22. THE NATURE OF THE STATE
SO FAR IN THIS book, we have developed a theory of liberty and property rights, and have outlined the legal code that would be necessary to defend those rights. What of government, the State? What is its proper role, if any? Most people, including most political theorists, believe that once one concedes the importance, or even the vital necessity, of some particular activity of the State—such as the provision of a legal code—that one has ipso facto conceded the necessity of the State itself. The State indeed performs many important and necessary functions: from provision of law to the supply of police and fire fighters, to building and maintaining the streets, to delivery of the mail. But this in no way demonstrates that only the State can perform such functions, or, indeed, that it performs them even passably well.
Suppose, for example, that there are many competing cantaloupe stores in a particular neighborhood. One of the cantaloupe dealers, Smith, then uses violence to drive all of his competitors out of the neighborhood; he has thereby employed violence to establish a coerced monopoly over the sale of cantaloupes in a given territorial area. Does that mean that Smith’s use of violence to establish and maintain his monopoly was essential to the provision of cantaloupes in the neighborhood? Certainly not, for there were existing competitors as well as potential rivals should Smith ever relax his use and threat of violence; moreover, economics demonstrates that Smith, as a coercive monopolist will tend to perform his service badly and inefficiently. Protected from competition by the use of force, Smith can afford to provide his service in a costly and inefficient manner, since the consumers are deprived of any possible range of alternative choice.1 Furthermore, should a group arise to call for the abolition of Smith’s coercive monopoly there would be very few protesters with the temerity to accuse these “abolitionists” of wishing to deprive the consumers of their much desired cantaloupes.
And yet, the State is only our hypothetical Smith on a gigantic and all-encompassing scale. Throughout history groups of men calling themselves “the government” or “the State” have attempted—usually successfully—to gain a compulsory monopoly of the commanding heights of the economy and the society. In particular, the State has arrogated to itself a compulsory monopoly over police and military services, the provision of law, judicial decision-making, the mint and the power to create money unused land (“the public domain”), streets and highways, rivers and coastal waters, and the means of delivering mail. Control of land and transportation has long been an excellent method of assuring overall control of a society; in many countries, highways began as a means of allowing the government to move its troops conveniently throughout its subject country. Control of the money supply is a way to assure the State an easy and rapid revenue, and the State makes sure that no private competitors are allowed to invade its self-arrogated monopoly of the power to counterfeit (i.e., create) new money. Monopoly of the postal service has long been a convenient method for the State to keep an eye on possibly unruly and subversive opposition to its rule. In most historical epochs, the State has also kept a tight control over religion, usually cementing a comfortable, mutually-supportive alliance with an Established Church: with the State granting the priests power and wealth, and the Church in turn teaching the subject population their divinely proclaimed duty to obey Caesar. But now that religion has lost much of its persuasive power in society, the State is often willing to let religion alone, and to concentrate on similar if looser alliances with more secular intellectuals. In either case, the State relies on control of the levers of propaganda to persuade its subjects to obey or even exalt their rulers.
But, above all, the crucial monopoly is the State’s control of the use of violence: of the police and armed services, and of the courts—the locus of ultimate decision-making power in disputes over crimes and contracts. Control of the police and the army is particularly important in enforcing and assuring all of the State’s other powers, including the all-important power to extract its revenue by coercion.
For there is one crucially important power inherent in the nature of the State apparatus. All other persons and groups in society (except for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. That coercion is known as “taxation,” although in less regularized epochs it was often known as “tribute.” Taxation is theft, purely and simply even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.
