Nature of the State (MP3)
Moral Status of Relations to the State (MP3)
Relations between States (MP3)
Inner Contradictions of the State (MP3)
Nature of the State (Listen
to the MP3)
far in this book, we have developed a theory of liberty and property
rights, and have outlined the legal code that would be necessary
to defend those rights. What of government, the State? What is its
proper role, if any?
including most political theorists, believe that once one concedes
the importance, or even the vital necessity, of some particular
activity of the State – such as the provision of a legal code
– that one has ipso facto conceded the necessity of
the State itself.
The State indeed
performs many important and necessary functions: from provision
of law to the supply of police and fire fighters, to building and
maintaining the streets, to delivery of the mail. But this in no
way demonstrates that only the State can perform such functions,
or, indeed, that it performs them even passably well.
example, that there are many competing cantaloupe stores in a particular
neighborhood. One of the cantaloupe dealers, Smith, then uses violence
to drive all of his competitors out of the neighborhood; he has
thereby employed violence to establish a coerced monopoly over the
sale of cantaloupes in a given territorial area.
that mean that Smith’s use of violence to establish and maintain
his monopoly was essential to the provision of cantaloupes
in the neighborhood? Certainly not, for there were existing competitors
as well as potential rivals should Smith ever relax his use and
threat of violence; moreover, economics demonstrates that Smith,
as a coercive monopolist will tend to perform his service badly
competition by the use of force, Smith can afford to provide his
service in a costly and inefficient manner, since the consumers
are deprived of any possible range of alternative choice.
Furthermore, should a group arise to call for the abolition of Smith’s
coercive monopoly there would be very few protesters with the temerity
to accuse these “abolitionists” of wishing to deprive the consumers
of their much desired cantaloupes.
And yet, the
State is only our hypothetical Smith on a gigantic and all-encompassing
scale. Throughout history groups of men calling themselves “the
government” or “the State” have attempted – usually successfully
– to gain a compulsory monopoly of the commanding heights of
the economy and the society. In particular, the State has arrogated
to itself a compulsory monopoly over police and military services,
the provision of law, judicial decision-making, the mint and the
power to create money, unused land (“the public domain”), streets
and highways, rivers and coastal waters, and the means of delivering
land and transportation has long been an excellent method of assuring
overall control of a society; in many countries, highways began
as a means of allowing the government to move its troops conveniently
throughout its subject country. Control of the money supply is a
way to assure the State an easy and rapid revenue, and the State
makes sure that no private competitors are allowed to invade its
self-arrogated monopoly of the power to counterfeit (i.e., create)
new money. Monopoly of the postal service has long been a convenient
method for the State to keep an eye on possibly unruly and subversive
opposition to its rule.
In most historical
epochs, the State has also kept a tight control over religion, usually
cementing a comfortable, mutually supportive alliance with an Established
Church: with the State granting the priests power and wealth, and
the Church in turn teaching the subject population their divinely
proclaimed duty to obey Caesar. But now that religion has lost much
of its persuasive power in society, the State is often willing to
let religion alone, and to concentrate on similar if looser alliances
with more secular intellectuals. In either case, the State relies
on control of the levers of propaganda to persuade its subjects
to obey or even exalt their rulers.
all, the crucial monopoly is the State’s control of the use of violence:
of the police and armed services, and of the courts – the locus
of ultimate decision-making power in disputes over crimes and contracts.
Control of the police and the army is particularly important in
enforcing and assuring all of the State’s other powers, including
the all-important power to extract its revenue by coercion.
For there is
one crucially important power inherent in the nature of the State
apparatus. All other persons and groups in society (except
for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank
robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling
goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift
(e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance).
Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening
dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. That coercion
is known as “taxation,” although in less regularized epochs it was
often known as “tribute.” Taxation is theft, purely and simply,
even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged
criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the
property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.
It would be
an instructive exercise for the skeptical reader to try to frame
a definition of taxation which does not also include theft.
Like the robber, the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint;
if the taxpayer refuses to pay his assets are seized by force, and
if he should resist such depredation, he will be arrested or shot
if he should continue to resist.
It is true
that State apologists maintain that taxation is “really” voluntary;
one simple but instructive refutation of this claim is to ponder
what would happen if the government were to abolish taxation, and
to confine itself to simple requests for voluntary contributions.
Does anyone really believe that anything comparable to the
current vast revenues of the State would continue to pour into its
coffers? It is likely that even those theorists who claim that punishment
never deters action would balk at such a claim. The great economist
Joseph Schumpeter was correct when he acidly wrote that “the theory
which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase
of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this
part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.”
It has been
recently maintained by economists that taxation is “really” voluntary
because it is a method for everyone to make sure that everyone else
pays for a unanimously desired project. Everyone in an area, for
example, is assumed to desire the government to build a dam; but
if A and B contribute voluntarily to the project, they cannot be
sure that C and D will not “shirk” their similar responsibilities.
Therefore, all of the individuals, A, B, C, D, etc., each of whom
wish to contribute to building the dam, agree to coerce each
other through taxation. Hence, the tax is not really coercion.
There are, however, a great many flaws in this doctrine.
First is the
inner contradiction between voluntarism and coercion; a coercion
of all-against-all does not make any of this coercion “voluntary.”
Secondly, even if we assume for the moment that each individual
would like to contribute to the dam, there is no way of assuring
that the tax levied on each person is no more than he would be willing
to pay voluntarily even if everyone else contributed. The government
may levy $1000 on Jones even though he might have been willing to
pay no more than $500. The point is that precisely because
taxation is compulsory, there is no way to ensure (as is done automatically
on the free market) that the amount any person contributes is what
he would “really” be willing to pay.
In the free
society, a consumer who voluntarily buys a TV set for $200 demonstrates
by his freely chosen action that the TV set is worth more to him
than the $200 he surrenders; in short, he demonstrates that
the $200 is a voluntary payment. Or, a club member in the free society,
by paying annual dues of $200, demonstrates that he considers the
benefits of club membership worth at least $200. But, in the case
of taxation, a man’s surrender to the threat of coercion demonstrates
no voluntary preference whatsoever for any alleged benefits he receives.
argument proves far too much. For the supply of any service,
not only dams, can be expanded by the use of the tax-financing arm.
