The State of Nature
The state is defined as an organization which claims an ultimate right over all adjudication services within a given territory, or a right to defend this monopoly by force. Statists are people who either believe in the right which the state claims and who believe in the desirability of a state. Anarchy means statelessness, and anarchists believe that states are undesirable and ethically unjustified.1
Anarchy does not mean chaos or barbarism: although anarchists comprise a very diverse group and I cannot absolutely deny that there are anarchists who support violence, anarchists overwhelmingly believe that anarchy promotes peace and cooperation and that statism does not. Most anarchists would say that Hobbes is guilty of a false premise when he describes the state of nature as “a war of all against all”.2 For why should these hypothetical natural folk have waited so long to provide for security to the point that they are literally all at war with one another? Surely there must have been an earlier period in which they lived far enough apart and had enough land to themselves that they had very little need to provide for security and adjudication.
Hobbes’s description is less to be expected of a society in which no state had ever existed, but rather one in which an earlier state had collapsed and left a vacuum in the services that it had previously monopolized. The same false premise has been promulgated through the centuries since Hobbes first popularized it. Statists have not examined it critically and have ignored the appeals of anarchists.3 Yet it is only because of the state’s monopolization of adjudication and security that one could expect such a vacuum to be possible: if these services were provided by several organizations, none of whom claimed a territorial monopoly, then the collapse of any one would entail no vacuum of power or outbreak of violence. The remaining organizations would be poised to expand and take up the slack.
People are told that the state of nature is fearsome but nobody has the opportunity to actually give it a try by setting up his own land as an independent country.4 This begs the question of what the state of nature is like and it is highly suspicious because if anarchy were really that bad then the state would have every incentive to allow people to experience it.
All the cautionary tales which are supposed to demonstrate the horror of anarchy, such as Somalia, can be readily explained as further problems of statism: if a state monopoly fails, then the resulting chaos should not be seen as a consequence of freedom because no one had been given the opportunity to create alternative institutions. Rather, it should be seen as an inherent weakness in monopoly itself.5 The reason the state-of-nature argument has persisted so long is that when people fear, they stop thinking. However, just because the state is built in such a way that its collapse means chaos does not mean that statelessness itself is the problem.
When one imagines the formation of society as a gradual accretion, person-by-person (or tribe-by-tribe), then the whole problem takes on a different character. First, at no point in the process is it necessary to assume that there is a vacuum of power. Once two people begin living near enough to one another that some arrangement was needed between them, they could make it without one having to be master of the other or without binding either to an eternal covenant. As society grows, informal structures may become more formal, but there is never any reason that a coercive, territorial monopoly should necessarily emerge.
Second, it is no longer enough to justify the existence of security and adjudication organizations simply as the fulfillment of a need, but also according to the same set of rules by which all human organizations emerge. To recognize a need, say for a communication route or trade route, does not justify the sudden involuntary incorporation of an entire people into a single giant collective. That people think otherwise for states is an implicit recognition that the state exists outside the realm of ordinary human entrepreneurship. An action which might one day lead to the creation of a state and provide the necessary services of courts and security can only be justified retroactively. If the attempt succeeds, it was a glorious revolution, but if it fails, it was treason, terrorism, or organized crime.
It is obvious that society cannot rely on rules that are only applicable retroactively. No one would know what he could do and what might be punished the next day. No one could plan ahead, and thus there would be no way to be certain of benefiting from cooperation.
Under ordinary circumstances, when two people dispute over the control of something, they do not go to war but rather present arguments. The reasons for the dispute are simple: each desires control. If one of them did not, then he would simply surrender ownership to the other. However, these reasons are sufficient to resolve the dispute because when they both say “I want it,” neither distinguishes himself to any impartial observer. It is to be expected that they will attempt to subvert the facts to their own advantage and that an abstract consideration of justice is not their true motivations; but instead, they attempt argue their claims by applying abstract so as not to appear transparently self-serving. The rules must be impartial—they must treat everyone equally. If not, then the claim still appears self-serving. Historical facts, on the other hand, are impartial. Someone can present facts that utterly distinguish himself without appearing to be simply self-serving.
Someone who wishes to justify himself to his society after an unjust act does not simply argue against justice itself and say that might makes right. Instead he proposes a theory under which his actions are justified. If a trespasser convinces everyone else to say that he is the rightful owner of the field, then it is the previous owner who is evicted instead. States also try to justify their monopoly power with a theory too. However, there is always something wrong with their theories—they always end up proposing something that would not make sense if ordinary people or organizations tried to use them.
