A preemptive history of the Free Society




The truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that nuclear proliferation is perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to humanity.

Martin van Creveld, October 11th 2012 talk at the Marine Corps University

The main idea: the logic of nuclear warfare will hector us towards a world where all human interaction is regulated by market-driven laws, leading to the logical fulfillment of the State System: the Free Society, every man his own Sovereign.

1. The State becomes an endangered species

For a thousand years before 1945, the story of mankind had been one of political consolidation. To be sure, empires rose and receded, were created and fell to pieces. But however twisty the road, in the long run it always led toward larger and more powerful units. By 1914, virtually the entire Earth was dominated by just seven of them, six of them established by white men and five centered in Europe. Needless to say, they promptly fell to fighting each other on an unequaled scale and with an unequaled ferocity. By the time their struggle ended 30 years later, 80 to 100 million people had been killed.

Martin van Creveld, Naming a New Era: the New Middle Ages

1.1 We left our history of the State with the emergence of the system of mutually recognized monarchical sovereigns in Europe, the main points of which became established after the Thirty Years War. The praises of the period between the Thirty Years War and the French Revolution have been sung many times by libertarians  and fellow travelers, saving us the trouble of explaining how those 144 years marked such an improvement of the life and odds of the average Western European that Europe was catapulted form a reasonably developed peninsula of Asia to the controller of the world, probably the first cultural entity in thousands of years to surpass China in terms of wealth, culture and power.

1.2 This State System was challenged by the French Revolution. Once the French were able to field an army of draftees (let us avoid discussing how this became possible), the professional armies of the Continent where, for all interests and purposes, done for. Though Napoleon was ultimately vanquished, and ancien régimes staged a limited comeback throughout Europe, the technological logic of war was forever changed.

1.3 In a world of drafted armies and line-of-sight gunpowder weapons, Lanchenster’s laws purported to show that the population controlled by a nation would henceforth determine its martial prowess more than anything else (roughly to the square of anything else, to be more precise). Following what seemed to be the new Iron Law of Security, Italy and Germany were hectored into Unions, initiating the new trend of political centralization.

1.4 The logic of numbers was aided by the logic of the first technological arms races, offshoots of the Industrial Revolution: once the pace of technological development began to rapidly increase, unless each party kept spending large and ever-increasing sums on modernization it would have been left behind. Still, if all kept up, no change in their relative strength occurred, despite the huge increases in expenditure.

“Nah, we won’t need those” said no State ever

“Nah, we won’t need those”, no State ever

1.5 If we still add David Friedman’s insight that to modern governments labor is the prime taxable resource, driving states to increase in size in order to maximize the cost of exit, we get three distinct developments that promised to give fat prices to any State that could expand in size. And one could not expand by much by abiding to the European Code of Legality, even to the ‘streched’ version accommodating nationalism to some degree.

1.6 Under such circumstances, it is a testament to the strength of the legalist meme, (that wars could not be fought just for the hell of it or because one State could afford it) that Total War took as long as 1914 to return to Europe. Even when it did, World War I was still relatively civilized compared to other such global wars.

1.7 After all was said and done, in 1945 the system seemed close to running toward its logical conclusion: from a time where a handful of European states controlled the global stage, only two vast superpowers remained, allowing their client states whatever amount of freedom it pleased them. None of these two superpowers viewed the other as legitimate, and both would have been quite happy to impose their will on the other had this been practicable.

“Trust me, it is feasible”, Operation Unthinkable

“Trust me, it is practicable”, Operation Unthinkable

1.8 Thus, by 1945 the world stood perilously close to witnessing a return of Empires recognizing no peers. Give or take the odd Janissary or Cataphract for some T-34 or Flying Fortress, Suleiman the Magnificent would have felt as at home in the Battle of Kursk as Richard the Lionhearted on the beaches of Normandy or Genghis Khan among the ruins of Dresden. It is no accident indeed, given such a concentration of power, that Liberalism was at low point between and immediately after the World Wars.