Suppose, for example, that the Catholic Church were established
in a country through taxation; the Catholic Church would undoubtedly
be larger than if it relied on voluntary contributions; but can
it therefore be argued that such Establishment is “really” voluntary
because everyone wants to coerce everyone else into paying into
the Church, in order to make sure that no one shirks this “duty”?
the argument is simply a mystical one. How can anyone know
that everyone is “really” paying his taxes voluntarily on the strength
of this sophistical argument? What of those people – environmentalists,
say – who are opposed to dams per se? Is their payment
“really” voluntary? Would the coerced payment of taxes to a Catholic
Church by Protestants or atheists also be “voluntary”? And
what of the growing body of libertarians in our society, who oppose
all action by the government on principle? In what way can this
argument hold that their tax payments are “really voluntary”?
In fact, the existence of at least one libertarian or anarchist
in a country is enough by itself to demolish the “really
voluntary” argument for taxation.
It is also
contended that, in democratic governments, the act of voting
makes the government and all its works and powers truly “voluntary.”
Again, there are many fallacies with this popular argument. In the
first place, even if the majority of the public specifically endorsed
each and every particular act of the government, this would simply
be majority tyranny rather than a voluntary act undergone by every
person in the country.
Murder is murder,
theft is theft, whether undertaken by one man against another, or
by a group, or even by the majority of people within a given territorial
area. The fact that a majority might support or condone an act of
theft does not diminish the criminal essence of the act or its grave
injustice. Otherwise, we would have to say, for example, that any
Jews murdered by the democratically elected Nazi government were
not murdered, but only “voluntarily committed suicide” –
surely, the grotesque but logical implication of the “democracy
as voluntary” doctrine.
a republic as contrasted to a direct democracy, people vote not
for specific measures but for “representatives” in a package deal;
the representatives then wreak their will for a fixed length of
time. In no legal sense, of course, are they truly “representatives”
since, in a free society, the principal hires his agent or representative
individually and can fire him at will. As the great anarchist political
theorist and constitutional lawyer, Lysander Spooner, wrote:
elected government officials] are neither our servants, agents,
attorneys, nor representatives … [for] we do not make ourselves
responsible for their acts. If a man is my servant, agent, or
attorney, I necessarily make myself responsible for all his acts
done within the limits of the power I have intrusted to him. If
I have intrusted him, as my agent, with either absolute power,
or any power at all, over the persons or properties of other men
than myself, I thereby necessarily make myself responsible to
those other persons for any injuries he may do them, so long as
he acts within the limits of the power I have granted him. But
no individual who may be injured in his person or property, by
acts of Congress, can come to the individual electors, and hold
them responsible for these acts of their so-called agents or representatives.
This fact proves that these pretended agents of the people, of
everybody, are really the agents of nobody.
even on its own terms, voting can hardly establish “majority” rule,
much less of voluntary endorsement of government. In the United
States, for example, less than 40 percent of eligible voters bother
to vote at all; of these, 21 percent may vote for one candidate
and 19 percent for another. Twenty-one percent scarcely establishes
even majority rule, much less the voluntary consent of all. (In
one sense, and quite apart from democracy or voting, the
“majority” always supports any existing government; this will be
how is it that taxes are levied on one and all, regardless of whether
they voted or not, or, more particularly, whether they voted for
the winning candidate? How can either nonvoting or voting for the
loser indicate any sort of endorsement of the actions of the elected
voting establish any sort of voluntary consent even by the voters
themselves to the government. As Spooner trenchantly pointed out:
in the case of individuals their actual voting is not to be taken
as proof of consent…. On the contrary, it is to be considered
that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself
environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government
that forces him to pay money renders service, and foregoes the
exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty
punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny
over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he
will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving
himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his
own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated
that, if he uses the ballot, he may become a master, if he does
not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative
than these two. In self-defense, he attempts the former. His case
is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle,
where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because,
to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives
of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is
one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot –
which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his
only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to
be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily
entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights,
as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere
power of numbers….
the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government
in the world, if allowed the ballot would use it, if they could
see any chance of meliorating their condition. But it would not,
therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself,
that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up,
or even consented to.
If, then, taxation
is compulsory, and is therefore indistinguishable from theft, it
follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal
organization far more formidable and successful than any “private”
Mafia in history. Furthermore, it should be considered criminal
not only according to the theory of crime and property rights as
set forth in this book, but even according to the common apprehension
of mankind, which always considers theft to be a crime.
As we have
seen above, the nineteenth-century German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer
put the matter succinctly when he pointed out that there are two
and only two ways of attaining wealth in society:
- by production
and voluntary exchange with others – the method of the free
- by violent
expropriation of the wealth produced by others.
is the method of violence and theft. The former benefits all parties
involved; the latter parasitically benefits the looting group or
class at the expense of the looted. Oppenheimer trenchantly termed
the former method of obtaining wealth, “the economic means,” and
the latter “the political means.” Oppenheimer then went on brilliantly
to define the State as “the organization of the political means.”
the essence of the State as a criminal organization been put as
forcefully or as brilliantly as in this passage from Lysander Spooner:
It is true
that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid
voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company,
voluntarily entered into by the people with each other….
theory of our government is wholly different from the practical
fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says
to a man: “Your money, or your life.” And many, if not most, taxes
are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon
him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed
to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery
on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime
of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim
to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit.
He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired
impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that
he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him
to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able
to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system
of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions
as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you,
as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on
the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,”
on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep
“protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him;
by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by
robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest
or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor,
and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy
if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too
much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults,
and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to
robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
It is instructive
to inquire why it is that the State, in contrast to the highwayman,
invariably surrounds itself with an ideology of legitimacy, why
it must indulge in all the hypocrisies that Spooner outlines. The
reason is that the highwayman is not a visible, permanent, legal,
or legitimate member of society, let alone a member with exalted
status. He is always on the run from his victims or from the State
itself. But the State, in contrast to a band of highwaymen, is not
considered a criminal organization; on the contrary, its minions
have generally held the positions of highest status in society.
