Constraining the Night-watchman State Reply

By Nathan Goodman, Center for a Stateless

Many libertarians favor constraining the State to a limited set of powers, typically to the maintenance of police, courts, prisons, and security services designed to protect individual rights. This “protective state” or “Night-watchman” state is seen as the minarchist ideal. However, I think some libertarians forget that even a state only devoted to these protective functions runs the risk of violating individual rights. Public choice economist James M. Buchanan writes, “If politics could be restricted to the exercise of these minimal or protective state functions (the Night-watchman state), little or no concern need be expressed about coercive political intrusions on the liberties of citizens.”Yet, there are many examples of the State violating rights by carrying out its “protective” function. The Innocence Project has documented many cases where innocent people (the Project’s specialty is exonerating prisoners through DNA testing) are convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

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