The Injustice of the State
The above discussion highlights three features of justice which most people will agree with: its purpose is to deter or prevent violence; its method is to apply abstract universal rules to concrete situations; and the application of its rules depends on objective facts rather than bald assertions. All attempts to justify the state violate at least one of these three principles. They involve either an appeal to violence, special pleading, or lies about the historical facts. These are the essential fallacies of statism.
How do statists lie? The earliest states were said to be instituted by the gods. The privilege of the king was the ability to perform rituals necessary to placate them.6 The medieval kings justified their rule and superior position by claiming a divine right that stemmed from God and family lines that traced back to the upper class of ancient Rome. We use similar nonsequitors and similarly absurd stories to justify our states today. For example, we tell stories about a “social contract” built upon “tacit consent”. This imaginary contract binds everyone just by being born under it even though no one has actually signed it. It was created in a hypothetical “state of nature” that never really happened.7 This story may not be a supernatural, but it is no less a form of mythology than that of Athena pledging allegiance to Zeus.
No one actually believes that there was actually a state of nature in which the social contract was drawn up. The way this myth is a lie is way that it is used to claim that people consent to the state. Simply put, people do not consent to the state in any way that resembles the ordinary use of the word consent. Social contract theory simply attempts to paint the alternative to statism as something so undesirable that no one should prefer it, and then says that therefore people consent to the state’s rule. The meaning of consent is changed to something more like passive obedience. This is like saying that a rape is consensual because the victim does not actively resist out of fear of even worse treatment. It is an argument from learned helplessness. Even if it could be proven that alternatives to statism are all worse, this has nothing to do with peoples’ consent to the state.
“You can always leave!” inevitably say the statists in response to this. First off, this is not always true. Second, it begs the question as to the state’s justification. If the state is not justified in the power it wields, then it is the state that is trespassing on me and the state who should leave. To say “you can always leave” is no different than telling a person whose house is being occupied by soldiers that the occupation is consensual because he could leave and move to a different house (one that is also being occupied by a different group of soldiers). The myth of the social contract a way to disguise a threat.
The lie of peoples’ consent for the state is connected to the lie that the state is the agent of the people. All modern states make this claim. In the case of a dictator, there is a single man who claims to speak for the people. Under an electoral system, there is a set of procedural rules which are supposed to be the people’s way of enacting their wishes. However, one thing can only be the agent of another to the extent that its own benefit is tied to that of its patient. An organization cannot be the agent of people from whom it draws funds unilaterally through taxation. The government would certainly be harmed if its taxpayers all died or became so poor that they were no longer capable of supporting it. Thus, the government is the agent of the people to the extent that it is unlikely to kill or impoverish all of them—only those it can get away with.
This is how the state lies. What about special pleading? This is when two things are empirically indistinguishable, but are claimed to deserve different treatment based on their identities alone. For example, if one person says that he can ethically kill anyone he likes whereas everyone else cannot, or if someone says that you should believe one story purely on hearsay but should rely on evidence for everything else, that is special pleading. Statism relies on special pleading because it judges actions and rights differently according to the different names given to them when there is no empirical difference between them.
The people who live in these states are taught from a very young age not to question the nature of the regime they have been born into, whether a dictatorship or democracy, and to decry those who have unsuccessfully rebelled against it. However, it should be quite easy for them to imagine an alternate history in which one of the unsuccessful rebellions succeeded or one of the successful ones failed. In that case, he ought to admit that he would have been taught something else and he would treat different actions as legitimate or traitorous than today. For example, if the American rebellion had failed, the members of the Continental Congress would today be seen as mad, petty conspirators. If the Confederacy had successfully defended itself, then Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee would have been considered heroes and Abraham Lincoln would be seen as a tyrant.
The only objective standard by which attempts to create states are judged is success. This standard can only be applied retroactively, so from the standpoint of those living through it, who do not have the benefit of knowing their future history, it is utterly relativistic. All other arguments to support a particular state are ad-hoc and arranged to arrive at a foregone conclusion.