It is a status that allows the State to feed off its victims while
making at least most of them support, or at least be resigned to,
this exploitative process.
In fact, it
is precisely the function of the State’s ideological minions and
allies to explain to the public that the Emperor does indeed have
a fine set of clothes. In brief, the ideologists must explain that,
while theft by one or more persons or groups is bad and criminal,
that when the State engages in such acts, it is not
theft but the legitimate and even sanctified act called “taxation.”
The ideologists must explain that murder by one or more persons
or groups is bad and must be punished, but that when the State
kills it is not murder but an exalted act known as “war” or “repression
of internal subversion.” They must explain that while kidnapping
or slavery is bad and must be outlawed when done by private individuals
or groups, that when the State commits such acts it is not kidnapping
or slavery but “conscription” – an act necessary to the public
weal and even to the requirements of morality itself. The function
of the statist ideologists is to weave the false set of Emperor’s
clothes, to convince the public of a massive double standard: that
when the State commits the gravest of high crimes it is really not
doing so, but doing something else that is necessary, proper, vital,
and even – in former ages – by divine command. The age-old
success of the ideologists of the State is perhaps the most gigantic
hoax in the history of mankind.
always been vital to the continued existence of the State, as attested
by the systematic use of ideology since the ancient Oriental empires.
The specific content of the ideology has, of course, changed
over time, in accordance with changing conditions and cultures.
In the Oriental despotisms, the Emperor was often held by the Church
to be himself divine; in our more secular age, the argument runs
more to “the public good” and the “general welfare.” But the purpose
is always the same: to convince the public that what the State does
is not, as one might think, crime on a gigantic scale, but something
necessary and vital that must be supported and obeyed.
that ideology is so vital to the State is that it always rests,
in essence, on the support of the majority of the public. This support
obtains whether the State is a “democracy,” a dictatorship, or an
absolute monarchy. For the support rests in the willingness of the
majority (not, to repeat, of every individual) to
go along with the system: to pay the taxes, to go without much complaint
to fight the State’s wars, to obey the State’s rules and decrees.
This support need not be active enthusiasm to be effective; it can
just as well be passive resignation. But support there must be.
For if the bulk of the public were really convinced of the
illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is
nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large, then the State
would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence
than another Mafia gang. Hence the necessity of the State’s employment
of ideologists; and hence the necessity of the State’s age-old alliance
with the Court Intellectuals who weave the apologia for State rule.
The first modern
political theorist who saw that all States rest on majority opinion
was the sixteenth-century libertarian French writer, Étienne de
la Boetie. In his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, de la
Boetie saw that the tyrannical State is always a minority of the
population, and that therefore its continued despotic rule must
rest on its legitimacy in the eyes of the exploited majority, on
what would later come to be called “the engineering of consent.”
Two hundred years later, David Hume – though scarcely a libertarian
– set forth a similar analysis.
that, with modern weapons, a minority force can permanently cow
a hostile majority ignores the fact that these weapons can be held
by the majority and that the armed force of the minority can mutiny
or defect to the side of the populace. Hence, the permanent need
for persuasive ideology has always led the State to bring into its
rubric the nation’s opinion-molding intellectuals. In former days,
the intellectuals were invariably the priests, and hence, as we
have pointed out, the age-old alliance between Church and State,
Throne and Altar. Nowadays, “scientific” and “value-free” economists
and “national security managers,” among others, perform a similar
ideological function in behalf of State power.
important in the modern world – now that an Established Church
is often no longer feasible – is for the State to assume control
over education, and thereby to mould the minds of its subjects.
In addition to influencing the universities through all manner of
financial subventions, and through state-owned universities directly,
the State controls education on the lower levels through the universal
institutions of the public school, through certification requirements
for private schools, and through compulsory attendance laws. Add
to this a virtually total control over radio and television –
either through outright State ownership, as in most countries, or,
as in the United States, by the nationalization of the airwaves,
and by the power of a federal commission to license the right of
stations to use those frequencies and channels.
Thus, the State,
by its very nature, must violate the generally accepted moral
laws to which most people adhere. Most people are agreed on the
injustice and criminality of murder and theft. The customs, rules,
and laws of all societies condemn these actions. The State, then,
is always in a vulnerable position, despite its seeming age-old
might. What particularly needs to be done is to enlighten the public
on the State’s true nature, so that they can see that the State
habitually violates the generally accepted injunctions against robbery
and murder, that the State is the necessary violator of the commonly
accepted moral and criminal law.
We have seen
clearly why the State needs the intellectuals; but why do the intellectuals
need the State? Put simply, it is because intellectuals, whose services
are often not very intensively desired by the mass of consumers,
can find a more secure “market” for their abilities in the arms
of the State. The State can provide them with a power, status, and
wealth which they often cannot obtain in voluntary exchange.
many (though, of course, not all) intellectuals have sought the
goal of Power, the realization of the Platonic ideal of the “philosopher-king.”
Consider, for example, the cry from the heart by the distinguished
Marxist scholar, Professor Needham, in protest against the acidulous
critique by Karl Wittfogel of the alliance of State-and-intellectuals
in Oriental despotisms: “The civilization which Professor Wittfogel
is so bitterly attacking was one which could make poets and scholars
into officials.” Needham adds that “the successive [Chinese] emperors
were served in all ages by a great company of profoundly humane
and disinterested scholars.”
Presumably, for Professor Needham, this is enough to justify the
grinding despotisms of the ancient Orient.
But we need
not go back as far as the ancient Orient or even as far as the proclaimed
goal of the professors at the University of Berlin, in the nineteenth
century, to form themselves into “the intellectual bodyguard of
the House of Hohenzollern.” In contemporary America, we have the
eminent political scientist, Professor Richard Neustadt, hailing
the President as the “sole crownlike symbol of the Union.” We have
national security manager Townsend Hoopes writing that “under our
system the people can look only to the President to define the nature
of our foreign policy problem and the national programs and sacrifices
required to meet it with effectiveness.”
