who cannot find work or successfully beg for private charity in such a society will be plunged into poverty or simply starve. There would presumably be insurance against unemployment and other social distress, but we are now back to the same problem as noted above: what if you cannot afford it?
Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism would also be horrible for many of the mentally ill or disabled. What would happen to people who are mentally ill or disabled who simply cannot pay for basic services they need to live? What if these people cannot find enough charity?
Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism has no restrictions on child labour. What is particularly stupid here is that some libertarians, agreeing that child labour is a bad thing, are anxious to argue that you do not need child labour laws to end employment and exploitation of children.
However, if you bother to read Rothbard, he was actually in favour of child labour (Rothbard 2009: 1111–1112). A Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist system, then, has no barrier to exploitation of children.
With no public health policies such as immunisation programs and disease control, you would probably find that a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist system would see the return of serious epidemics, diseases, and other serious public health issues long since banished from the Western world.
With no regulation of who brings in plants and animals into the society, will visitors or tourists bring in plant and animal diseases causing serious problems to agriculture and the environment?
Finally, with no government regulations whatsoever on the production and sale of not only guns, but also advanced military weapons, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, it follows that any lunatic or religious fanatic with enough money can literally go and freely buy weapons of mass destruction, without anyone stopping them, in a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist world.
Libertarians have a major problem: there are very few people indeed who would want such a society or think that it would be a good place to live in.
In reality, on the last issue alone (lack of any regulation on production and sale of the most destructive weapons imaginable), most people would conclude that such a society sounds completely, utterly, stark, raving mad – Rothbard’s bizarre fantasies and intellectually bankrupt natural rights ethics notwithstanding.
And they would be right too.
Debunking Austrian Economics 101 (Updated).
Rothbard, M. N. 2009. Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market: The Scholar’s Edition (2nd edn.). Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.
Rothbard, M. N. 2011. Economic Controversies. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.