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Night-watchman state

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The term was coined by Ferdinand Lassalle and derived from the watchman system used by various European cities starting in the medieval period. The voluntary militia functioned as a city guard for internal policing and against external aggression.

A night-watchman state, or minarchy, whose proponents are known as minarchists, is a model of a state that is limited and minimal, whose functions depend on libertarian theory. Right-libertarians support it only as an enforcer of the non-aggression principle by providing citizens with the military, the police, and courts, thereby protecting them from aggression, theft, breach of contract, fraud, and enforcing property laws.[1][2][3]

In the United States, this form of government is mainly associated with libertarian and Objectivist political philosophy. In other countries, minarchism is also advocated by some non-anarchist libertarian socialists and other left-libertarians.[4][5] A night-watchman state has also been popularized by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).[6] The United Kingdom in the 19th century has been described by historian Charles Townshend as a standard-bearer for this form of government.[7]


As a term, night-watchman state (German: Nachtwächterstaat) was coined by German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle in an 1862 speech in Berlin wherein he criticized the bourgeois-liberal limited government state, comparing it to a night-watchman whose sole duty was preventing theft, playing on the double meaning of the German term Nachtwächter to mean someone who was incompetent or stupid. The phrase quickly caught on as a description of capitalist government, even as liberalism began to mean a more involved state, or a state with a larger sphere of responsibility.[8] Ludwig von Mises later opined that Lassalle tried to make limited government look ridiculous though it was no more ridiculous than governments that concerned themselves with "the preparation of sauerkraut, with the manufacture of trouser buttons, or with the publication of newspapers".[9]

Proponents of the night-watchman state are minarchists, a portmanteau of minimum and -archy. Arche (/ˈɑːrki/; Ancient Greek: ἀρχή) is a Greek word which came to mean "first place, power", "method of government", "empire, realm", "authorities" (in plural: ἀρχαί), or "command".[10] The term minarchist was coined by Samuel Edward Konkin III in 1980.[11]


Right-libertarian minarchists generally justify the state as a logical consequence of the non-aggression principle.[1][2][3] They argue that anarcho-capitalism is impractical because it is not sufficient to enforce the non-aggression principle, as the enforcement of laws under anarchy would be open to competition.[12] Another common objection to anarchism is that private defense and court firms would tend to represent the interests of those who pay them enough.[13]

Left-libertarian minarchists justify the state as a temporary measure on the grounds that social safety net benefits the working class. Some anarchists, such as Noam Chomsky, are in agreement with social democrats on the importance of welfare measures, but prefer using non-state methods.[14] Left-libertarians such as Peter Hain are decentralists who do not advocate abolishing the state,[4] but do wish to limit and devolve state power,[5] stipulating that any measures favoring the wealthy be prioritized for repeal before those which benefit the poor.[15]

Some minarchists argue that a state is inevitable because anarchy is futile.[16] Robert Nozick, who publicized the idea of a minimal state in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), argued that a night-watchman state provides a framework that allows for any political system that respects fundamental individual rights and therefore morally justifies the existence of a state.[6][17]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Gregory, Anthony (May 10, 2004). "The Minarchist's Dilemma". Strike the Root: A Journal of Liberty. Archived January 12, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 1, 2020.
  2. ^ a b Peikoff, Leonard (March 7, 2011). "What role should certain specific governments play in Objectivist government?" Archived September 12, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. Peikoff.com. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Peikoff, Leonard (October 3, 2011). "Interview with Yaron Brook on economic issues in today's world (Part 1)". Peikoff.com. Archived from the original on September 12, 2014. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  4. ^ a b Hain, Peter (July/August 2000). "Rediscovering our libertarian roots". Chartist. Archived June 21, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 1, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Marshall, Peter (2009) [1991]. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (POLS ed.). Oakland, California: PM Press. p. 641[permanent dead link]. "Left libertarianism can therefore range from the decentralist who wishes to limit and devolve State power, to the syndicalist who wants to abolish it altogether. It can even encompass the Fabians and the social democrats who wish to socialize the economy but who still see a limited role for the State." ISBN 978-1604860641.
  6. ^ a b Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465097203.
  7. ^ Townshend, Charles (2000). The Oxford History of Modern War. Oxford University Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0192853732. Britain, however, with its strong tradition of minimal government – the 'night-watchman state' – vividly illustrated the speed of the shift [during World War I] from normalcy to drastic and all-embracing wartime powers like those contained in the Defence of the Realm Act.
  8. ^ Sawer, Marian (2003). The Ethical State?: Social Liberalism in Australia. Melbourne University Publishing. p. 87 Archived April 21, 2023, at the Wayback Machine. ISBN 978-0522850826.
  9. ^ Von Mises, Ludwig (1927) [1922]. Liberalism. p. 37 Archived April 21, 2023, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "Ἀρχή" Archy [Archy]. A Greek-English Lexicon. Archived from the original on September 27, 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  11. ^ Konkin III, Samuel Edward (1980). New Libertarian Manifesto. p. 9.
  12. ^ Long, Roderick T.; Machan, Tibor R., eds. (2008). Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (PDF). Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0754660668. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 30, 2011.
  13. ^ Holcombe, Randall G. (2004). "Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable" (PDF). The Independent Review. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 29, 2019. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  14. ^ "Chomsky Replies to Multiple Questions About Anarchism". Z Magazine. ZCommunications. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved August 19, 2011. Anarchists propose other measures to deal with these problems, without recourse to state authority. ... Social democrats and anarchists always agreed, fairly generally, on so-called 'welfare state measures'.
  15. ^ Richman, Sheldon (February 3, 2011). "Libertarian Left: Free-market anti-capitalism, the unknown ideal". The American Conservative. Archived June 10, 2019, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved March 5, 2012. "[Left-libertarians] prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised."
  16. ^ Emmett, Ross B. (2011). Frank H. Knight in Iowa City, 1919–1928. Emerald Group Publishing. ISBN 978-1780520087.
  17. ^ Gordon, David (2008). "Minimal State". In Hamowy, Ronald (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Cato Institute. pp. 332–334. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n204. ISBN 978-1412965804. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved February 24, 2022.


  • Machan, Tibor R. (December 2002). "Anarchism and Minarchism. A Rapprochement". Journal des Economists et des Estudes Humaines. 14 (4): 569–588.
  • Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York City: Basic Books.
  • Ostrowski, Marius S. (2014). "Towards libertarian welfarism: protecting agency in the night-watchman state". Journal of Political Ideologies. 13 (1): 107–128.
  • Wolff, Jonathan (1991). Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

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