And, in response,
we have Richard Nixon, on the eve of his election as President,
defining his role as follows: “He [the President] must articulate
the nation’s values, define its goals and marshal its will.” Nixon’s
conception of his role is hauntingly similar to the scholar Ernst
Huber’s articulation, in the Germany of the 1930s, of the Constitutional
Law of the Greater German Reich. Huber wrote that the head of
State “sets up the great ends which are to be attained and draws
up the plans for the utilization of all national powers in the achievement
of the common goals … he gives the national life its true
purpose and value.”
Thus, the State
is a coercive criminal organization that subsists by a regularized
large-scale system of taxation-theft, and which gets away with it
by engineering the support of the majority (not, again, of
everyone) through securing an alliance with a group of opinion-moulding
intellectuals whom it rewards with a share in its power and pelf.
But there is
another vital aspect of the State that needs to be considered. There
is one critical argument for the State that now comes into view:
namely, the implicit argument that the State apparatus really and
properly owns the territorial area over which it claims jurisdiction.
The State, in short, arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of
ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area –
larger or smaller depending on historical conditions, and on how
much it has been able to wrest from other States.
State may be said to properly own its territory, then it
is proper for it to make rules for anyone who presumes to live in
that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property
because there is no private property in its area, because it really
owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits
its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act
as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on
to be the only justification for the crude slogan, “America, love
it or leave it!,” as well as the enormous emphasis generally placed
on an individual’s right to emigrate from a country.)
In short, this
theory makes the State, as well as the King in the Middle Ages,
a feudal overlord, who at least theoretically owned all the
land in his domain. The fact that new and unowned resources –
whether virgin land or lakes – are invariably claimed as owned
by the State (its “public domain”) is an expression of this implicit
But our homesteading
theory, outlined above,
suffices to demolish any such pretensions by the State apparatus.
For by what earthly right do the criminals of the State lay claim
to the ownership of its land area? It is bad enough that they have
seized control of ultimate decision-making for that area; what criterion
can possibly give them the rightful ownership of the entire territory?
The State may
therefore be defined as that organization which possesses either
or both (in actual fact, almost always both) of the following characteristics:
- it acquires
its revenue by physical coercion (taxation); and
- it achieves
a compulsory monopoly of force and of ultimate decision-making
power over a given territorial area.
Both of these
essential activities of the State necessarily constitute criminal
aggression and depredation of the just rights of private property
of its subjects (including self-ownership). For the first constitutes
and establishes theft on a grand scale; while the second prohibits
the free competition of defense and decision-making agencies within
a given territorial area – prohibiting the voluntary purchase
and sale of defense and judicial services.
Hence the justice of the vivid critique of the State by the libertarian
theorist Albert Jay Nock: “The State claims and exercises the monopoly
of crime” in a given territorial area. “It forbids private murder,
but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private
theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants,
whether the property of citizen or alien.”
It must be
emphasized that the State does not merely use coercion to acquire
its own revenue, to hire propagandists to advance its power, and
to arrogate to itself and to enforce a compulsory monopoly of such
vital services as police protection, firefighting, transportation,
and postal service. For the State does many other things as well,
none of which can in any sense be said to serve the consuming public.
It uses its monopoly of force to achieve, as Nock puts it, a “monopoly
of crime” – to control, regulate, and coerce its hapless subjects.
Often it pushes its way into controlling the morality and the very
daily lives of its subjects. The state uses its coerced revenue,
not merely to monopolize and provide genuine services inefficiently
to the public, but also to build up its own power at the expense
of its exploited and harassed subjects: to redistribute income and
wealth from the public to itself and to its allies, and to control,
command, and coerce the inhabitants of its territory.
In a truly
free society, a society where individual rights of person and property
are maintained, the State, then, would necessarily cease to exist.
Its myriad of invasive and aggressive activities, its vast depredations
on the rights of person and property, would then disappear. At the
same time, those genuine services which it does manage badly to
perform would be thrown open to free competition, and to voluntarily
chosen payments by individual consumers.
of the typical conservative call for the government to enforce conservative
definitions of “morality” (e.g., by outlawing the alleged immorality
of pornography) is therefore starkly revealed. Aside from other
sound arguments against enforced morality (e.g., that no action
not freely chosen can be considered “moral”), it is surely grotesque
to entrust the function of guardian of the public morality to the
most extensive criminal (and hence the most immoral) group in society
– the State.
Inner Contradictions of the State (Listen
to the MP3)
major problem with discussions of the necessity of government is
the fact that all such discussions necessarily take place within
a context of centuries of State existence and State rule –
rule to which the public has become habituated. The wry coupling
of the twin certainties in the popular motto “death and taxes” demonstrates
that the public has resigned itself to the existence of the State
as an evil but inescapable force of nature to which there is no
The force of
habit as the cement of State rule was seen as early as the sixteenth-century
writings of de la Boetie. But, logically, and to cast off the scales
of habit, we must not merely compare an existing State with an unknown
quantity, but begin at the social zero point, in the logical fiction
of the “state of nature,” and compare the relative arguments for
the establishment of the State with those on behalf of a free society.
Let us assume,
for example, that a sizeable number of people suddenly arrive on
Earth, and that they must now consider what sort of social arrangements
to live under. One person or group of persons argues as follows
(i.e., the typical argument for the State): “If each of us is allowed
to remain free in all aspects, and particularly if each of us is
allowed to retain weapons and the right of self-defense, then we
will all war against each other, and society will be wrecked. Therefore,
let us turn over all of our guns and all of our ultimate decision-making
power and power to define and enforce our rights to the Jones family
over there. The Jones family will guard us from our predatory instincts,
keep social peace, and enforce justice.” Is it conceivable that
any one (except perhaps the Jones family itself) would spend one
moment considering this clearly absurd scheme? The cry of “who would
guard us from the Jones family, especially when we are deprived
of our weapons?” would suffice to shout down such a scheme. And
yet, given the acquisition of legitimacy from the fact of longevity
given the longtime rule of the “Jones family” this is precisely
the type of argument to which we now blindly adhere. Employing the
logical model of the state of nature aids us in casting off the
fetters of habit to see the State plain – and to see that the
Emperor, indeed, wears no clothes.
