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The State is a Predator

Mises Daily: Monday, June 04, 2007 by

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[The Rise and Fall of Society. By Frank Chodorov. New York: Devin-Adair, 1959. Xxiv + 168 pgs. Available from the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Student Series, in print and PDF.]

Frank Chodorov's work comes with a high recommendation. Murray Rothbard considered Chodorov a thinker of exceptional merit and credited him as a key influence in his own embrace of full libertarianism. He said:

"I will never forget the profound thrill — a thrill of intellectual liberation — that ran through me when I first encountered the name of Frank Chodorov…. As a young graduate student in economics, I had always believed in the free market, and had become increasingly libertarian over the years, but this sentiment was as nothing to the headline that burst forth in the title of a pamphlet that I chanced upon in the university bookstore: Taxation Is Robbery by Frank Chodorov. There it was; simple perhaps, yet how many of us, let alone how many professors of the economics of taxation, had ever given utterance to this shattering and demolishing truth? Frank was always like that."

Readers of The Rise and Fall of Society will have little difficulty in grasping the reasons for Rothbard's esteem. The book is a penetrating analysis of the structure of world history. Chodorov uses a basic principle of economics to provide what a philosopher of a very different stripe, John Macmurray, called "the clue to history."

In order to survive, human beings must labor, but labor is onerous: to the extent that we can do so, we prefer to avoid labor. Chodorov of course recognizes that some people engage in activities that they enjoy for their own sake, but this is not the usual case. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." (Genesis 3:19) Mises recognized the same principle, calling it the "disutility of labor."

How can people get what they want, given their unwillingness to labor? Chodorov once more calls attention to the obvious. People find it much easier to achieve their desires by exchanges with others than by a futile effort to produce everything they want by themselves. In this fact Chodorov finds the glue that holds society together. It is not necessary to postulate a social instinct to explain why society exists. The principle that we wish to attain our desires with the least effort possible suffices.

The advantages of trade have achieved nearly universal recognition. Chodorov, citing the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, notes that

"in ancient times, on days designated as holy, the market place and its approaches were held inviolable even by professional robbers; in fact, stepping out of character, these robbers acted as policemen for the trade routes, seeing that merchants and caravans were not molested. Why? Because they had accumulated a superfluity of loot of one kind, more than they could consume, and the easiest way of transmuting it into other satisfactions was through trade." (Rise and Fall, p. 49.)

With remarkable insight, Chodorov refutes in advance a now popular attack on the free market. Some economists, in particular Robert H. Frank and Sir Richard Layard, claim that contemporary capitalism, with its stress on ever greater consumption, does not make people "really" happy. People quickly adjust to whatever new level of consumption they attain, and growth in productivity leads to no permanent gain in happiness. Chodorov makes a penetrating observation that casts doubt on this whole line of analysis. If people wish to satisfy their wants with the least labor possible, will they not find gratifying the knowledge that a rise in production has enabled them to achieve more goods in fewer hours?

"The value the individual puts on himself is measured in terms of the labor he must put out to satisfy his desires. His ego expands or contracts in proportion to the labor cost of his living…. That being so, an economy so managed as to provide a general abundance, an economy of plenty, must improve the self-esteem or morale of those who enjoy it, while an economy of scarcity has the opposite effect." (pp. 27–28)

Happiness and the free market have more to do with each other than our sophisticated skeptics imagine.

Because it is the institutional setting in which people engage in trade, society is thus essential for human welfare; but here we must avoid a fatal mistake. Construed in Chodorov's fashion, society consists solely of individuals who engage in exchanges to their common benefit. It is not an independent entity, with a will and purpose of its own. Chodorov phrases this fact in a picturesque way: "society are people."

Once stated, Chodorov's point appears obvious. How can anyone seriously deny it, affirming by contrast a group mind with thoughts and intentions of its own? However apparent the mistake, promulgating it has been in certain persons' interests; and the myth of society as a thing apart has persisted. People, it is alleged, must sacrifice themselves for the good of society.

But who determines this good? If, in fact, there is no group mind, then it is particular persons who allege to others that they must do as "society" dictates. These people follow Chodorov's principle of least effort. They too wish to attain their desires with as little effort as possible, but they do so in a way that, unlike peaceful trade, is harmful. Rather than engage in mutually beneficial exchange, these predators endeavor to get others to give them something for nothing. And behind their mystification of "society" lies brute force.

The myth of a society that exists apart from the individuals who compose it is an ideological tool of the State, which Chodorov, like his mentor and friend Albert Jay Nock, viewed as an instrument of predation. Society does not need the State. Quite the contrary, the State is parasitic on social cooperation. Predators seize the chance to grab for themselves what others have peacefully produced. At first, predatory raids are sporadic; but intelligent predators soon realize that they can entrench their theft on a permanent basis and the State is born.