It would be an instructive exercise for the skeptical reader to try to frame a definition of taxation which does not also include theft. Like the robber, the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint; if the taxpayer refuses to pay his assets are seized by force, and if he should resist such depredation, he will be arrested or shot if he should continue to resist. It is true that State apologists maintain that taxation is “really” voluntary; one simple but instructive refutation of this claim is to ponder what would happen if the government were to abolish taxation, and to confine itself to simple requests for voluntary contributions. Does anyone really believe that anything comparable to the current vast revenues of the State would continue to pour into its coffers? It is likely that even those theorists who claim that punishment never deters action would balk at such a claim. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter was correct when he acidly wrote that “the theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.”2
It has been recently maintained by economists that taxation is “really” voluntary because it is a method for everyone to make sure that everyone else pays for a unanimously desired project. Everyone in an area, for example, is assumed to desire the government to build a dam; but if A and B contribute voluntarily to the project, they cannot be sure that C and D will not “shirk” their similar responsibilities. Therefore, all of the individuals, A, B, C, D, etc., each of whom wish to contribute to building the dam, agree to coerce each other through taxation. Hence, the tax is not really coercion. There are, however, a great many flaws in this doctrine.
First is the inner contradiction between voluntarism and coercion; a coercion of all-against-all does not make any of this coercion “voluntary.” Secondly, even if we assume for the moment that each individual would like to contribute to the dam, there is no way of assuring that the tax levied on each person is no more than he would be willing to pay voluntarily even if everyone else contributed. The government may levy $1000 on Jones even though he might have been willing to pay no more than $500. The point is that precisely because taxation is compulsory, there is no way to assure (as is done automatically on the free market) that the amount any person contributes is what he would “really” be willing to pay. In the free society, a consumer who voluntarily buys a TV set for $200 demonstrates by his freely chosen action that the TV set is worth more to him than the $200 he surrenders; in short, he demonstrates that the $200 is a voluntary payment. Or, a club member in the free society, by paying annual dues of $200, demonstrates that he considers the benefits of club membership worth at least $200. But, in the case of taxation, a man’s surrender to the threat of coercion demonstrates no voluntary preference whatsoever for any alleged benefits he receives.
Thirdly, the argument proves far too much. For the supply of any service, not only dams, can be expanded by the use of the tax-financing arm. Suppose, for example, that the Catholic Church were established in a country through taxation; the Catholic Church would undoubtedly be larger than if it relied on voluntary contributions; but can it therefore be argued that such Establishment is “really” voluntary because everyone wants to coerce everyone else into paying into the Church, in order to make sure that no one shirks this “duty”?
And fourthly, the argument is simply a mystical one. How can anyone know that everyone is “really” paying his taxes voluntarily on the strength of this sophistical argument? What of those people—environmentalists, say—who are opposed to dams per se? Is their payment “really” voluntary? Would the coerced payment of taxes to a Catholic Church by Protestants or atheists also be “voluntary”? And what of the growing body of libertarians in our society, who oppose all action by the government on principle? In what way can this argument hold that their tax payments are “really voluntary”? In fact, the existence of at least one libertarian or anarchist in a country is enough by itself to demolish the “really voluntary” argument for taxation.
It is also contended that, in democratic governments, the act of voting makes the government and all its works and powers truly “voluntary.” Again, there are many fallacies with this popular argument. In the first place, even if the majority of the public specifically endorsed each and every particular act of the government, this would simply be majority tyranny rather than a voluntary act undergone by every person in the country. Murder is murder, theft is theft, whether undertaken by one man against another, or by a group, or even by the majority of people within a given territorial area. The fact that a majority might support or condone an act of theft does not diminish the criminal essence of the act or its grave injustice. Otherwise, we would have to say, for example, that any Jews murdered by the democratically elected Nazi government were not murdered, but only “voluntarily committed suicide”—surely, the grotesque but logical implication of the “democracy as voluntary” doctrine. Secondly, in a republic as contrasted to a direct democracy, people vote not for specific measures but for “representatives” in a package deal; the representatives then wreak their will for a fixed length of time. In no legal sense, of course, are they truly “representatives” since, in a free society, the principal hires his agent or representative individually and can fire him at will. As the great anarchist political theorist and constitutional lawyer, Lysander Spooner, wrote:
they [the elected government officials] are neither our servants, agents, attorneys, nor representatives . . . [for] we do not make ourselves responsible for their acts. If a man is my servant, agent, or attorney, I necessarily make myself responsible for all his acts done within the limits of the power I have intrusted to him. If I have intrusted him, as my agent, with either absolute power, or any power at all, over the persons or properties of other men than myself, I thereby necessarily make myself responsible to those other persons for any injuries he may do them, so long as he acts within the limits of the power I have granted him. But no individual who may be injured in his person or property, by acts of Congress, can come to the individual electors, and hold them responsible for these acts of their so-called agents or representatives. This fact proves that these pretended agents of the people, of everybody, are really the agents of nobody.3
Furthermore, even on its own terms, voting can hardly establish “majority” rule, much less of voluntary endorsement of government. In the
Neither does voting establish any sort of voluntary consent even by the voters themselves to the government. As Spooner trenchantly pointed out:
In truth, in the case of individuals their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent. . . . On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money renders service, and foregoes the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he uses the ballot, he may become a master, if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defense, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot—which is a mere substitute for a bullet—because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. . . .
Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot would use it, if they could see any chance of meliorating their condition. But it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented.4
If, then, taxation is compulsory, and is therefore indistinguishable from theft, it follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal organization far more formidable and successful than any “private” Mafia in history. Furthermore, it should be considered criminal not only according to the theory of crime and property rights as set forth in this book, but even according to the common apprehension of mankind, which always considers theft to be a crime. As we have seen above, the nineteenth-century German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer put the matter succinctly when he pointed out that there are two and only two ways of attaining wealth in society: (a) by production and voluntary exchange with others—the method of the free market; and (b)by violent expropriation of the wealth produced by others. The latter is the method of violence and theft. The former benefits all parties involved; the latter parasitically benefits the looting group or class at the expense of the looted. Oppenheimer trenchantly termed the former method of obtaining wealth, “the economic means,” and the latter “the political means.” Oppenheimer then went on brilliantly to define the State as “the organization of the political means.”5
Nowhere has the essence of the State as a criminal organization been put as forcefully or as brilliantly as in this passage from Lysander Spooner:
It is true that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily entered into by the people with each other. . . .
But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: “Your money, or your life.” And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.6
It is instructive to inquire why it is that the State, in contrast to the highwayman, invariably surrounds itself with an ideology of legitimacy, why it must indulge in all the hypocrisies that Spooner outlines. The reason is that the highwayman is not a visible, permanent, legal, or legitimate member of society, let alone a member with exalted status. He is always on the run from his victims or from the State itself. But the State, in contrast to a band of highwaymen, is not considered a criminal organization; on the contrary, its minions have generally held the positions of highest status in society. It is a status that allows the State to feed off its victims while making at least most of them support, or at least be resigned to, this exploitative process. In fact, it is precisely the function of the State’s ideological minions and allies to explain to the public that the Emperor does indeed have a fine set of clothes. In brief, the ideologists must explain that, while theft by one or more persons or groups is bad and criminal, that when the State engages in such acts, it is not theft but the legitimate and even sanctified act called “taxation.” The ideologists must explain that murder by one or more persons or groups is bad and must be punished, but that when the State kills it is not murder but an exalted act known as “war” or “repression of internal subversion.” They must explain that while kidnapping or slavery is bad and must be outlawed when done by private individuals or groups, that when the State commits such acts it is not kidnapping or slavery but “conscription”—an act necessary to the public weal and even to the requirements of morality itself. The function of the statist ideologists is to weave the false set of Emperor’s clothes, to convince the public of a massive double standard: that when the State commits the gravest of high crimes it is really not doing so, but doing something else that is necessary, proper, vital, and even—in former ages—by divine command. The age-old success of the ideologists of the State is perhaps the most gigantic hoax in the history of mankind.