If, in fact,
we cast a cold and logical eye on the theory of “limited government,”
we can see it for the chimera that it really is, for the unrealistic
and inconsistent “Utopia” that it holds forth. In the first place,
there is no reason to assume that a compulsory monopoly of violence,
once acquired by the “Jones family” or by any State rulers, will
remain “limited” to protection of person and property.
historically, no government has long remained “limited” in this
way. And there are excellent reasons to suppose that it never will.
First, once the cancerous principle of coercion – of coerced
revenue and compulsory monopoly of violence – is established
and legitimated at the very heart of society, there is every reason
to suppose that this precedent will be expanded and embellished.
In particular, it is in the economic interest of the State
rulers to work actively for such expansion. The more the coercive
powers of the State are expanded beyond the cherished limits of
the laissez-faire theorists, the greater the power and pelf accruing
to the ruling caste operating the State apparatus. Hence, the ruling
caste, eager to maximize its power and wealth, will stretch State
power – and will encounter only feeble opposition, given the
legitimacy it and its allied intellectuals are gaining, and given
the lack of any institutional free-market channels of resistance
to the government’s monopoly of coercion and the power of ultimate
On the free
market, it is a happy fact that the maximization of the wealth of
one person or group redounds to the benefit of all; but in the political
realm, the realm of the State, a maximization of income and wealth
can only accrue parasitically to the State and its rulers at
the expense of the rest of society.
a limited government often hold up the ideal of a government above
the fray, refraining from taking sides or throwing its weight around,
an “umpire” arbitrating impartially between contending factions
in society. Yet why should the government do so? Given the
unchecked power of the State, the State and its rulers will act
to maximize their power and wealth, and hence inexorably expand
beyond the supposed “limits.”
point is that in the Utopia of limited government and laissez faire,
there are no institutional mechanisms to keep the State limited.
Surely the bloody record of States throughout history should have
demonstrated that any power, once granted or acquired, will
be used and therefore abused. Power corrupts, as the libertarian
Lord Acton so wisely noted.
apart from the absence of institutional mechanisms to keep the ultimate
decision-maker and force-wielder “limited” to protection of rights,
there is a grave inner contradiction inherent in the very ideal
of a neutral or impartial State. For there can be no such thing
as a “neutral” tax, a taxing system that will be neutral to the
market as it would have been without taxation. As John C. Calhoun
trenchantly pointed out in the early nineteenth century, the very
existence of taxation negates any possibility of such neutrality.
For, given any level of taxation, the least that will happen will
be the creation of two antagonistic social classes: the “ruling”
classes who gain by and live off taxation, and the “ruled” classes
who pay the taxes. In short, conflicting classes of net tax-payers
and net tax-consumers. At the very least, the government
bureaucrats will necessarily be net tax-consumers; other such will
be those persons and groups subsidized by the inevitable expenditures
of government. As Calhoun put it:
and employees of the government constitute that portion of the
community who are the exclusive recipients of the proceeds of
the taxes. Whatever amount is taken from the community in the
form of taxes, if not lost, goes to them in the shape of expenditures
and disbursements. The two – disbursement and taxation –
constitute the fiscal action of the government. They are correlatives.
What the one takes from the community under the name of taxes
is transferred to the portion of the community who are the recipients
under that of disbursements. But as the recipients constitute
only a portion of the community, it follows, taking the two parts
of the fiscal process together, that its actions must be unequal
between the payers of the taxes and the recipients of their proceeds.
Nor can it be otherwise; unless what is collected from each individual
in the shape of taxes shall be returned to him in that of disbursements,
which would make the process nugatory and absurd….
result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is
to divide the community into two great classes: one consisting
of those who, in reality, pay the taxes, and, of course, bear
exclusively the burden of supporting the government; and the other,
of those who are the recipients of their proceeds through disbursements,
and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer
words, to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers.
But the effect
of this is to place them in antagonistic relations in reference
to the fiscal action of the government – and the entire course
of policy therewith connected. For the greater the taxes and disbursements,
the greater the gain of the one and the loss of the other, and
vice versa…. The effect, then, of every increase is to
enrich and strengthen the one, and impoverish and weaken the other.
on to point out that a Constitution will not be able to keep the
government limited; for given a monopoly Supreme Court selected
by the self-same government and granted the power of ultimate decision-making,
the political “ins” will always favor a “broad” or loose interpretation
of the wording of the Constitution serving to expand the powers
of government over the citizenry; and, over time, the “ins” will
inexorably tend to win out over the minority of “outs” who will
argue vainly for a “strict” interpretation limiting State power.
But there are
other fatal flaws and inconsistencies in the concept of limited,
laissez-faire government. In the first place, it is generally accepted,
by limited-government and by other political philosophers, that
the State is necessary for the creation and development of law.
But this is historically
incorrect. For most law, but especially the most libertarian
parts of the law, emerged not from the State, but out of non-State
institutions: tribal custom, common-law judges and courts, the law
merchant in mercantile courts, or admiralty law in tribunals set
up by shippers themselves.
the case of competing common-law judges as well as elders of tribes,
the judges were not engaged in making law, but in finding the law
in existing and generally accepted principles, and then applying
that law to specific cases or to new technological or institutional
conditions. The same was
true in private Roman law. Moreover, in ancient Ireland, a society
existing for a thousand years until the conquest by Cromwell, “there
was no trace of State-administered justice”; competing schools of
professional jurists interpreted and applied the common body of
customary law, with enforcement undertaken by competing and voluntarily
supported tuatha, or insurance agencies. Furthermore, these
customary rules were not haphazard or arbitrary but consciously
rooted in natural law, discoverable by man’s reason.
