In Search of a Word : Limited Government versus 'Anarchy'
by Spencer H. MacCallum
Number 82 - Oct 1996
Bumper Hornberger, once remarked in a letter to me that in early life he had
called himself an "anarchist" but that now he endorsed the concept
of "limited government." He indicated he'd had many discussions leading
to his change of mind, discussions that had pretty thoroughly covered the field,
he felt, and now he wanted to put his attention elsewhere. I was puzzled but
didn't pursue it, as Bumper hadn't invited me to and, in any case, I had no wish
to divert his attention from the demands of the Future of Freedom Foundation
which he and Richard Ebeling were just getting well launched.
What Bumper's discussions covered I may never know, but the value of holding
the ideal of a "total alternative" to political government, as Baldy
Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University,
once put it to me, seems so profound, as well as wholly unobjectionable, that
I feel not so much an obligation as an aesthetic resolve to marshal some thoughts
on the matter.
As prelude to the discussion, however, let me put forth one fact that doesn't
enter into the argument but that is not irrelevant, either. Many people are now
of the opinion that it has been demonstrated both practically and theoretically
that taxation, however commonly indulged in, is unnecessary at the local community
level. This lack of any compelling need for taxation was shown practically by
the experience of the two English "Garden Cities," Letchworth and Welwyn
(described in my article in Reason, April 1972), and by developments in real-estate
in this country which I documented in The Art of Community (Institute for Humane
Studies 1970). As to theory, the proposition has been exhaustively analyzed by
economist Fred Foldvary in his Public Goods and Private Communities: The Market
Provision of Social Services (Edward Elgar 1994). This raises an interesting
question. If it doesn't offend either experience or reason to contemplate altogether
voluntary alternatives to the present political administration of community services
at the local level, are such alternatives not conceivable at all levels
of society? For those who are inclined to say categorically no, the challenge
for them is to identify where the line shall be drawn. If on some scale private
alternatives are both possible and practical, at what scale do they
cease being so, and why? The prospect of mankind outgrowing government
as we know it, i.e. financed by non-market means, can no longer be dismissed
as pure fantasy.
To elaborate just a little further: if proprietary administration of common
services works in a regional mall, which is a real community of landlord and
merchant tenants representing a kaleidoscopic play of differing interests and
views, then it might work as well on a somewhat larger scale, as in a "new
town," which can be a complex of residential, commercial and industrial
uses. In fact, we find that it does, as in the British cities of Letchworth and
Welwyn and as approximated in Disney World in Florida. And if it works now on
the scale of neighborhood and town, might it not ultimately work on a broader
scale through towns and proprietary regional associations cooperating. In principle,
is there any point on a graduated scale of size that we can point to and say,
at this point proprietary administration can no longer work; at this
point we must embrace political administration? Is there any place we
can draw a line and reasonably defend our decision?
The plain fact is that we do not know and cannot know what the future holds.
But from what is already known, we cannot reasonably rule out the possibility
that social evolution will continue and that entrepreneurial provision of our
common services will evolve even as free-market means of feeding, clothing,
sheltering and getting ourselves about have evolved in the last 300 years.
With that background, let's now come to the question of limited government
versus anarchy and which term, if either, a thinking person could adopt
as his philosophical badge. (And so as not to let it cloud our minds, let's try
to leave out of account the fact that anarchy, as popularly understood, is a
pejorative term, bringing to mind images of terrorism.) Baldy Harper, Leonard
Read's first associate at FEE and later founder of the Institute for Humane Studies,
looked at it in a way that I find attractive. He had no more idea than the man
in the moon whether we or our descendants will ever actually see a "total
alternative," as he put it, to political, tax-supported-government. But
he pointed out the importance of holding the ideal clearly in mind as
a heuristic device and a compass to help us keep moving always in the direction
of freedom. The analogy he used was that of the north star and the mariner
who steers by it. The mariner doesn't expect to reach the star. But, steering
by it, which is a process entailing innumerable small decisions and self-corrections,
not one of which he could make without the star, he eventually reaches Liverpool.
We need a transcendent ideal always in mind, Baldy would say, to help guide our
everyday decisions that determine whether or not we keep on our heading toward
That's why I'm less than fully satisfied with the ideal of "limited government."
Whether mankind will ever regain the completely free society we know he enjoyed
at the pre-state level, where the authority of the village headman was the same
in kind i.e. authority over his person and property and not that of
anyone else, as that exercised by the poorest member of the village, it will
probably not be for you or me to know. But while we live, let perfect liberty
be our guiding star.
The "limited government" concept cannot serve reliably as a guiding
star because it is relative; any government at virtually any
time or place in the world is limited with respect to some other government,
real or imagined, that might be named. So we must ask, limited by comparison
with what? The same criticism is often leveled at the label "conservative."
Conserving what? Neither of those two could serve as a north star to keep us
to a true heading toward a totally voluntary society, which heading may or may
not be asymptotic. So Baldy Harper was an idealist, for the most practical
My grandfather, Spencer Heath (1876-1963), a close friend of Baldy Harper,
was likewise a practical man. He had not one but a series of successful careers,
engineering, law, manufacturing (his plants in Baltimore turned out more than
three-quarters of the propellers used by the Allies in World War I), and horticulture.
Finally, at age 55, he retired to his country place outside of Baltimore and
for the next 30 years devoted himself entirely to philosophy, primarily with
reference to science and society. I am currently collecting and organizing his
papers for publication on CD-ROM. In the course of this work recently, I came
across the following paragraphs which bear on the point of this discussion.
Every thoughtful individual entertains ideals of goodness, truth and beauty,
absolutes towards which he can move and aspire but which his own limitations
forbid him ever fully to attain. And these conceptual absolutes are no less valuable
for their being only relatively and never absolutely attainable. They afford
no final goals, but they do establish the directions in which the affairs of
men can lead them into endless yet never perfect realizations of their hopes
It is the same with the institutions of men. Unless they are ideally conceived
as moving towards absolute and hence unattainable goals, there is no ideal guidance,
no certain direction, for limited yet ever-expanding achievement towards absolute
This power of conceiving ideals, this subjective conceptual capacity that knows
no limitations or bounds, this power of conceiving the Absolute as God, is what
distinguishes the spiritual, the creative, from the merely animal, the unregenerate
man. This unlimited power to dream, this inspiration of the Divine is the key
to man's creative power.
Elsewhere he was even more pointed:
Practical considerations forbid that we should look on these (or any) ideal
conceptions as goals or end conditions completely attainable in themselves. Their
vast value lies not in their attainment but in their orientation of our energies
consistently in the direction of these ultimate ideals.
Bumper, are you listening? If so, help me find a better word than "anarchist"
(it repels me as being sterile and negative) or a briefer way of stating Baldy
Harper's position. Baldy didn't have an all-encompassing word, but he wasn't
beating any drums for government, limited or otherwise. He would explain, without
any flap about it, that he was drawn to the vision of a "total alternative"
and was always on the lookout for breakthroughs in thinking and social technology
that might move us in that direction.