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In political philosophy, a night-watchman state is a model of a state proposed by minarchists comprising the minimum necessary functions to maintain conditions of laissez-faire capitalism. In the strictest sense, it is a state whose only legitimate function is the maintenance of law and order and enforcement of strictly capitalist property law, and the only legitimate governmental institutions are the military, police, and courts. In the broadest sense, it extends to various civil service and emergency-rescue departments (such as the fire departments), prisons, the executive, the judiciary, and the legislatures as legitimate government functions.
19th century Britain has been described as standard-bearer of this form of government among European countries.
The phrase "Nachtwächterstaat" was coined by German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle in an 1862 speech in Berlin. He criticized the "bourgeois" liberal limited government state, comparing it to a night-watchman whose sole duty was preventing theft. The phrase quickly caught on as a description of capitalist government, even as liberalism began to mean a more progressive state. Ludwig von Mises later opined that Lassalle tried to make limited government look ridiculous, but that 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."
Minarchists generally justify the state on the grounds that it is the logical consequence of adhering to the non-aggression principle. They argue that anarchism is impractical because it is not sufficient to enforce the non-aggression principle. They argue that this is because the enforcement of laws under anarchism is open to competition. Another common justification is that private defense and court firms would tend to represent the interests of those who pay them enough. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia argued that a night watchman state provides a framework that allows for any political system that respects fundamental individual rights.
- Gregory, Anthory.The Minarchist's Dilemma. Strike The Root. 10 May 2004.
- Townshend, Charles (2000). The Oxford History of Modern War. Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-19-285373-2.
- Marian Sawer, The ethical state?: social liberalism in Australia, Melbourne University Publishing, 2003, p. 87, ISBN 0-522-85082-0, ISBN 978-0-522-85082-6
- Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism, 1927, p. 37
- Roderick T. Long & Tibor R. Machan, eds. (2008). Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6066-8.
- Holcombe, Randall G. http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_08_3_holcombe.pdf. "Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable".
- Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
- Wolff, Jonathan. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1991.
- "Anarchism and Minarchism. A Rapprochement", Journal des Economists et des Estudes Humaines, Vol. 14, No.4 (December 2002), pages 569–88 Tibor R. Machan