What is the State? – Misconceptions

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What is the state?

Many great thinkers throughout history have attempted to define the state. This entity has taken many shapes across many civilizations throughout history, some more efficient than others, some more representative than others, and some more coercive than others.

Most generic definitions describe the state as an institution that governs over an area. Per Wikipedia: “A state is a polity under a system of governance.” Max Weber’s definition, one of the least disputed, defines the state as having “a monopoly on violence.” It is the state that is “granted” the use of coercion in order to preserve order.

A common, though often forgotten, distinction made by some classical liberal thinkers separates the state from government. Although the “anti-government” activists may advocate for “getting government out of their lives,” what they often mean (though not always) is the state.

Thinkers ranging from Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) to Roger Scruton (1944-2020) have described government as more of an association of individuals and institutions taking responsibility for their actions. In this sense, even an anarcho-capitalist society has government. Organizations and individuals that uphold and protect their communities are “governing” in a voluntarist sense. The state is, from this perspective, something else entirely.

Chodorov argued that when governing institutions cease to be protective and become predatory on its people, this is when it becomes the state. Chodorov wrote in his Government Contra State:

‘[T]he state is a group of persons who have acquired the power vested in government and make use of it in such a manner as to deprive the individual of his right to life and property. The state is historically grounded in conquest. The purpose of conquest is exploitation… The state by virtue of the power of government which it acquires, perpetuates the purpose of conquest; by legal methods it regularizes the exploitation of the producer, in favor of the nonproducer, and by an elaborate system of education it obfuscates the immoral relationship and even covers the exploiters with an aura of respectability.’

Chodorov then takes a more expansive view of the state than do other thinkers. To him, there are two parts of the state: “those who wield power and those who benefit by it.” The large entity that we think of as the state is the part that wields power. The elite class of institutions (certain universities, think tanks, corporations, and media) that defend the wielders of power to their benefit would be, in Chodorov’s view, the other half of the state.

Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) was best known for his famous distinction between two means of satisfying one’s desires. There was the economic means, whereby one acquires what he needs peacefully and through voluntary agreements. And then there was the political means, whereby one satisfies his needs through coercion. To Oppenheimer, the state relies on the political means.

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), who heavily influenced both the American libertarian and conservative movements, described the state as an anti-social institution. From Nock’s view, there was society, and then there was the state. In his Our Enemy, The State, Nock argues that the state

‘did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation. Its intention, far from contemplating “freedom and security,” contemplated nothing of the kind. It contemplated primarily the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another, and it concerned itself with only so much freedom and security as was consistent with this primary intention; and this was, in fact, very little. Its primary function or exercise was … maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a propertyless dependent class. The order of interest that it reflected was not social, but purely antisocial; and those who administered it, judged by the common standard of ethics, or even the common standard of law as applied to private persons, were indistinguishable from a professional-criminal class.’

Similar to Oppenheimer’s view, society consists of largely peaceful social interactions (economic means), but the state is outside of this, relying on coercion (political means) and outside the bounds of social ethics. The state routinely does what we would consider inappropriate by any reasonable standards, but there is a clear double standard present.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), who famously described the state as “a gang of thieves writ large,” continues the common comparison of the state to robbers. In his Anatomy of the State, he builds on Nock and Oppenheimer’s thinking, as well as Bertrand de Jouvenel’s (1903-1987) thinking of the state as “the result of the successes achieved by a band of brigands who superimpose themselves on small, distinct societies.” Rothbard argues that since the state acts as predator on the market, the market must have preceded the state. He writes:

‘The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively “peaceful” the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society. Since production must always precede predation, the free market is anterior to the State. The State has never been created by a “social contract”; it has always been born in conquest and exploitation.’ 

Now sure, some, even most, will dismiss these explanations of the state as insanity by libertarian extremists. But these descriptions of the state as similar to a gang of robbers are not limited to libertarian thinkers, or even to recent history. The Roman, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in Book IV Chapter 4 of his brilliant City of God, speaks of justice, and tells a story of an encounter between a pirate and Alexander the Great:

‘Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”’

Granted, Augustine was certainly no libertarian anarchist. The first four words of the quotation are important. It is justice that separates the state from the pirates. But his argument is similar to those mentioned earlier distinguishing “government” within society and the state.

If the state does not operate in a just manner, but instead subdues and conquers people, it is little different than a gang of thieves.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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