But, in addition
to the historical inaccuracy of the view that the State is needed
for the development of law, Randy Barnett has brilliantly pointed
out that the State by its very nature cannot obey its own legal
rules. But if the State cannot obey its own legal rules,
then it is necessarily deficient and self-contradictory as a maker
of law. In an exegesis and critique of Lon L. Fuller’s seminal work
The Morality of Law, Barnett notes that Professor Fuller
sees in the current thinking of legal positivism a persistent error:
“the assumption that law should be viewed as a … one-way
projection of authority, originating with government and imposing
itself upon the citizen.”
out that law is not simply “vertical” – a command from above
from the State to its citizens, but also “horizontal,” arising from
among the people themselves and applied to each other. Fuller points
to international law, tribal law, private rules, etc. as pervasive
examples of such “reciprocal” and non-State law. Fuller sees the positivist
error as stemming from failure to recognize a crucial principle of
proper law, namely that the lawmaker should itself obey its own rules
that it lays down for its citizens, or, in Fuller’s words, “that enacted
law itself presupposes a commitment by the government authority to
abide by its own rules in dealing with its subjects.”
correctly points out that Fuller errs significantly in failing to
apply his own principle far enough: in limiting the principle to
the procedural “rules by which laws are passed” rather than applying
it to the substance of the laws themselves. Because of this
failure to carry his principle to its logical conclusion, Fuller
fails to see the inherent inner contradiction of the State as maker
of law. As Barnett puts it,
in his attempt because he has not followed his own principle far
enough. If he did, he would see that the state legal system does
not conform to the principle of official congruence with its own
rules. It is because the positivists see that the State inherently
violates its own rules that they conclude, in a sense correctly
that State-made law is sui generis.
adds, if Fuller’s principle were carried forward to assert that
the “lawmaker must obey the substance of his own laws,” then
Fuller would see “that the State by its nature must violate
correctly points out that the two unique and essential features
of the State are its power to tax – to acquire its revenue
by coercion and hence robbery – and to prevent its subjects
from hiring any other defense agency (compulsory monopoly of defense).
But in doing so, the State violates its own laws that it sets down
for its subjects. As Barnett explains,
the State says that citizens may not take from another by force
and against his will that which belongs to another. And yet the
State through its power to tax “legitimately” does just that….
More essentially, the State says that a person may use force upon
another only in self-defense, i.e. only as a defense against another
who initiated the use of force. To go beyond one’s right of self-defense
would be to aggress on the rights of others, a violation of one’s
legal duty. And yet the State by its claimed monopoly forcibly
imposes its jurisdiction on persons who may have done nothing
wrong. By doing so it aggresses against the rights of its citizens,
something which its rules say citizens may not do.
in short, may steal where its subjects may not and it may aggress
(initiate the use of force) against its subjects while prohibiting
them from exercising the same right. It is to this that the positivists
look when they say that the law (meaning State-made law) is a
one-way, vertical process. It is this that belies any claim of
that, interpreted consistently, Fuller’s principle means that in
a true and proper legal system, the lawmaker must “follow all
of its rules, procedural and substantive alike.” Therefore, “to
the degree that it does not and cannot do this it is not and cannot
be a legal system and its acts are outside the law. The State qua
state, therefore, is an illegal system.”
contradiction of the theory of laissez-faire government deals again
with taxation. For if government is to be limited to “protection”
of person and property, and taxation is to be “limited” to providing
that service only, then how is the government to decide how
much protection to provide and how much taxes to levy? For,
contrary to the limited government theory, “protection” is no more
a collective, one-lump “thing” than any other good or service in
example, that we might offer a competing theory, that government
should be “limited” to supplying clothing free to all of its citizens.
But this would scarcely be any sort of viable limit, apart from
other flaws in the theory. For how much clothing, and at
what cost? Must everyone be supplied with Balenciaga originals,
for example? And who is to decide how much and what quality
of clothing each person is to receive? Indeed, “protection” could
conceivably imply anything from one policeman for an entire country,
to supplying an armed bodyguard and a tank for every citizen –
a proposition which would bankrupt the society posthaste.
But who is
to decide on how much protection, since it is undeniable that every
person would be better protected from theft and assault if
provided with an armed bodyguard than if he is not? On the free
market, decisions on how much and what quality of any good or service
should be supplied to each person are made by means of voluntary
purchases by each individual; but what criterion can be applied
when the decision is made by government? The answer is none
at all, and such governmental decisions can only be purely arbitrary.
searches in vain in the writings of laissez-faire theorists for
a cogent theory of taxation: not only how much taxation is to be
levied, but also who is to be forced to pay. The commonly
adopted “ability to pay” theory, for example, is, as the libertarian
Frank Chodorov pointed out, the philosophy of the highway robber
to extract as much loot from the victim as the robber can get away
with – scarcely a cogent social philosophy, and at total variance,
of course, from the system of payment on the free market. For if
everyone were forced to pay for every good and service in proportion
to his income, then there would be no pricing system at all, and
no market system could work. (David Rockefeller, for example, might
be forced to pay $1million for a loaf of bread.)
Next, no laissez-faire
writer has ever provided a theory of the size of the State: if the
State is to have a compulsory monopoly of force in a given territorial
area, how large is that area to be? These theorists have
not given full attention to the fact that the world has always lived
in an “international anarchy,” with no one government, or compulsory
monopoly of decision-making, between various countries. And
yet, international relations between private citizens of
different countries have generally functioned quite smoothly, despite
the lack of a single government over them. Thus, a contractual or
a tort dispute between a citizen of North Dakota and of Manitoba
is usually handled quite smoothly, typically with the plaintiff
suing or placing charges in his court, and the court of the other
country recognizing the result. Wars and conflicts usually take
place between the governments, rather than the private citizens,
of the various counties.
But more profoundly,
would a laissez-fairist recognize the right of a region of a country
to secede from that country? Is it legitimate for West Ruritania
to secede from Ruritania? If not, why not? And if so, then how can
there be a logical stopping-point to the secession? May not a small
district secede, and then a city, and then a borough of that city,
and then a block, and then finally a particular individual?
