Should Anarchists Take State Money?

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Mon Jan 10 15:18:15 PST 2005


Mises Economics Blog

January 10, 2005

Should Anarchists Take State Money?

by Robert Murphy

A discussion on a private email list brought up a familiar topic: When is
it permissible for self-described anarchists (let's restrict ourselves here
to anarcho-capitalists) to take government money? This is a tricky
question, and I have yet to see someone offer a satisfactory list of
necessary and sufficient conditions. Usually when an-caps argue about this,
they end up shooting more and more refined analogies back and forth.

For example, to me it's not enough to say that any money spent in the
private sector is legitimate (vis-a-vis one's anarchism). I personally
would not feel justified in working for a Halliburton. However, what about
the guy who opens a Dunkin Donuts near a police station? Is he accepting
"government money"? Does it matter if he's in a podunk town with a sheriff
and a deputy, versus if he lives in LA and knows for a fact that several of
his customers beat the #$#)($* out of suspects?

A big problem in this area is education: Can anarcho-capitalist economists
take teaching posts at State schools? After all, the State intervenes
heavily in education, which is a perfectly laudable market institution. But
surely there are more teaching posts because of the State than there
otherwise would be. Does the an-cap professor have to estimate whether his
or her post would actually exist in the absence of State intervention, or
is that irrelevant?

Personally, I have decided that I will never work for an official State
school. If I really mean it when I refer (in LRC articles, for example) to
the State as "a gang of killers and thieves," then how can I possibly
associate with such people? Yes yes, there are millions of analogies and
counterarguments, but for me there is a definite line to be drawn at
actually being on the payroll. (I also wouldn't take welfare, for example,
even though in previous years I have put in a lot to the tax system.)

Before closing, I should say that in no way am I taking a holier than thou
stance. For example, I applied for the Stafford (unsubsidized!) loan in
grad school, even though the State technically coerced those lending
institutions into offering me such low rates. And I know a guy who is so
hard core about starving the beast, that he felt like a sellout when he
took a job on the books and had some of his paycheck withheld. (I.e. when
he worked under the table, then at least his money wasn't funding the
State's wars etc.)

But as far as State schools, I think there are a few other things that
people often leave out of the discussion. First, why would I want to throw
my talents into a State school? I would much rather work on the side of the
underdog, and every time I publish a paper or give a talk, I want a private
school to get the credit. (This also applies to whatever influence I have
on students; I don't want to enhance a State school's reputation by
churning out better-than-otherwise students, so long as I could do the same
at a private school.)

A second issue is a bit more subtle: When moderate Americans hear of an-cap
professors berating the existence of the State, while they work for the
State, I think two things happen. (A) They think, "What a hypocrite! These
ivory tower academics need to get in the real world before redesigning
society!" And (B), they think, "Our government is so open and tolerant! It
even employs academics who call for its abolition! I'm so glad I live here
and not under the Taliban."

(Again, this is not meant as a criticism of those who choose to work at
State schools. I'm just explaining my position.)

Posted by Murphy at January 10, 2005 08:08 AM


You're very lucky that you have private colleges where you live. Many have
no such choice. Then all one can do is firmly bite the hand that feeds.

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy at January 10, 2005 08:40 AM

Ayn Rand had an article that was instructive on this issue. She was asked
whether it was moral for someone to take a government-backed student loan.
She said it was, because the person receiving the loan had no moral duty to
abstain from receiving a benefit the government was giving to others. Rand
distinguished between such benefits and those who choose to work in the
government at jobs that had no function other than to violate individual
rights (I believe she cited the Federal Trade Commission as an example.)
The difference was between using a service that *should* be provided by the
public sector (i.e. the Postal Service) and those that could never exist in
a free market (i.e. monopoly regulators).

 Of course, Rand was only addressing the ethical dilema; whether taking
state money is practical towards advancing one's particular interests or
ideology is a separate question.

Posted by: Skip Oliva at January 10, 2005 08:43 AM

Hans-Hoppe teaches at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada and Murray
Rothbard taught there before him. I do not see this as being hypocritical.
The main reason why is that if the government taxes and spends on
universities, it inevitably pushes private institutions out of the market
by charging artificially low tuition. Therefore, the number of available
positions at private universities is diminished, reducing opportunities for
non-public university professorships.

The bottom line is that the state has created a system in which there is
crime all around us. If we worried about "taking advantage" of this crime
all the time we probably wouldn't even step outside our front doors in the
morning, and we certainly wouldn't be driving on public roads.

On the other hand, there would definately be something wrong with say
becoming an IRS agent while claiming to be an anarcho-capitalist at the
same time.

Posted by: Steven Kane at January 10, 2005 08:44 AM

Actually I thought Rand's best contribution was this: "There is, of course,
a limitation on the moral right to take a government job: one must not
accept any job that demands ideological services, i.e., any job that
requires the use of one's mind to compose propaganda material in support of
welfare statism -- or any job in a regulatory administrative agency
enforcing improper, non-objective laws." (Objectivist, June 1966, sent by
Roderick Long)

Now, this is interesting. Many people think it might be a bad thing, for
example, for a libertarian to work for the INS or the IRS or some such, but
would be happy to take a job as a presidential speech writer. Somehow it is
usually assumed to be ok to do intellectual work but not ok to actually rob
and kill for the state. Rand seems to be saying that it is as bad or worse
to offer one's intellectual talents for propaganda reasons.