2. The Nuclear Game

In 1945, there were but two superpowers left. By all previous experience from the time of Thucydides on, they ought to have clashed in a mighty war or series of wars. But they did not. War, which up until then had served as the main instrument of consolidation, was swept under the carpet, so to speak. The more nuclear weapons proliferated, the greater the danger that victory might lead not to survival but to annihilation. As a result, war could only be waged between, or against, third- and fourth-rate military powers. A process of political disintegration set in, first in several of the former empires, then in numerous other countries—including one of the two superpowers. By the year 2000 the number of states had more than trebled.

Martin van Creveld, Naming a New Era: the New Middle Ages

2.1 Nuclear weapons (or more precisely, a credible second-strike capability) changed what had been, save for the brief interlude of the European State System and perhaps pre-renaissance Italy, the logic of defense for centuries, if not more: waging war became, form the point of view of those who decided the issue, prohibitively costly.  Oppenheimer’s “destroyer of worlds” provided, against an initial cost in treasure, the perfect offensive weapon, the means to wholly obliterate any enemy regardless of whether the home country itself was victorious or defeated in war. Indeed, terms such as ‘victorious’ and ‘defeated’ lost their meaning in the nuclear game.

By the new standards Dresden was declared an “honorary winner”

By the new standards, Dresden was declared an “honorary winner”

2.2 The initial costs of the Manhattan Project where enormous and no country besides the two superpowers could have reasonably expected a nuclear capability soon. But technological progress allowed for these cost to drop rapidly. The nuclear club was extended step by step, each time giving a new state the closest thing to absolute immunity form organized aggression that any government could have ever hoped for. Conventional war, to the degree that it is still waged, is confined to third-rate powers fighting to the degree where no semi-serious government feels threatened.

“Trust me, I won’t try to set off WW3”, Prishtina Airport Incident

“Trust me, I won’t try to set off WW3”, Prishtina Airport Incident

2.3 I will try my best to paint the vision of a future impacted by the likelihood the nuclear weapons becoming vastly cheaper, smaller, and hard to counter. To a point, I will follow Creveld’s analysis, but I will disagree somewhat on the end result.

2.4 Should nuclear proliferation proceed to its limits, with most present countries either having a secure second-strike capability or being able to quickly produce one should the need arise, war as an instrument of policy between states will become an unpleasant memory. Small countries will become just as capable of defending themselves as large states.

2.5 Absent the checking influence of fear of conquest, I assume that the drive towards the break-up of nation states will proceed at ever-greater speeds. All else being equal, a  smaller government finds itself under a stronger pressure (due to the ease of exit) to provide services that citizens want, a result that can be easily checked even in our world. Thus, all else being equal, smaller States will be far more agreeable to live in than large ones, outcompeting them.

2.6 Another way of getting to the same result is to imagine any current state not as a monolithic entity, but more as a cartel of diverse groups of interests, regions, companies  and individuals. We know from economic theory that cartels are unstable (do refer to “Cartels and their consequences” in Chapter 10 of Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State), yet what keeps such statist cartels alive nowadays is the outright fear of military action from larger cartels (and some ideology, too).

2.7 Any other explanation would scantly account for seemingly silly decisions of city-states such as Monaco or San Marino to keep their VAT rates harmonized with those of their far larger neighbors, even if a steep reduction could be had at very little cost and for sizable large potential gains. Once nuclear technology removes those fears of military retaliation, the incentive will be for especially productive smaller entities to break away from larger states.

Welcome back overlords, your colonies acclaim you!

Welcome back overlords, your colonies acclaim you!

2.8 Any ‘economies of scale’ in government, should such a thing exist (as Mises belived), can easily be retained by creating intra-national organizations to deal with the pertinent issues. As I see no factor liming these developments, the drive to ever-smaller states will tend to its logical conclusion: a world of states big enough to afford nuclear deterrence.

2.9 Now, the process will not be smooth. Nuclear deterrence works only if the government presiding over it is stable. If the US (or India) decided to destroy Pakistan as a regional power tomorrow, all they’d have to do would be to invest in furthering the existing internal divisions of that society, potentially fragmenting the nation (China could probably do as much, though at a huge cost in treasure, to India).