Once admit any right of secession whatever, and there is
no logical stopping-point short of the right of individual
secession, which logically entails anarchism, since then individuals
may secede and patronize their own defense agencies, and the State
is a crucial inconsistency in the proffered criterion of laissez
faire itself: limiting the government to protection of person and
property. For, if it is legitimate for a government to tax, why
not tax its subjects to provide other goods and services that may
be useful to consumers: why shouldn’t the government, for example,
build steel plants, provide shoes, dams, postal service, etc.? For
each of these goods and services is useful to consumers. If the
laissez-fairists object that the government should not build steel
plants or shoe factories and provide them to consumers (either free
or for sale) because tax-coercion had been employed in constructing
these plants, well then the same objection can of course be made
to governmental police or judicial service.
should be acting no more immorally from the laissez-faire point
of view, when providing housing or steel, than when providing police
protection. Government limited to protection, then, cannot be sustained
even within the laissez-faire ideal itself, much less from
any other consideration. It is true that the laissez-faire ideal
could still be employed to prevent such “second-degree” coercive
activities of government (i.e., coercion beyond the initial
coercion of taxation) as price control or outlawry of pornography;
but the “limits” have now become flimsy indeed, and may be stretched
to virtually complete collectivism, in which the government only
supplies goods and services, yet supplies all of them.
Moral Status of Relations to the State (Listen
to the MP3)
the State, then, is a vast engine of institutionalized crime and
aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth,
then this means that the State is a criminal organization, and that
therefore its moral status is radically different from any of the
just property-owners that we have been discussing in this volume.
And this means that the moral status of contracts with the State,
promises to it and by it, differs radically as well. It means, for
example, that no one is morally required to obey the State (except
insofar as the State simply affirms the right of just private property
against aggression). For, as a criminal organization with all of
its income and assets derived from the crime of taxation, the
State cannot possess any just property.
that it cannot be unjust or immoral to fail to pay taxes to the
State, to appropriate the property of the State (which is in the
hands of aggressors), to refuse to obey State orders, or to break
contracts with the State (since it cannot be unjust to break contracts
with criminals). Morally, from the point of view of proper political
philosophy, “stealing” from the State, for example, is removing
property from criminal hands, is, in a sense, “homesteading” property,
except that instead of homesteading unused land, the person is removing
property from the criminal sector of society – a positive good.
Here a partial
exception can be made where the State has clearly stolen the property
of a specific person. Suppose, for example, that the State confiscates
jewels belonging to Brown. If Green then steals the jewels from
the State, he is not committing a criminal offense from the point
of view of libertarian theory. However, the jewels are still not
his, and Brown would be justified in using force to repossess the
jewels from Green. In most cases, of course, the State’s confiscations,
taking place in the form of taxation, are mixed into a common pot,
and it is impossible to point to specific owners of its specific
property. Who, for example, properly owns a TVA dam or a
post-office building? In these majority cases, then, Green’s theft
or “homesteading” from the State would be legitimate as well as
noncriminal, and would confer a just homesteading property title
Lying to the
State, then, also becomes a fortiori morally legitimate.
Just as no one is morally required to answer a robber truthfully
when he asks if there are any valuables in one’s house, so no one
can be morally required to answer truthfully similar questions asked
by the State, e.g., when filling out income tax returns.
All this does
not mean, of course, that we must counsel or require civil disobedience,
nonpayment of taxes, or lying to or theft from the State, for these
may well be prudentially unwise, considering the force majeure
possessed by the State apparatus. But what we are saying is that
these actions are just and morally licit. Relations with the State,
then, become purely prudential and pragmatic considerations for
the particular individuals involved, who must treat the State as
an enemy with currently prevailing power.
fall into confusion on specific relations with the State, even when
they concede the general immorality or criminality of State actions
or interventions. Thus, there is the question of default, or more
widely, repudiation of government debt. Many libertarians assert
that the government is morally bound to pay its debts, and that
therefore default or repudiation must be avoided.
here is that these libertarians are analogizing from the perfectly
proper thesis that private persons or institutions should
keep their contracts and pay their debts. But government has no
money of its own, and payment of its debt means that the taxpayers
are further coerced into paying bondholders. Such coercion can never
be licit from the libertarian point of view. For not only does increased
taxation mean increased coercion and aggression against private
property, but the seemingly innocent bondholder appears in a very
different light when we consider that the purchase of a government
bond is simply making an investment in the future loot from the
robbery of taxation. As an eager investor in future robbery, then,
the bondholder appears in a very different moral light from what
is usually assumed.
to be placed in a new light is the problem of breaking contracts
with the State. We have explained above our contention that since
enforceable contracts are properly title transfers and not promises,
that therefore it would be legitimate in the free society to resign
from an army despite the signing of a voluntary contract for a longer
term of enlistment. But regardless of which theory of contract we
adopt, such considerations apply only to private armies in
the free market. Since State armies are criminal aggressors –
both in their actions as well as their means of revenue – it
would be morally licit to leave the State’s army at any time, regardless
of the terms of enlistment. It is morally the individual’s right
to do so, although again whether such an action is prudential or
not is another matter entirely.
Let us consider
in this light the question of bribery of government officials. We
saw above, that, in a free society or free market, the briber
is acting legitimately, whereas it is the bribee who is defrauding
someone (e.g., an employer) and therefore deserves prosecution.
What of bribery of government officials? Here a distinction must
be made between “aggressive” and “defensive” bribery; the first
should be considered improper and aggressive, whereas the latter
should be considered proper and legitimate. Consider a typical “aggressive
bribe”: a Mafia leader bribes police officials to exclude other,
competing operators of gambling casinos from a certain territorial
area. Here, the Mafioso acts in collaboration with the government
to coerce competing gambling proprietors. The Mafioso is, in this
case, an initiator, and accessory, to governmental aggression against
his competitors. On the other hand, a “defensive bribe” has a radically
different moral status. In such a case, for example, Robinson, seeing
that gambling casinos are outlawed in a certain area, bribes policemen
to allow his casino to operate – a perfectly legitimate response
to an unfortunate situation.
in fact, performs an important social function throughout the world.
For, in many countries, business could not be transacted at all
without the lubricant of bribery; in this way crippling and destructive
regulations and exactions can be avoided. A “corrupt government,”
then, is not necessarily a bad thing; compared to an “incorruptible
government” whose officials enforce the laws with great severity,
“corruption” can at least allow a partial flowering of voluntary
transactions and actions in a society. Of course, in neither case
are either the regulations or prohibitions, or the enforcement officials
themselves, justified, since neither they nor the exactions should
be in existence at all.