Even if abstract arguments about the social contract and so on could establish the need for a single monopolist over legislation, police, courts, and national defense (which they do not), it is a nonsequitor to go from an abstract description of a state to the conclusion that any present-day organization is legitimate as a state. Though there may be one nation and one people, there need not necessarily be one leader. Imagine a nation with two democratic governments, each of which accepts votes from the entire population, holds elections simultaneously, and issues independent laws to everyone, and each of which claims to be the real government. Under the standard theory of the state, there is no way to resolve the matter other than a war, which is a post-hoc justification. Similarly, I might just as well say that the Boy Scouts of America or Berkshire Hathaway should be the correct and just monopolist and that the organization which presently rules is an impostor. The fact that the present-day governments most nearly conform to the idea of a state in no way establishes them as being ethically justified in that position. This is similar to how people of various religions use abstract arguments to attempt to prove the existence of a god and then assume that their own religion is the correct one without distinguishing it from the thousands of others.
Furthermore, the actions necessary for the creation of a state would, at the time, be indistinguishable by any empirical test from the actions necessary to create a mafia organization. Imagine that a mafia organization establishes a protection racket in a neighborhood. The mafia has an incentive to protect people against small-time crime because it does not want competition. It wants good businesses in its domain so that there is plenty of money to skim off. Thus, the mafia is likely to provide a kind of security service in a way. It would be rational of the people in the mafia’s territory to say that the present masters are preferable to the uncertainty that might result if the present order was overturned; but this alone does not mean that they are not still oppressed. Now suppose that the mafia holds an election over who will be the next don. Of course, none of the candidates can say that they plan to end the protection racket or disband the mafia. It would be rational for people to vote for whichever candidate appeared to be the least oppressive, but that would still not justify the organization; all it means is that the people it oppresses have availed themselves of a certain leniency that has been granted them.
Now suppose the mafia began to spend some of its protection money on beneficial things, like schools and homeless shelters. Thus, it puts itself in a position to cause much greater disruption should it fail. Even if people see through this trick, it would be difficult to resist becoming more dependent upon it. People would say, “I have already been forced to buy into this system, so why shouldn’t I try to get out of it what I can?”
How is this situation any different from the modern democratic state? Only in words. Mafia rather than state, don rather than president, and protection racket rather than tax. Insisting upon a different terminology is special pleading. All the measures undertaken by this hypothetical mafia organization can be explained as means of entrenching the position of a class of thugs living off a protection racket, so why should democracy and social programs be seen as benevolent and beneficial overall when a state enacts them? This is special pleading.
Note that there is no similar problem with private organizations like a business, club, or commune. Each of these exist according to their own rules because everyone actually involved actually decides, for his own benefit, to follow those rules. If people began to decide that the rules were not in their interest to follow, then they could stop following them and the organization would shrink, eventually to nothing.
The only way out of special pleading arguments other than through lies is to rely on the fact that our present-day states won and other hypothetical alternatives lost. This is an appeal to violence, which means to equate justice with victory. A government organization is distinguished from others by the fact that it has power over others and it successfully defeated its rivals. “Might makes right” is generally understood to be a grotesque and immoral theory, so statists use intellectual sleight-of-hand to try to hide the fact that this is the entire foundation of their theory.
All modern states exist because a small group of people declared a new order to be the law of the land and leveraged an existing power structure to impose that order upon people. Yes, but people may have voted upon that order. If so, then the election itself was imposed upon people. Did anybody choose to be bound forever by the decision that was offered them? And what about the people who didn’t vote? How can the decision bind them in any way?
Why is it necessary to worry about a crime which happened long ago? If it is true that the state is unjustified and founded upon crime, then the crime is ongoing. If the state has no right to claim ownership over its territory, then its every act is another invasion. Taxation and regulation are extortion. Incarceration and imprisonment are slavery. War is mass murder.
Our natural aversion to violence and our intuitive understanding that it is inimical to society is overcome by appealing to guilt and fear. People are told, without evidence, that they should fear all alternatives to statism as irredeemably violent. They are also told that violence is inevitable because people are inherently evil. The violence of the state is necessary because people need powerful masters to be kept in check. The state is the curse of original sin. Of course this makes no sense because the state necessarily is run by humans rather than angels, so all the evil to be found in unconstrained human nature should be found in the state itself and in the way it treats its subjects.
The state uses an appeal to violence by telling its subjects that its reign is inevitable. If it did not rule, some other gang would rule instead. You might as well leave it where it is. As I have said above, it is rational of people to submit to an oppressor if they fear something more than the established order, but it is not rational for them to say that the oppressor is just, and that they consent to its rule. Rather, one should say that the state is evil, unjust, and, despite the gifts it gives and privileges it grants, an enemy and an invader.