2.10 Nuclear deterrence cannot protect a country form such an attack. Hence, the initial drive towards decentralization can be expected to begin in stable, rich societies, with the rest of the world first striving to achieve governments hard to overthrow. We can even imagine that the number of states will, all else being equal, always be such that the risk of internal turmoil in the least stable states equals the loss from being part of a greater country.

2.11 Further, the prejudice towards secession is still strong and, especially in Europe, a seceding City-State could be subjected to a very effective embargo by the EU, a n even more fearsome weapon if used against inland secessionists. Both these obstacles will progressively weaken the more states break away though, giving us reason to expect the break-up of nation-states to start slowly but thereafter proceed even-faster once nuclear proliferation has proceeded far enough.

2.12 Finally, the process would not actually continue until virtually any neighborhood had a set of nukes ready to strike anywhere on earth. Security to such smaller countries could more cheaply be provided by private firms (nowadays known as Private Military Companies) selling “nuclear umbrellas” at some (presumably negligible) cost. There also is another reason to expect such non-territorial organizations as PMC’s to dominate deterrence efforts. To that we turn now.

But of course

But of course

3. Nuclear terrorism

3.1 The hair-raising issue with nuclear proliferation is that sooner or later some non-territorial organization will also acquire nuclear weapons. What will become of the world if Al Qaeda or whatnot assumes the ability to destroy cities?

The sight of George Clooney running in military attire in any city would cause mass panic, for one

The sight of George Clooney running in military attire in any city would cause mass panic, for one

3.2 The immediate result will be that such organizations will receive far more (ill-deserved) respect. Assuming, as many libertarians do, that the hostility of such movements is mostly inspired by imperialistic behaviors form certain governments, such behavior will stop.  A result not entirely horrifying, I will assume, to most librarians.

3.3 But won’t these, or other such organizations than use this newfound power to hold government to ransom? If not for terrorism, any criminal organization could target a major city for huge sums or other favors.

3.4 This is a realistic prospect, one that will probably have significant implications. When such confrontations inevitably present themselves, we should expect States to almost always lose. The reason is simple: states have a visible, fixed territory which cannot be shielded from a nuclear attack, while non-territorial organizations are free to conceal themselves among the public. The state is easy to target, the Cosa Nostra difficult.

“The Nuclear Octopus” would have been a far better series, though

“The Nuclear Octopus” would have been a far better series, though

3.5 States could try to eliminate such enemies in the ‘old fashioned way’, but even the very best SpecOps unit these days seem capable of “only” inflicting huge attrition rates to terror organizations. In the case of an enemy which, if left alive, can obliterate you, nothing but full unity attrition rates will suffice.

3.6 As an example, imagine that years of hard training and fat budgets allow some government a 99.9% certainty of killing 99.9% of the members of a hostile organization in one shot (most probably a hugely optimistic target). That will still be a high price to pay for the beginning of hostilities, should that last member among 500 happen to be in control of the nuclear device.  Sometimes the State may be willing to take the risk, and most of those times it will win. But a proficient non-territorial blackmailer will always tend to win in the long run.

3.7 Yet, the result of this new balance of power will not be the extinction of territorial entities. To see why, we must understand that nuclear weapons are useless in a conflict between non-territorial organizations, where the “old fashioned ways” of intelligence and raids will settle the day.

3.8 Also, absent easily concealable and deployable nuclear weapons, non-territorial organizations will probably be vanquished by all but the most rag-tag State. Whenever guerrilla, terrorist or criminal organizations have survived, they had always to rely either on the State closing an eye, on some territory which was inaccessible to government troops or active help from other states.

3.9 If all states cease to exist due to being unable to ‘turn a profit’, all that will be left will be these non-territorial organizations. In the conflict among themselves, they will tend to aggregate and claim territories as their own, recreating states.

3.10 Though this situation might seem to lead to continuous oscillations between territoriality and non-territoriality, those familiar with similar setups in evolutionary biology will recognize the solution in the form of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy: the ratio of states to non-territorial organizations will settle at the point where it pays no additional state to turn into a non-territorial organization (out of fear of being wiped out by other states), and it will pay no additional non-territorial organization to aggregate into a state (fearing to much expenditure in ransom costs).

