Night-watchman state

A night-watchman state is a model of a state that is limited and minimal, whose only functions are to act as an enforcer of the non-aggression principle by providing its citizens with the military, the police and courts, thereby protecting them from aggression, theft, breach of contract, fraud and enforcing property laws. Its proponents are called minarchists.[1][2][3]

This form of government is mainly associated with libertarianism in the United States, Objectivist, and right-libertarian political philosophy. However, minarchism has also been advocated by non-anarchist libertarian socialists and other left-libertarians.[4][5] Some anarchists and left-libertarians have also proposed or supported a minimal welfare state on the grounds that social safety nets are short-term goals for the working class[6] and believe in stopping welfare programs only if it means abolishing both government and capitalism.[7] Other left-libertarians prefer repealing corporate welfare before social welfare for the poor.[8]

A night-watchman state has been advocated and made popular by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).[9] 19th-century Britain has been described by historian Charles Townshend as a standard-bearer of this form of government.[10]


As a term, night-watchman state (German: 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 involved state, or a state with a larger sphere of responsibility.[11]

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".[12]

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".[13] The term minarchist was coined by Samuel Edward Konkin III in 1980.[14]


Minarchists generally justify the state on the grounds that it is the logical consequence of adhering to 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 because the enforcement of laws under anarchism is open to competition.[15] Another common justification is that private defense and court firms would tend to represent the interests of those who pay them enough.[16]

Some minarchists argue that a state is inevitable, believing anarchy to be futile.[17] 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.[9][18]

See also



  1. Gregory, Anthony (10 May 2004). "The Minarchist's Dilemma". Strike the Root: A Journal of Liberty. Archived 12 January 2020 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 1 February 2020.
  2. Peikoff, Leonard (7 March 2011). "What role should certain specific governments play in Objectivist government?". Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  3. Peikoff, Leonard (3 October 2011). "Interview with Yaron Brook on economic issues in today's world (Part 1)". Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  4. Hain, Peter (July/August 2000). "Rediscovering our libertarian roots". Chartist. Archived 21 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 1 February 2020.
  5. Marshall, Peter (2009) [1991]. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (POLS ed.). Oakland, California: PM Press. p. 641. "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. "Chomsky Replies to Multiple Questions About Anarchism". Z Magazine. ZCommunications. Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 19 August 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'.
  7. McKay, Iain, ed. (2012). "J.5 What alternative social organisations do anarchists create?". An Anarchist FAQ. II. Stirling: AK Press. ISBN 978-1-849351-22-5. OCLC 182529204.
  8. Richman, Sheldon (3 February 2011). "Libertarian Left: Free-market anti-capitalism, the unknown ideal". The American Conservative. Archived 10 June 2019 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 5 March 2012. "[Left-libertarians] prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised."
  9. Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-09720-3.
  10. Townshend, Charles (2000). The Oxford History of Modern War. Oxford University Press. pp. 14—15. ISBN 0-19-285373-2. 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.
  11. Sawer, Marian (2003). The Ethical State?: Social Liberalism in Australia. Melbourne University Publishing. p. 87. ISBN 0-522-85082-0. ISBN 978-0-522-85082-6.
  12. Von Mises, Ludwig (1927) [1922]. Liberalism. p. 37.
  13. "Ἀρχή" Archy [Archy]. A Greek-English Lexicon. Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  14. Konkin III, Samuel Edward (1980). New Libertarian Manifesto. p. 9.
  15. Long, Roderick T.; Machan, Tibor R., eds. (2008). Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6066-8.
  16. Holcombe, Randall G. (2004). "Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable" (PDF). The Independent Review. Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  17. Emmett, Ross B. (12 August 2011). Frank H. Knight in Iowa City, 1919–1928. Emerald Group Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78052-008-7.
  18. Gordon, David (2008). "Minimal State". In Hamowy, Ronald (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications; Cato Institute. pp. 332–334. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n204. ISBN 978-1412965804. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024.


  • 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.