What Do We Owe the State?

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January
8, 2002

I’ve
had a lot of response to my column on Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s
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.

It’s 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
doesn’t 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. “You’re mixing apples
and oranges. Sure, there are bad states, like the Soviet Union,
which murder millions. But there are also good states, which don’t
murder people and which protect their people from bad states.”

Well, it’s
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 the state.

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 other’s
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 doesn’t 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
own logic.

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 “self-slavery.”

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 couldn’t 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?

Sobran’s
Reactionary Utopian archives.
Watch Sobran’s last TV appearance
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VA 22183 or subscribe online.

Joseph
Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
of the most significant American writers. See his
website
and his
intellectual journey
.

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Best of Joseph Sobran

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