Life Without the State

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At FreedomFest this summer I took part in a debate where I was given five minutes to make a case for liberty without government, or the state. That’s a challenge, but I think I can do it in even less time here.

The term “anarchy” means literally to be “without a ruler”; being without a ruler may be a cause of disorder, but disorder is not a part of the meaning of anarchy. So we should ask whether being without a ruler entails foregoing law, or foregoing the security of life, liberty, and property? The answer is, it depends. It depends on the presence or absence of other institutions, and those institutions generally do not depend on the state.

The state, the dominant form of rulership that has almost completely displaced the others over the whole planet, was canonically defined by Max Weber as “that human community which (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory, this ‘territory’ be- ing another of the defining characteristics of the state.”

It is quite possible to think of order in the absence of this “state.” Consider four arguments for stateless freedom and order.

1. Law and order have actually existed without states. You don’t have to turn to obscure cases in medieval Iceland or Ireland or 19th-century Nevada mining camps. Most of the law and order we observe around us comes from nonstate initiatives. Commercial law is overwhelmingly the product, not of state legislatures, but of private parties ordering their affairs. Debts are overwhelmingly collected by private collection agencies, not by the state. The common estimate is that there are at least twice as many private police — security guards — as police employed and empowered by the state. The overwhelming majority of fugitives from the legal system who are returned to custody are caught by private citizens, bounty hunters employed by bail bondsmen, who are also private citizens. That happens with a tiny fraction of the violence routinely employed by state-empowered agents.

2. What incentives does a monopoly have to produce good products? Monopolies of any kind have little incentive to cut costs, lower prices, increase quality, and so on. Why should the producers of law and order be any different? Why should the state monopoly of violence produce order in a particularly efficient or effective way?

3. States systematically create crimes without victims. Indeed, the definition of a crime is an act against the state. If I were to assault someone, the aggrieved party in any resulting criminal case would be the state, not the person I assaulted. Observe that states systematically expand their powers to punish behavior for which there is no complain- ing victim. No one turns himself or herself in for smoking pot or having consensual sex or engaging in thoughtcrime. So states employ vast armies of spies, snitches, and surveillance teams to uncover that behavior and punish it. They get away with it by making the victims pay the bill. The costs of their victimization are called “taxes.” When you eliminate states you make it harder to prosecute or punish so-called crimes without victims. That’s a big plus for a friend of liberty.

4. States systematically create the conditions that appear to legitimize their existence. Crises, wars, and the like are exploited by states to legitimate the expansions of their own powers. As Thomas Paine noted in “The Rights of Man,” volume 1, “In reviewing the history of the English government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice, nor warped by interest, would declare, that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.”

I would, of course, rather have a strictly limited state than the kind of state we have today. I also believe that we can do better. I prefer a world without wars, without taxes, without the systematic injustice that comes from any body of persons insisting that they are sovereign, that is, that they are above the laws. I prefer a world of ordered liberty, the rule of law, and peace. And in that world, there are no states.

A postscript on private versus state-empowered police:

How many people are killed by those different bodies of law enforcers? The incentives facing the different categories of parties are fairly clear, but data on this and related questions are very hard to come by. In the 2001 report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice, “Policing and Homicide, 1976–98: Justifiable Homicide by Police, Police Officers Murdered by Felons” (Jodi M. Brown and Patrick A. Langan, March 2001, NCJ 180987), it is stated that “Police justifiably kill on average nearly 400 felons each year.” It is very doubtful that private police have anything like that large a toll.

The definitions used by the authors of the Department of Justice Study are telling: “In this report, killings by police are referred to as ‘justifiable homicides’ and the persons that police kill are referred to as ‘felons.’ These terms reflect the view of the police agencies that provide the data used in this report.”

The significance of defining all those killed by police as felons and all killings by police as justifiable homicides will not, I am sure, be lost on the readers of Liberty.

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