 Posted by: Jeffrey at January 10, 2005 08:52 AM

I recently struggled with this problem. Here in Detroit the automotive
industry (most of the city) shuts down between Christmas and New Years
(because of the UAW contracts). For most this is a paid vacation but I am
currently a contract employee (The big three hire all new employees as
contractors first to avoid all the messy federal laws restricting their
right to fire people for being incompetent), so it was forced time off for
me. The problem is so common though that every contract employee is given a
small packet of information on how to solve the problem of losing wages
over the vacation: apply for unemployment.

I struggled for days, being an anarcho-capitalist, on whether or not it was
ethical to accept the state's welfare money. Sure, I think welfare is
robbery and wrong to the core but I am forced to pay in to it whether I
like it or not - so why not reclaim some of that money?

Ultimately I decided that it was ethical but I simply couldn't bring myself
to do it. Ethical maybe, but it still felt immoral to me. Having just
graduated from college and moved to a new place I could have really used
the money - but I just felt dirty about taking it.

Posted by: Adam H at January 10, 2005 10:15 AM

 Here is Rothbard's point of view on this question: "The ground on which we
must stand, to be moral and rational in a state-run world is to: (1) work
and agi-tate as best we can, in behalf of liberty; (2) while working in the
matrix of our given world, to refuse to add to its sta-tism; and (3) to
refuse absolutely to participate in State activities that are immoral and
criminal per se."

Posted by: Jeffrey at January 10, 2005 10:26 AM

I worked for a small private startup at my last job. Even though we were
"private", most of our money came from government agencies/projects. I
think the public/private distinction can be misleading. What matters is
what interests you are serving. Are you serving people's voluntary wants
and needs or demand created by government regulation and taxes? I don't
think there's a clear cut answer in most situations.

Posted by: Danny Taggart at January 10, 2005 10:42 AM

Sam Bostaph wrote, on the list: "Murphy raises several questions--and gives
no answers to them. Then, he asserts personal preferences--with loose or no
reasoning to support them. He might as well be discussing choices from

I agree with Sam. And as I wrote on the list: "Bottom line: the
overwrought, over-agonized, over-thought attempts to justify one's way of
living in this imperfect world are simply pointless.

"First, libertarian employees of state universities might try to come up
with any number of justifications for why their chosen career is
"justified". But in the end, how many of them would quit if their little
libertarian calculus came out the wrong way? I think it's clear the answer
is near-zero. Clearly this is just make-weight argument; rationalization.
Strunk and White say, if you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it
loud! "Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?" Likewise, if you are
going to enter the game of life--in this mixed-state world, where some
careers one would choose in the free market are largely monopolized by the
state; where one must participate in state-decreed institutions and rules
in order to flourise, prosper, succeed, and survive--don't pussyfoot around
about it. Don't be embarrassed by it. Don't, for God's sake, *apologize*
for it. Remember Galt had the face without pain or fear or guilt. Those who
opppose the current malicious order are not to blame for it. They are -- we
are -- already victims. To insist that we victims -- *because* we are
victims (those who respect rights) -- have to suffer even further damage,
to restrict ourselves from career and business and life opportunities that,
ironically, our fellow men who do not agonize over the morality of their
choices, ... frankly, to my mind, it is ridiculous and obscene.

 "Libertarianism at its essence distinguishes between victim and aggressor.
To whine and hand-wring about what one libertarianly can or cannot do in
this world -- when our non-libertarian enemies, yes enemies, do not give a
damn about it -- is, in my view, to equate victim with aggressor; to blame
the victim for trying to make it in the the nonlibertarian world he has
been thrust into; a world that is nonlibertarain specifically because of
the beliefs and actions of his fellow non-libertarian citizens. To say he
should have a higher standard of behavior than them is to add injury to

Murphy writes, "I personally would not feel justified in working for a
Halliburton." I suppose there are a few die-hard types out there whose
personal preferences would lead them to ever and ever greater personal
sacrifices so they feel they are living by some kind of moral principles or
something. But I find the entire notion that you *need*, in general, to
"justify" where you work is just a bit silly. I agree w/ Bostaph that
Murphy supplies no reasons for his assertions; why it's okay to set up a
donut shop selling to police, but not to "be on the payroll". Surely
Austrians are aware there is nothing economically special about the
"employee" relationship; just as political borders are just political and
not economically objective.

I believe it is not hypocritical to live in the real world, as a general
matter. What is hypocritical, in my view, is the pretense of some
libertarians that they work at their present state-related jobs *only*
because they have found a way to justify it. I would be a lot of money that
99% of these people would not quit their jobs, even if you could show them
their little pet proofs "justifying" the morality of their position is
flawed. So it's just a makeweight argument trotted out in a vain attempt to
show that one's chosen career is "justified"; but the only reason to do
this is the false notion that one's career *needs* justifying.

