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A night watchman state, or a minimal state, is a form of government in political philosophy where the government's responsibilities are so minimal they cannot be reduced much further without becoming a form of anarchy.[1] The government's responsibilities are limited to protecting individuals from coercion, fraud and theft, to requiring reparation to victims, and to defending the country from foreign aggression. Therefore the only governmental institutions in a hypothetical night watchman state would be police, judicial systems, prisons and the military.

Advocacy of a minimal state is known as minarchism.[1] Minarchists propose to enforce a night watchman state with a clearly-defined constitution limiting the government's powers. They also may make it impossible to amend the constitution after adoption.



Minarchists argue that the state has no right to use its power of coercion (the monopoly on the use of force) to interfere with free transactions between people, and see the state's sole responsibility as ensuring that transactions between private individuals are free. In general, the majority of minarchists use deontological arguments: they claim that a minimal state is good in and of itself and that the use of force or threat of force for anything but defensive purposes is inherently wrong.

The Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand is notable for its support of minarchism, believing that non-voluntary taxes that fund government actions are essentially theft. Objectivists argue that a form of the night watchman state is the only ethical as well as truly practical way of organizing the state.

Other minarchists use consequentialist arguments. Popperian libertarians argue that institutions and cultures evolve best without external interference from government. The adherents of the Austrian school believe that any state intervention in the economy is harmful.

Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia also argued that a night watchman state provides a framework that allows for any political system that respects fundamental individual rights. Under a minarchist system people are free to create their own communities with their own set of rules - as long as membership is voluntary.


Most political ideologies disagree with the notion of a minimal state. Their objections are very diverse.

Social liberals and social democrats contend that a government welfare state is well-suited to provide care and protection for disadvantaged or dependent people (children, the elderly, the disabled, caretakers). A less radical criticism from this direction, for example, is that while a night watchman state might be able to keep companies from coercing their workers with physical force or fraudulent contracts, they might be able to use economic coercion to force them to accept contracts that are legal but heavily weighted against them, with no recourse available. Also, along that same vein, many things were legal to begin with (such as monopolies), but were made illegal, which could not have happened in a night watchman state.

In contrast social conservatives argue that the state should maintain a moral outlook, and legislate against behavior with social destructive effect; that, indeed, the state cannot survive if its citizens do not have a certain degree or kind of character, and so ignoring the state's role in forming people's dispositions can be disastrous.[2]

One objection to the Night watchman state is that there is simply no need to reduce the government's powers using a rigid and inflexible minarchist constitution, and that it is best to evaluate the merits of government intervention on a case-by-case basis. According to Keynesians and other proponents of an economically interventionist state, a night watchman state could do nothing in face of issues like economic recession or depression (see Keynesian economics; existential risks).

Others argue that the criterion "someone's civil liberties are infringed" is not as clear cut as it needs to be for such a state to work.[2] For instance, it may at first appear that "preventing someone from speaking" is an infringement on a person's civil liberties, but that would entail permitting someone to speak on a loudspeaker outside people's homes in the middle of night.

Furthermore, to prevent fraud, the night watchman state would have to enforce all contracts that did not infringe on the rights of third parties; protecting a person from infringing his own rights would be a violation of his liberty. Yet, even many libertarians object to the enforcement of some contracts, such as those by which a person sold himself into life-long slavery.

Finally, a unique kind of criticism comes from anarchists, who argue that no state – not even a night watchman one – should exist. Right-wing anarchists argue that the goal of the night watchman state – protecting individuals from acts of coercion and theft – needs to be funded by taxes, which represent in fact a form of theft. Left-wing anarchists believe this formula is incoherent, since they see the institution of property as a form of coercion and theft itself.

See also





  1. ^ a b Rob Miller. An introduction to minarchism. Homeland Stupidity.
  2. ^ a b Gertrude Himmelfarb, "Liberty: 'One Very Simple Principle'?", p 97, On Looking into the Abyss ISBN 0-679-75923-9


  • 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.

External links


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