Ideology has always been vital to the continued existence of the State, as attested by the systematic use of ideology since the ancient Oriental empires. The specific content of the ideology has, of course, changed over time, in accordance with changing conditions and cultures. In the Oriental despotisms, the Emperor was often held by the Church to be himself divine; in our more secular age, the argument runs more to “the public good” and the “general welfare.” But the purpose is always the same: to convince the public that what the State does is not, as one might think, crime on a gigantic scale, but something necessary and vital that must be supported and obeyed. The reason that ideology is so vital to the State is that it always rests, in essence, on the support of the majority of the public. This support obtains whether the State is a “democracy,” a dictatorship, or an absolute monarchy. For the support rests in the willingness of the majority (not, to repeat, of every individual) to go along with the system: to pay the taxes, to go without much complaint to fight the State’s wars, to obey the State’s rules and decrees. This support need not be active enthusiasm to be effective; it can just as well be passive resignation. But support there must be. For if the bulk of the public were really convinced of the illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large, then the State would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence than another Mafia gang. Hence the necessity of the State’s employment of ideologists; and hence the necessity of the State’s age-old alliance with the Court Intellectuals who weave the apologia for State rule.
The first modern political theorist who saw that all States rest on majority opinion was the sixteenth-century libertarian French writer, Etienne de la Boetie. In his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, de la Boetie saw that the tyrannical State is always a minority of the population, and that therefore its continued despotic rule must rest on its legitimacy in the eyes of the exploited majority, on what would later come to be called “the engineering of consent.” Two hundred years later, David Hume—though scarcely a libertarian—set forth a similar analysis.7 The counter-argument that, with modern weapons, a minority force can permanently cow a hostile majority ignores the fact that these weapons can be held by the majority and that the armed force of the minority can mutiny or defect to the side of the populace. Hence, the permanent need for persuasive ideology has always led the State to bring into its rubric the nation’s opinion-moulding intellectuals. In former days, the intellectuals were invariably the priests, and hence, as we have pointed out, the age-old alliance between Church-and-State, Throne-and-Altar. Nowadays, “scientific” and “value-free” economists and “national security managers,” among others, perform a similar ideological function in behalf of State power.
Particularly important in the modern world—now that an Established Church is often no longer feasible—is for the State to assume control over education, and thereby to mould the minds of its subjects. In addition to influencing the universities through all manner of financial subventions, and through state-owned universities directly, the State controls education on the lower levels through the universal institutions of the public school, through certification requirements for private schools, and through compulsory attendance laws. Add to this a virtually total control over radio and television—either through outright State ownership, as in most countries—or, as in the
Thus, the State, by its very nature, must violate the generally accepted moral laws to which most people adhere. Most people are agreed on the injustice and criminality of murder and theft. The customs, rules, and laws of all societies condemn these actions. The State, then, is always in a vulnerable position, despite its seeming age-old might. What particularly needs to be done is to enlighten the public on the State’s true nature, so that they can see that the State habitually violates the generally accepted injunctions against robbery and murder, that the State is the necessary violator of the commonly accepted moral and criminal law.
We have seen clearly why the State needs the intellectuals; but why do the intellectuals need the State? Put simply, it is because intellectuals, whose services are often not very intensively desired by the mass of consumers, can find a more secure “market” for their abilities in the arms of the State. The State can provide them with a power, status, and wealth which they often cannot obtain in voluntary exchange. For centuries, many (though, of course, not all) intellectuals have sought the goal of Power, the realization of the Platonic ideal of the “philosopher-king.” Consider, for example, the cry from the heart by the distinguished Marxist scholar, Professor Needham, in protest against the acidulous critique by Karl Wittfogel of the alliance of State-and-intellectuals in Oriental despotisms: “The civilization which Professor Wittfogel is so bitterly attacking was one which could make poets and scholars into officials.”
But we need not go back as far as the ancient Orient or even as far as the proclaimed goal of the professors at the
Thus, the State is a coercive criminal organization that subsists by a regularized large-scale system of taxation-theft, and which gets away with it by engineering the support of the majority (not, again, of everyone) through securing an alliance with a group of opinion-moulding intellectuals whom it rewards with a share in its power and pelf. But there is another vital aspect of the State that needs to be considered. There is one critical argument for the State that now comes into view: namely, the implicit argument that the State apparatus really and properly owns the territorial area over which it claims jurisdiction. The State, in short, arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area—larger or smaller depending on historical conditions, and on how much it has been able to wrest from other States. If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for anyone who presumes to live in that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property because there is no private property in its area, because it really owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on his property. (This seems to be the only justification for the crude slogan, “
But our homesteading theory, outlined above, suffices to demolish any such pretensions by the State apparatus. For by what earthly right do the criminals of the State lay claim to the ownership of its land area? It is bad enough that they have seized control of ultimate decision-making for that area; what criterion can possibly give them the rightful ownership of the entire territory?