Posted by: Stephan Kinsella at January 10, 2005 11:21 AM

Jeffrey's quote from Rothbard (in particular, "(2) while working in the
matrix of our given world, to refuse to add to its sta-tism"), I believe,
answers the titular question perfectly.

Even if it is the case that, by starting from scratch, a better system
could be constructed, if our aim is the construction of that system, we
must recognize that we do not have the luxury of erasing the influences of
Marx, FDR, et al. Those who would change the system must necessarily work
within it, and if that means using U.S. Mint-coined money, so be it.

Posted by: Lowell at January 10, 2005 11:26 AM


Interesting points, although showing that something is moral or immoral,
legal or illegal, does not in any way show that one would stop doing it.
Everyone acts immorally numerous times each day. The fact that they know
they're acting such doesn't stop them from doing such. Good people try to
strive to be the best they can, presumeably.

Ultimately, everyone has to live with what they do, and with how other
people perceive what they do.

 A good person is someone who tries to do what he thinks is moral. Such
people generally are engaged in careers they think moral. It will take a
lot of argument to convince them otherwise. However, if they can be
convinced of the immorality of their career, they will quit it (or cease
being good people).

 An "evil" person is someone who does not bother to try doing what he
thinks is moral. That is, the person who knows what is moral, yet does not
abide by it. I would characterize Alan Greenspan as such a person.

 Posted by: David Heinrich at January 10, 2005 11:36 AM

In an earlier post on this blog, I noted the example of Todd Zywicki, a law
professor who recently finished a stint as planning director at the FTC. In
his professorial role (at a state school, George Mason), Zywicki has
portrayed himself as a free-market champion. Yet during his FTC service, he
stood by and said nothing while the agency committed all sorts of
individual rights violations. This is the type of person who needs to be
condemned as evil--the man who poses as an ally of free markets, yet when
put in a position of authority does nothing to advance the cause.

 Posted by: Skip Oliva at January 10, 2005 12:05 PM

I wonder what Ayn Rand would have thought of the fact that one of her
closest associates is now the person who is responsible for carrying out
the biggest inflationist institution in the world-and also propagates for
the usefullness of that institution.

Posted by: Stefan Karlsson at January 10, 2005 01:49 PM

Libertarians who work as speechwriters for the State do great damage. They
enable the interventionists to disguise their destructiveness with
positive-sounding rhetoric.

Posted by: JS Henderson at January 10, 2005 01:49 PM

Unless something great happens, the government is going to be stealing my
money and violating my rights until the day I die. I have no problem
getting some of that money back through subsidized loans and government
scholarships. Although I do believe it is disrespectful for the government
to sponsor a scholarship in Barry Goldwater's name, I am proud to be
nominated for it.

Posted by: Horatio at January 10, 2005 02:02 PM

As the for the private/state school arguments, private schools subsidized
by the state also. Kids complete the fafsa and receive pell grants, and
loans to go the both schools. We support the state in so many ways because
we enhance society and its members. I think you're justified if you work is
agaisnt the government, but not against the people.

Posted by: Andy D at January 10, 2005 03:50 PM


I agree w/ Bostaph that Murphy supplies no reasons for his assertions; why
it's okay to set up a donut shop selling to police, but not to "be on the

Just to clarify, I didn't say it was OK to set up a donut shop. I asked if
it were (for those who think one can't work for Halliburton in good
conscience). My point here is not to lay out the definitive answer, but
rather to say that I think I could come up with particular examples that
would cast doubt upon any hard-and-fast rule people on either side give.
E.g. if an an-cap thinks there's no problem working for Halliburton, then
we can ask about a military company that exclusively supplies stuff to the

I agree with Bostaph that I didn't give any answers; that's my point. (But
this implies of course that I didn't agree with the official positions both
of you took. As I recall, Bostaph said something like, "They aren't fair
with me, so I'm not going to worry about playing nice with them." That's
not the issue; no one is saying you shouldn't work for the State because it
might violate the rights of the tax man. Am I allowed to mug a guy walking
down the street because the IRS took my money?)

I didn't bring this up on the List because I thought this topic was getting
beaten to a pulp, but since you posted your response from there, let me
address something that concerned me:

To insist that we victims -- *because* we are victims (those who respect
rights) -- have to suffer even further damage, to restrict ourselves from
career and business and life opportunities that, ironically, our fellow men
who do not agonize over the morality of their choices, ... frankly, to my
mind, it is ridiculous and obscene.

 Here you're just begging the question.  Are you an innocent victim "(those
who respect rights)" if you work for the government? No one is arguing that
the victims of gov't abuse should hurt themselves even more so; the claim
is that victims of government abuse aren't thereby given a green light to
abuse third parties as compensation.

And finally, I don't see why you're disgusted that "our side" is worried
about choosing justified means. Isn't that what makes us libertarians, that
we worry about violating side constraints?

Posted by: RPM at January 10, 2005 04:04 PM

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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