What Do We Owe the State?
January 8, 2002
a lot of response to my column on
Hans-Hermann Hoppes new book Democracy The God That
Failed, most of it enthusiastic. A surprising number of citizens of this
democracy have lost faith in the state, democratic or otherwise.
Its amazing how seldom we ask the
most basic questions. What is a state, anyway? Where does it get its authority?
Might we be better off without it?
These are serious questions. One scholar
estimates that during the twentieth century, states murdered about 177 million of
their own subjects. And that doesnt count foreigners killed in wars. In
order to justify their own existence, states had better be doing someone a lot of
good, or be able to show that in the absence of states, even more people would
have been slaughtered. Neither proposition is credible.
Wait a minute, someone will
say. Youre mixing apples and oranges. Sure, there are bad states,
like the Soviet Union, which murder millions. But there are also good states, which
dont murder people and which protect their people from bad states.
Well, its possible that a mildly
rapacious state may afford us some protection against a much worse one, just as
one neighborhood gang may offer safety against another. But all states are
rapacious, almost by definition.
What is a state? It is the ruling body in a
territory, which claims a monopoly of the legal right to command obedience. It
may demand anything our earnings, our services, our lives. Once the right
to command is conceded, there are no limits on its power.
Many people think a state
is a natural necessity of social life. They can hardly conceive of society without
This would be plausible if the state confined
itself to enforcing natural moral obligations that is, if it protected us
from robbery, murder, and the like, otherwise leaving us alone. But what if the
state itself robs and murders, claiming the authority to do so?
Any two men will usually agree that neither
may justly take the others property or life. Nor does either owe the other
obedience; that would be slavery. But somehow the state claims what no individual
may claim a right to the lives, property, and obedience of all within its
power. The state asserts its right to do things that would be wrongs
and crimes between private men. And most people accept this claim! They think
they have a moral duty to obey power!
So why do people think they have this duty? Of
course, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued, the state ultimately rests on its
power to kill (or otherwise harm) those who disobey it. But this is a threat, not a
duty. If I demand your money at gunpoint, you will obey, but the gun doesnt
create an obligation, merely a menace.
But the state pretends that all its demands,
however arbitrary, are moral obligations, even though those demands rest on force.
If it were confined to demanding only what decent people do anyway
refraining from murder, robbery, et cetera it might be bearable. But it
never stops with reasonable moral demands; at a minimum, even the most
humane and democratic states use the taxing power
to extort staggering amounts of money from their subjects. The predatory
tendency of the state is inherent and expansive, and nobody has found a way to
control it. No control can long withstand the monopolistic right to
demand obedience in every area of human activity the state may choose to invade.
Systematized force which is all the state really is follows its
Legal forms, moral rhetoric, and propaganda
may disguise force as something it is not. The idea of democracy
has persuaded countless gullible people that they are somehow
consenting when they are being coerced. The real triumph of the
state occurs when its subjects refer to it as we, like football fans
talking about the home team. That is the delusion of self-
government. One might as well speak of self-coercion or
No, the state, now grown to a monstrous
magnitude, remains what Albert Jay Nock called it: our enemy, the
State. Maybe Professor Hoppe is dreaming. Maybe anarchism couldnt
be sustained. Maybe the evil of systematized force can never be eliminated in this
fallen world. But why pretend such an evil is a positive good?