The State may therefore be defined as that organization which possesses either or both (in actual fact, almost always both) of the following characteristics: (a) it acquires its revenue by physical coercion (taxation); and (b) it achieves a compulsory monopoly of force and of ultimate decision-making power over a given territorial area. Both of these essential activities of the State necessarily constitute criminal aggression and depredation of the just rights of private property of its subjects (including self-ownership). For the first constitutes and establishes theft on a grand scale; while the second prohibits the free competition of defense and decision-making agencies within a given territorial area-prohibiting the voluntary purchase and sale of defense and judicial services.11 Hence the justice of the vivid critique of the State by the libertarian theorist Albert Jay Nock: “The State claims and exercises the monopoly of crime” in a given territorial area. “It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of citizen or alien.”12
It must be emphasized that the State does not merely use coercion to acquire its own revenue, to hire propagandists to advance its power, and to arrogate to itself and to enforce a compulsory monopoly of such vital services as police protection, firefighting, transportation, and postal service. For the State does many other things as well, none of which can in any sense be said to serve the consuming public. It uses its monopoly of force to achieve, as Nock puts it, a “monopoly of crime”—to control, regulate, and coerce its hapless subjects. Often it pushes its way into controlling the morality and the very daily lives of its subjects. The state uses its coerced revenue, not merely to monopolize and provide genuine services inefficiently to the public, but also to build up its own power at the expense of its exploited and harassed subjects: to redistribute income and wealth from the public to itself and to its allies, and to control, command, and coerce the inhabitants of its territory. In a truly free society, a society where individual rights of person and property are maintained, the State, then, would necessarily cease to exist. Its myriad of invasive and aggressive activities, its vast depredations on the rights of person and property, would then disappear. At the same time, those genuine services which it does manage badly to perform would be thrown open to free competition, and to voluntarily chosen payments by individual consumers.
The grotesquerie of the typical conservative call for the government to enforce conservative definitions of “morality” (e.g., by outlawing the alleged immorality of pornography) is therefore starkly revealed. Aside from other sound arguments against enforced morality (e.g., that no action not freely chosen can be considered “moral”), it is surely grotesque to entrust the function of guardian of the public morality to the most extensive criminal (and hence the most immoral) group in society—the State.
1See Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 172–81;
2Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942), p. 198.
3Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, James J. Martin ed., (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ralph Myles, 1973), p. 29.
4Ibid., p. 15.
5Franz Oppenheimer, The State (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), p. 12.
6Spooner, No Treason, p. 19.
7Thus, as Hume stated:
Nothing appears more surprising . . . than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments.
David Hume, Essays: Literary, Moral and Political (
8See Rothbard, For a New
9Joseph Needham, “Review of Karl A. Witffogel, Oriental Despotism,” Science and Society (1958): 61, 65. On the explicit search for power on the part of the “collectivist” intellectuals during the Progressive period of the twentieth century, see James Gilbert, Designing the
10Richard Neustadt, “Presidency at Mid-Century,” Law and Contemporary Problems (Autumn 1956): 609–45; Townsend Hoopes, “The Persistence of Illusion: The Soviet Economic Drive and American National Interest,” Yale Review (March 1960): 336, cited in Robert J. Bresler, The Ideology of the Executive State: Legacy of Liberal Internationalism (
11”Given territorial area” in this context of course implicitly means “beyond the area of each property owner’s just property.” Obviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc. The State, or government, claims and exercises a compulsory monopoly of defense and ultimate decision-making over an area larger than an individual’s justly-acquired property. Smith, Jones, etc. are thereby prohibited by “the government” from having nothing to do with that “government” and from making their own defense contracts with a competing agency. I am indebted to Professor Sidney Morgenbesser for raising this point.
12Albert Jay Nock, On Doing the Right Thing, and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), p. 143.