The State: Evil and Idol
October 29, 2002
For some time now Ive been advocating the
idea of society without the state, or anarchism. This is no more than an
affirmation of the principle of the Declaration of Independence: that no
man can be justly ruled by another without his consent. To be ruled by
force is to be a slave.
So far, Ive
encountered only one serious argument against this principle: that
its utopian. It cant work. An utterly free society would be
quickly overwhelmed and enslaved or annihilated by a ruthless neighboring
society, or by organized criminal elements within. The free
societys freedom would be very brief. The world is ruled by force;
always has been, always will be. War is the rule, peace the exception. The
idea of anarchism is plausible only to those who naively imagine that
peace can be a normal state of affairs.
History offers much to
support this pessimistic view. Someone has estimated that mankind has
been at war, on the average, for 13 years for every year of peace. And the
wars have generally been wars of annihilation, no holds barred.
Civilized warfare, sparing noncombatants, has been almost
exclusively European, existing chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, when war was sometimes almost a gentlemens pastime,
rather like fox-hunting.
If you want to survive
in this harsh world, the argument runs, youd better seek the
protection of a state, just as, in a tough neighborhood, you may have to
join one gang or the other. Anarchism, in this view, is simply not an
option. Its only a dream.
To live, then, is to be
the slave of a state, a system of force. The most you can hope for is a
reasonably mild state, an Athens rather than a Sparta, whose rule is
bearable but whose survival is viable. Of course its easy for us to
forget that many men are more at home in a Sparta than in an Athens. The
taste for freedom, including respect for others freedom, is far
from universal, or we would all be free.
This is a powerful argument, and I wont try to refute it
here. But at most it proves only that the state is a necessary evil and that
the rule of force is inescapable. Even if we are all doomed to live under
the state, it doesnt follow that there is, or even can be, such a
thing as a good state.
Of course some states
are worse than others, and the differences matter. Sometimes their
subjects can impose limits on them bills of rights, for example.
But since the state is finally a monopoly of force, such limits are always
tenuous and unstable. The states excuse for being is its protective
function, but no state that I know of has ever been confined to this role
for long. It soon becomes aggressive, either toward neighboring
communities or, more often, against its own subjects.
The remarkable fact is
that men are so loyal to the states that rule them. They actually idealize
and take pride in their rulers. It may be obvious to outsiders that those
rulers are tyrants, but their subjects seldom see it that way. They are
often ready, and proud, to fight and die for the men who theoretically
protect them! Its like sacrificing your life to save your bodyguard.
Consider that strange
creature, the American conservative. He constantly, and rightly, complains
that his government is oppressive. At the same time he insists that his
country is the freest on earth. Whats more, he is proud that
its also the most militarily powerful on earth. Yet he also thinks
his freedom is in constant peril from foreign threats, and only the state
can preserve it from imminent destruction.
George Orwell gave us
the word doublethink for the ability to hold two contradictory
views simultaneously. Conservatives have now achieved doublethink and
are approaching something like triplethink. They forget that the state is
at best a necessary evil, a threat to liberty, and extol their own state as a
positive good, even a glorious thing we should take pride in. They quote
Lord Acton All power tends to corrupt, et cetera
and celebrate American power. Which is it?
Thus does a
necessary evil become an idol. Maybe were stuck
with it. But do we have to worship it?