3.11 Still, nuclear weapons will bring about the extinction of states as we defined them: these territorial organizations will not qualify as states, as they will have to share their power with non-territorial organizations, and will thus not enjoy sovereignty on their territory. A return to medievalism, as per Creveld.

3.12 Technology will only get us this far. To keep walking, we must turn our attention to the discussion of norms.

4. Libertarianism

4.1 What do such predictions have to do with libertarianism? Is this world of warfare between governments and terror cells what I promised in the last post? Indeed it is.

4.2 I was using a metaphor when writing that the logical limit of secession would be a Free Society: I do not really expect secession to proceed much down to the city, or perhaps block, level. But this is not necessary for our society to approach a Free Society, for at least five reasons.

4.3 First, the large number of independent actors will enrich, empower and drive international norms towards efficiency.  Second, we already saw how the ease of exit will drive city-states to offer something much resembling market-generated law within their borders. Third, the smaller and more numerous states are, the larger the proportion of total trade that is conducted internationally, and since no single state can enforce its laws on such contracts, this large subset of trade will be dealt with by private arbitration, by definition a market-drive process.

4.4 Fourth, even these small city-states will not be able to impose their absolute will on their own territory, due to non-territorial blackmail, as discussed above. Finally, business organizations, being themselves non territorial and mobile, cannot be blackmailed the way that states can, and will thus be strong vis-a-vis their diminutive governments, while also being strong against non-territorial organizations, from the predation of which they can be expected to easily protect themselves. Though being less sanguine about the prospects of private defense than most of my fellows, I still agree that, as long as it is not a million-man army with main battle tanks, it will be easily manageable.

4.5 All in all, we can easily expect almost all human conflicts to be resolved according to market-driven law. It is not altogether inconceivable that, witnessing the much greater efficiency of private arbitration solutions, the governments of the future will completely leave conflict-resolution to such private providers, in time even including relations between governments and non-territorial organizations (which would find themselves hard-pressed to extract any resources from cash-strapped ‘governments’ or elusive businesses).

4.6 But if, I ask, one is subject to market-driven law when dealing with foreigners, and market-driven law when dealing with fellow citizen, and if the supposed hierarchical organizations are themselves subject to market-driven law, is there any sense in which we can say that the individual lives under a coercive government?  Not at all: the society I have described will be a Free Society.

4.7 In my very next post I will try to address some objections that may reasonably be raised at such a history of the Free Society. In the meantime, let us spare a few word of gratitude…

Oh, stop it you…

Oh, stop it you…


8 thoughts on “A preemptive history of the Free Society

  1. claytonkb 12/14/2012 at 20:56 Reply

    Great work, Merlin… I’ll leave a detailed response later when I get some time…

  2. […] the concept needed for such a society to exist has already been created in the form of the State, here that the coupling the concept of the State with the reality of nuclear escalation will ultimately […]

  3. Etjon Basha 12/14/2012 at 21:03 Reply

    Thanks Clayton, looking forward to your response

  4. Chris 12/19/2012 at 04:05 Reply

    I don’t think we have much to fear from nuclear terrorism. A nuclear device is not a cartoon bomb with a fuse. It takes more than just tapping it with a hammer to set off. And I’m not sure how many terrorists really want to use one. But I could be proven wrong, of course.

    • Etjon Basha 12/19/2012 at 11:08 Reply

      Let us hope you are right. The whole process would be much smoother and faster without the complication of nuclear terrorism.

  5. […] see that the core logic of the Tiebout model is what I myself have relied upon when charting my Preemptive History of the Free Society: the smaller states will become, the cheaper the exit, the more efficient the law. Trade my […]

  6. […] just removed that hurdle […]

  7. […] a weak believer in the ability of a future Free Society to credibly defend itself by conventional (non-nuclear) means, the idea of a Militia begins to look attractive. If non-territorial private defense […]

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