The Voluntary Society
I will now show why it is impossible to defend the state without falling into one of the three essential fallacies. Violence and threats of violence are the historical reasons that some states exist and others have failed. If one does not wish to say in general that violence is justified, one should be able to point to empirical historical acts that created states which can be generalized to be universally applicable to all humans. However, this is impossible. There is no empirical difference between someone who attempts to create a state from someone who fails to create one and is later judged a traitor, and from someone who tries to start a mafia organization. If one does not wish to say that some states are arbitrarily justified and others are not, then the only recourse is to lie about history.
There is one more statist argument I wish to address. Any argument that there can be no viable alternative to statism is an argument from lack of imagination. It is not possible to imagine every alternative production model for justice and crime deterrence, and to claim that there can be none is just dogma, not evidence. There is no way to provide evidence for this claim other than to allow people to secede individually if they choose and test it themselves. The fact that this is not allowed should be taken as evidence that the state cannot afford to have its dogmas tested.
I do not claim to know precisely how these services would be provided, but some very plausible business models have been proposed.8 However, the essential point is that institutions that deter criminality do not need to be monopolists. In fact, they cannot be because that would leave nothing to deter the monopolist. Instead, if society is organized more like a network than a hierarchy, everyone would have some power over everyone else under certain circumstances.
Anarchism is a rejection of a particular idea and is not allied to any specific worldview or ideology. Anarchy is open enough for people to practice many different ways of life whereas statism necessarily implies the imposition of certain rules on certain groups. There are anarchists who like worker cooperatives and anarchists who like individual initiative. There are religious anarchists and atheist anarchists. There are hippie anarchists and yuppie anarchists.
Unfortunately, the reality of power is more compelling to most people than the logical conclusion of an ethical argument. People become anarchists because they believe more in the abstract idea of justice than in the impressive show of those who claim to wield it, and in their own ability to think independently about justice than in the ideologies presented to us by the authorities. And then they become anarchists when they realize that the same fallacies underpin all the state’s actions and indeed its very existence. To be an anarchist, therefore, it is sufficient to reject lies, logical fallacies, and violent conquest as a legal justifications. Anarchism is not extremism: it is simply correct.
1. I use the term anarchism to include any political philosophy opposed to the state. However, there are some subtlties. Ordinarily, anarchists are opposed both to the state’s justification and its desirability. But you could theoretically have an anarchist who is only opposed to one or the other. I have never met one, however.
There are both anarchocapitalists and anarchosocialists as well as many other flavors of anarchism. However, the anarchosocialists want to say that the anarchocapitalists are not “true” anarchists and that the word anarchist should only apply to them. This is tough beans because the two groups have a lot more in common than they have in opposition and it’s silly to torture a word that means ‘no rule’ into something that means ‘no rents or voluntary wage labor’.
2. See Hobbes, T., Leviathan or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclestical and Civill, Gutenberg.org. Really, go read this book. You will be amazed at how illogical and badly-written it is. There is really no excuse for Hobbes to be taken seriously today.
3. See Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 30 Sep 1999 and Epstein, R., Principles For A Free Society: Reconciling Individual Liberty With The Common Good, Basic Books, 13 Oct 2002 for two great works of statism, one from a left-wing perspective, and the other from a libertarian perspective. Both works have in common that they attempt justify the state entirely from a functional perspective and leave entierly unexamined the insurmountable ethical problems with the creation of the state. This is implicitly a special pleading argument.
4. See Murphy, R., “But Wouldn’t the Warlords Take Over?”, Mises Daily, 7 Jul 2005 for an excellent refutation of the warlord argument.
5. See Notten, M., The Law of the Somalis: A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa, The Red Sea Press Inc., 27 Nov 2005 for a very different interpetation of Somalia and its problems than that presented in the mainstream media.
6. See Trigger, B., Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, Cambridge University Press, 16 Apr 2007 for an extraordinarily profound and wonderfully anti-statist discussion of a number of ancient civilizations, including some wonderful chapters on religion and politics.
7. Epstein, in particulary, does a brilliant job making this all sound plausible in Epstein, 2002.
8. For examples of what might exist one day, see Guillory, G., Tinsley, P., “The Role of Subscription-Based Patrol and Restitution in the Future of Liberty”, vol. 1, no. 12, Libertarian Papers, 2009 for free-market production models for police protection and Block, W., The Privatization of Roads and Highways, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2 Nov 2012 for free-market production models for roads.