Note: this post will be, to a degree, an iteration of my The Evolution towards Freedom post on the LvMI Community Forums, making roughly the same points, while discarding what is disposable for a later post. Of course, the opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the other contributors.
The main idea: far from being the antithesis of libertarianism, the concept (though no current incarnation) of the State is the embryo of a Free Society, and the extrapolation of the secular trend that gave rise to such an institution will bring us closer and closer to a world of free property holders.
1. Opening shots
1.1 Libertarians of anarcho-capitalist persuasions insist that the State is the evil institution par excellence, the chief violator of individual rights all over the world. Metaphors like Murray Rothbard’s “red button” posit that if somehow one could, in one fell swoop, destroy the whole statist structure overnight, say by some magic button, then by all means one should be happy to push it, and see society promptly reorganize itself along libertarian lines.
1.2 I will try to argue that the State’s reputation is unwarranted. And lest my fellow libertarians start to think that Merl has jumped the river across to Nazi land, let me assure the reader that I consider a Free Society based on the full respect for the NAP as a very desirable and achievable goal. What I will be arguing is that the State is not the bête noire of libertarianism, but just a step in the right direction, leading from an imperfect world to a less imperfect one.
2. An innocent definition
2.1 The generally agreed upon definition of the State is that of the institution that is widely seen as the legitimate monopolist of violence within a given territory. And, as I’ve discussed in several instances before, what does this define if not a legitimate property holder? Wouldn’t a legitimate property-holder in a Free Society be seen as rightly exercising a monopoly of violence within the bounds of its property?
2.2 This is not a passing similarity, but a full-on, conceptual identity. Every single one of the elements of the definition is necessary to define both a State and a just property holder. First, both the State and a just property holder are either monopolists of violence within their respective territories, or else can scarcely be considered either a State, or a free property holder.
2.3 Though I’ve found (to my surprise) that the idea of a free property holder being a monopolist of violence is not self-evident to all libertarians, I still find this claim hard to dispute without throwing the whole concept of Free Society away. What would, I ask, stop a landowner from posting at the gates of his property a sign along the lines of “Trespassers will be shot”? Is this illegitimate? If not, what is this landholder exercising if not his (and his alone, let us mind) absolute monopoly of violence within his property?
2.4 Second, both the state and a just property holder must confine this monopoly of theirs to a specific territory, or otherwise bounded entity. A violent organization without a specified territory to which it confines its jurisdiction is not a State (but may be a criminal organization, terrorist cell, some US SpecOps unit or any other such entity), and a property holder claiming anything but a specific, confined entity (be it a farm, a PC, an electro-magnetic frequency) owns nothing at all (or, at worst, is a thief).
2.5 Third, without a general agreement that the monopoly on such a bounded entity is valid, a State would not be considered established, and a property holder would know he’s not living in Free Society (or else, if living in a Free Society, he’d not be the just owner).
2.6 All in all, I see no way to make a conceptually valid distinction between the State and a just property holder. Whoever holds the State itself to be an unjust institution in principle, must either explain how its definition differs from that of a free property holder, or else shun private property as also unjust. Simply changing this definition of the State (perhaps trading it for Oppenheimer’s one) won’t do much good either: one is still left with the need to name the organization that emerged in Europe possessing generally recognized, spatially limited confined Sovereignty (seep paragraph 3.7 below).
2.7 Preemptively, I say that this should not be taken to mean that the states we have today are legitimate property holders (far from it indeed), as I am only speaking of the concepts involved, not the current practice (I be damned if more than 0.1% of all current heads of state know what the concept of the State, other than a convenient system of enrichment, is supposed to be). But more on this latter.
3. The evolution of the State
3.1 Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State (here the author condenses his book for the benefit of LvMI audiences) gives a concise account of the historical evolution of the institutions we nowadays call states. Though van Creveld’s definition of the State differs from ours, I will insist that his historical perspective still serves our ends. I will spare the reader an exhaustive summary (which would, in any case, be beyond my capabilities) and use Creveld’s work to paint a broad picture of the pre-statal society.
3.2 Creveld discusses city-states and empires under the rubric of pre-statal organizations (tribes, being confined to societies with an ill-developed division of labor, are of no interest to us), and both these antipodal forms of organization had something in common which will not allow us to consider them states: they recognized no peers, i.e. no other legitimate organizations.