Chodorov appeals to the Bible to illustrate his thesis. The Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt had no king; they relied on judges and prophets to settle disputes and guide them but had no settled coercive institution that stood over them. "The significant feature of the rule of the Judges is that it lacked the power of coercion." (p. 90). The people later asked for a king, so they could be like other nations. In response, the prophet Samuel clearly indicated that he thought their request foolish, though he eventually granted it.

Chodorov finds another illustration of his view of the State in the Bible. If the State is organized predation, taxes are its essential activity.

"But, as to taxation, we learn nothing until we come to 2 Chronicles (Chapter 10), which deals with the installation of his [Solomon's] son Rehoboam. There it is told that 'all Israel' pleaded with him thus: 'Thy father made our yoke grievous'… The designation of taxation as a yoke is a nice piece of biblical directness. A yoke is worn by an ox, a beast of burden, which is by nature incapable of claiming a property right in the product of its labors." (pp. 96–98)

Taxation is far from the only evil that the predatory State imposes on its victims. War is among the most frequent activities of the State. If the State exists for predation, will it not be natural for it to extend its dominion in order to increase what it can extract? Other States will of course not readily surrender their favored position and armed conflict almost always ensues.

During a war, the demands of the State on its citizens grow beyond what is customary in peacetime. Taxes rise, as civilians are exhorted to sacrifice everything to preserve the State; and civil liberties usually are suspended for the duration of the war. Chodorov, here anticipating the classic analysis of Robert Higgs in his Crisis and Leviathan, points out that when a war ends, freedom is almost never restored to its pre-war level. The power of the State continually tends to grow.

To Chodorov's argument, the conventional wisdom will respond with an objection. Is Chodorov right that the State is exclusively predatory? Does not any large society need a system of laws that defines people's rights and duties and, further, an agency to enforce these laws and judge disputes about them? Our author acknowledges this; but he terms the agency that enforces laws government rather than the State. Here he makes much more than a semantic distinction. His point is that the members of society can handle the necessary functions of administration informally, without a permanent, independent, and oppressive institution, the State.

It is easy to make this distinction, but can it be sustained in practice? Will not governmental arrangements, however informal, tend inevitably to grow into an oppressive State? People who specialize in the functions of government will quickly come to acquire an interest in maintaining and enhancing their own power.

Chodorov, no easy optimist, does not deny this trend, but he ventures to hope that an alert and informed citizenry can successfully combat it. To do so, the principal tool of the State, taxation, must be drastically curtailed. Chodorov suggests that taxes should never be granted permanently but rather be levied on a case-by-case basis as the members of society, not the government, determine. And of course an income tax is out altogether. (Another of Chodorov's books was The Income Tax: Root of All Evil. This book, by the way, was one of the first libertarian works that I read.) Further, the government must be small and decentralized; this will make it easier for people to prevent it from overstepping its limits. Chodorov's foremost disciple, Murray Rothbard, at one point deepened his mentor's analysis. Why need there be taxation at all? Competing protection agencies can raise the money to operate through the sale of their services, just like any other business.

Chodorov refused to exempt democracies from his indictment. To the contrary, the claim that the State represents the will of the people is an ideological instrument to enhance the State's power, not to limit it. Those enamored of power falsely argue that since they are instruments of the people, there is no need to restrict them with constitutional restraints. Whatever they may allege, they are in fact seekers of power for themselves.

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"A penetrating analysis of the structure of world history." –David Gordon

Chodorov here once again displays his ability to anticipate future scholarship. He offers a "public choice" account of democracy that anticipates the main conclusions of the Virginia School.

"A more impelling reason for the attenuation of social power is the splintering of its homogeneity as population grows; group interests replace the common interest and the politician finds himself under a variety of pressures…. Group pressures, rather than social sanctions, chart his course, and his problem is the selection of allies…. His release from the social sanctions of the small community make of him an entrepreneur in power." (pp. 138–39)

Chodorov's brilliant assessment of the State is a vital contribution both to historical understanding and to the defense of liberty.


David Gordon covers new books in economics, politics, philosophy, and law for The Mises Review, the quarterly review of literature in the social sciences, published since 1995 by the Mises Institute. This review originally appeared on LewRockwell.com and is reprinted here with permission. He is author of The Essential Rothbard, available in the Mises Store. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.

The Rise and Fall of Society by Frank Chodorov is available in print and PDF. You can read the first chapter, "Economics versus Politics," here.