3.3 To the Byzantine Emperor, all other Kings where his serfs, and to the Holy Roman Kaiser the King of France was but a vassal (the poor King of France seem to have been much maligned, since the Ottoman Sultan too, expressly stated that he considered him his vassal). From the point of view of any Emperor of old, the existence of other entities not recognizing his supremacy was a lamentable development which could, for the moment, not be addressed by brute force. To the point that these organizations where not on a state of perpetual war, the best they could achieve was a ceasefire, the default stance being hostile. The general understanding appeared to be that the only thing holding back conquest was expediency, not any moral qualms.
3.4 We cannot consider such organizations states, because Frenchmen probably did not agree that the Sultan in Constantinople was their legitimate ruler, yet the Sultan himself (and, perchance, his armies too) recognized no other such legitimate ruler. Thus, no single organization which was generally considered the legitimate monopolist of violence in a specific territory existed. The predictable result of this setup was endemic organized (if, perhaps, small scale) violence.
3.5 Further, when the tribal mode of organization evolved into feudalism – itself a massive improvement over the universalistic pretenses of Emperors of old – the claims of several organizations and individuals where superimposed on single pieces of land, giving way to the much celebrated (among libertarians, at least) tradition of mediaeval polylegalism (as I’ve noted in my previous post, I find such non-territorial polylegalism less than satisfying). If tradition dictated that, on feudal property, the Church could impose spiritual law, the King or Emperor could raise troops, the Lord could manage the land, and the peasant could not be evicted, then no one at all was in clear and absolute control. A modern parallel can be found in what Clayton describes (and perhaps will do so again in the comments below) as the Golden Rule that applies to public, as opposed to private property (incidentally, furnishing another definition of the State).
3.6 Now, if we assume that the legal regime has some sort of impact on the well-being of the people living under it as well as on their productivity, stacking several legal authorities on the same area will create a sort of legal tragedy of the commons: every single rule-setter (the King, the Pope, the Lord) will have an incentive to maximize his own income by enacting confiscatory rules, while hoping that the others provide sensible rules to keep the productivity of the area form dying. The opposite practice, allowing for a moderate management, would just leave the other rule-setters most of the added productivity. Indeed it will be contested with some difficulty that, outside of Free Cities (by their nature, run by one authority alone) the outlook of the average medieval European was less than rosy.
3.7 The proper State evolved in Europe in the XVII century as a result of the religious wars that had ravaged the continent, yet without providing any discernible gains. Again taking a leaf from Creveld (this time his Technology and War), the state of military technology in the era was such that the fortifications needed to withstand modern (for the day) cannons where far too expensive for feudal lords, yet once provided by Kings would assure that the possibility of fully conquering a fortified country was now remote. Thus, willy-nilly, the Kings of the era agreed that the map of Europe had become ‘sticky’, and the former days of perpetual war on a small scale where over. The concept of a multiplicity of just (by the standard of the day) monopolists of violence, mutually recognized by all, followed.
3.8 On libertarian grounds, this change was truly epoch-making. In that small speck of land that was Western Europe, the idea that there may be such things as mutually recognized (and mutually inclusive) Sovereigns living in (relative) peace had finally evolved. If, before the State, the modern idea of a free property holder would have been hard to grasp for a population used to property rights limited by tradition, now the idea that someone (be it only a few Kings) could absolutely own property with no added fetters had come to be accepted. Whence before there was either perpetual conflict brought about by mutually exclusive claims, or else such a bewildering number of actors providing superimposing laws of the land, now Europe had both confined the benefits of proper management to a single person/institution (per Hoppe, giving him/it some incentive to behave), and made sure that many such individuals/institutions where competing in a roughly decent way. That all of this continued in a time of relative peace (or quasi-civilized war) was an astounding achievement that, in time, allowed the whole globe to be colonized by this new meme born in the West: the State.
3.9 Lest the point be missed, let me bore the reader by reiterating what I consider the vital importance of the idea of the State: one can have several sovereigns, each exercising absolute control over his territorially limited area, each free to enjoy the fruits of his property, and a generally accepted protocol of property-transfer was all that was needed to retain a stable-ish society. Let the number of such sovereigns increase to its logical limit, and let that protocol keep pace (these steps are probably inverted in actuality), and what we have is the embryo of the idea of a Free Society! In comparison, the pre-statal ideas that one could have peace only if everything was ultimately owned by a single person (the Emperor) or indeed by no one at all (but general use be regulated by tradition) appear naïve.
3.10 I shall go out on a limb here and speculate that, had the idea of the State not emerged, the best that freedom-lovers could have hoped for would have been for tradition rigidly defining the rights of different rule-setters (at least some of whom would have been universal), thus curtailing the room for abuse (and innovation too, by the way). In short, constitutionalism would have been the pinnacle of libertarianism, an ironic result indeed, considering that it purportedly stems from the State never having evolved. The ideas associated with anarcho-capitalism can only evolve in a society possessing the concept of the State (and not because of the linguistic truism that one cannot conceive of anarchy without first conceiving of archy).
4. Unjust government
4.1 Those patient enough to bear with me until now, have probably been screaming atop of their lungs that my identification of the State with a just property holder ignores the crucial difference that the land presided over by the State never was acquired justly, invalidating any and all claims by the state of being a just property holder. I cannot, and never imagined to deny such claims.
4.2 But I will deny that the issue here is with the State in principle, whose definition has nothing in itself to mandate an illegitimate organization a priori. Rather, I will claim that the culprits are the norms regulating state-creation and border setting, the generally-accepted protocol of paragraph 3.9. If the renaissance combination of regal legitimism and the motto ultima ratio regum which Louis XIV had incised on French artillery pieces…
…. came to be considered an unsatisfactory way of setting borders, the modern preference (almost obsession, really) with the status quo is perhaps an even worse norm, probably already putting an uneasy lid on the cauldron of civil violence in many countries.
4.3 But to repeat the oft-remarked libertarian position on the desirability of secession and the multiplication of states is not the same as turning the concept of the State into the foremost evil. There is a difference between pulling the plug (if one could do it, of course) on this great invention we stumbled upon, and calling for the multiplication of states to the point where the spontaneous norms of international law will begin to approach those cherished by libertarians, and the devilish states will tend more and more towards individual property owners. But that such a result can be imposed today with the hope of achieving anything better than civil violence and the re-emergence of much ‘harder’ governments is, to my mind, not credible.
4.4. Aprioristic anti-statism among libertarians could be compared, if one had to provide some metaphor, to XIX century engineers abandoning the very concept of an internal-combustion engine because all such engines to that point where necessarily impractical. Or, more to the point, I think most readers will agree that there may be not a single current landed property holder who can trace his title to a just origin: somewhere along the line, someone stole the land form a homesteader, or just appropriated it by fiat. But few libertarians indeed would, form this point, jump to the conclusion that private property in land itself is thus unjust, or even that a general redistribution is in order. We trust the market to right the wrongs of the past. The same standard should, I daresay, be applied to the State.
5.1 I can imagine that some (most?) readers may not have been convinced by my protestations of libertarian purity. Surely, extolling the State in principle, even while decrying its unjust borders, is not much better that moderate statism, at best minarchism. Though tactically the protestation of minarchism (properly defined) may make sense, I insist on my innocence and reiterate again that I believe that a fully functional Free Society can and should be achieved. This post merely tries to show that evolutionism presents a credible alternative to immediate revolution.
5.2 Else, some readers may imagine that the whole post rests on word-mincing, and that pretending to redeem the State but not its unjust borders is just the standard an-cap position, stated differently. I would reply that seeing the State as a great invention in principle leads to radically different views on the road to liberty, views dotted by the breakdown of nation-states and the evolution of international norms, rather than of libertarian revolutions preceded by education. To this degree, I think that the post engages is something more than mere word-mincing.
5.3 Attentive readers may have spotted a seeming contradiction: I stated that the issue stands with the norms of state-creation and border setting, that these norms will be evolving in the right direction, and yet that a very tiny minority (if that) of heads of state can tell the difference between the concept of the state and a personal piggy bank. Who, than, is supposed to ‘evolve’ the norms of state-creation and retain the concept of the state intact? The contradiction is promptly resolved once we see that norms are not herded to evolve by anyone, that they are the product of human action, yet not human design: no one needs to understand any of this for the process to carry on.
5.4 Then, others may still object that I have provided no strong argument on why international norms in a world of city-states should approach libertarian ideals. What is this supposed ‘secular trend’ that gave rise to the State, and that I presume will drive us towards a Free Society? Or again, the claim that the world is, factually, tending towards decentralization instead of collusion may be questioned.
5.5 I will try my best to address these doubts in my next post, where I’ll try to restate the concept of a minarchic state. Anyone familiar with the pertinent threads in the LvMI Community Forums already knows that the answer will be nukes.