In some areas,
a radical distinction between private persons and government officials
is acknowledged in existing law and opinion. Thus, a private individual’s
“right to privacy” or right to keep silent does not and should not
apply to government officials, whose records and operations should
be open to public knowledge and evaluation. There are two democratic
arguments for denying the right to privacy to government officials,
which, while not strictly libertarian, are valuable as far as they
- that in
a democracy, the public can only decide on public issues and vote
for public officials if they have complete knowledge of government
- that since
the taxpayers pay the bill for government, they should have the
right to know what government is doing.
argument would add that, since government is an aggressor organization
against the rights and persons of its citizens, then full disclosure
of its operations is at least one right that its subjects might
wrest from the State, and which they may be able to use to resist
or whittle down State power.
area where the law now distinguishes between private citizens and
public officials is the law of libel. We have maintained above that
libel laws are illegitimate. But, even given laws against libel,
it is important to distinguish between libeling a private citizen
and a government official or agency. By the nineteenth century,
we had fortunately gotten rid of the pernicious common law of “seditious
libel,” which had been used as a club to repress almost any criticisms
of government. Currently libel laws have now been fortunately weakened
when applied, not merely to government per se, but also to
politicians or government officials.
libertarians claim it immoral to vote or to engage in political
action – the argument being that by participating in this way
in State activity, the libertarian places his moral imprimatur upon
the State apparatus itself. But a moral decision must be a free
decision, and the State has placed individuals in society in an
unfree environment, in a general matrix of coercion. The State –
unfortunately – exists, and people must necessarily begin with
this matrix to try to remedy their condition. As
Lysander Spooner pointed out, in an environment of State coercion,
voting does not imply voluntary consent.
Indeed, if the State allows us a periodic choice of rulers, limited
though that choice may be, it surely cannot be considered immoral
to make use of that limited choice to try to reduce or get rid of
then, is not simply a part of society. The brunt of this part of
the present volume, in fact, is to demonstrate that the State is
not, as most utilitarian free-market economists like to think,
a legitimate social institution that tends to be bumbling and inefficient
in most of its activities. On the contrary, the State is an inherently
illegitimate institution of organized aggression, of organized and
regularized crime against the persons and properties of its subjects.
necessary to society, it is a profoundly antisocial institution
which lives parasitically off of the productive activities of private
citizens. Morally, it must be considered as illegitimate and outside
of the ordinary libertarian legal system (such as adumbrated in
Part II above), which delimits and insures the rights and just
properties of private citizens. Thus, from the point of view of
justice and morality, the State can own no property, require no
obedience, enforce no contracts made with it, and indeed, cannot
exist at all.
A common defense
of the State holds that man is a “social animal,” that he must live
in society, and that individualists and libertarians believe in
the existence of “atomistic individuals” uninfluenced by and unrelated
to their fellow men. But no libertarians have ever held individuals
to be isolated atoms; on the contrary, all libertarians have recognized
the necessity and the enormous advantages of living in society,
and of participating in the social division of labor. The great
non sequitur committed by defenders of the State, including
classical Aristotelian and Thomist philosophers, is to leap from
the necessity of society to the necessity of the State.
On the contrary,
as we have indicated, the State is an antisocial instrument, crippling
voluntary interchange, individual creativity, and the division of
labor. “Society” is a convenient label for the voluntary interrelations
of individuals, in peaceful exchange and on the market. Here we
may point to Albert Jay Nock’s penetrating distinction between “social
power” – the fruits of voluntary interchange in the economy
and in civilization – and “State power,” the coercive interference
and exploitation of those fruits. In that light, Nock showed that
human history is basically a race between State power and social
power, between the beneficent fruits of peaceful and voluntary production
and creativity on the one hand, and the crippling and parasitic
blight of State power upon the voluntary and productive social process.
All of the
services commonly thought to require the State – from the coining
of money to police protection to the development of law in defense
of the rights of person and property – can be and have been
supplied far more efficiently and certainly more morally by private
persons. The State is in no sense required by the nature of man;
quite the contrary.
Relations between States (Listen
to the MP3)
state has an assumed monopoly of force over a given territorial
area, the areas varying in size in accordance with different historical
conditions. Foreign policy, or foreign relations, may be
defined as the relationship between any particular State, A, and
other States, B, C, D, and the inhabitants living under those States.
In the ideal moral world, no States would exist, and hence, of course,
no foreign policy could exist. Given the existence of States, however,
are there, any moral principles that libertarianism can direct as
criteria for foreign policy? The answer is broadly the same as in
the libertarian moral criteria directed toward the “domestic policy”
of States, namely to reduce the degree of coercion exercised by
States over individual persons as much as possible.
inter-State actions, let us return for a moment to the pure libertarian
stateless world where individuals and their hired private protection
agencies strictly confine their use of violence to the defense of
person and property against violence. Suppose that, in this world,
Jones finds that he or his property is being aggressed against by
Smith. It is legitimate, as we have seen, for Jones to repel this
invasion by the use of defensive violence. But, now we must ask:
is it within the right of Jones to commit aggressive violence against
innocent third parties in the course of his legitimate defense against
Smith? Clearly the answer must be “No.” For the rule prohibiting
violence against the persons or property of innocent men is absolute;
it holds regardless of the subjective motives for the aggression.
It is wrong,
and criminal, to violate the property or person of another, even
if one is a Robin Hood, or is starving, or is defending oneself
against a third man’s attack. We may understand and sympathize with
the motives in many of these cases and extreme situations. We (or,
rather, the victim or his heirs) may later mitigate the guilt if
the criminal comes to trial for punishment, but we cannot evade
the judgment that this aggression is still a criminal act, and one
which the victim has every right to repel, by violence if necessary.
In short, A
aggresses against B because C is threatening, or aggressing against,
A. We may understand C’s “higher” culpability in this whole procedure,
but we still label this aggression by A as a criminal act which
B has every right to repel by violence.
To be more
concrete, if Jones finds that his property is being stolen by Smith,
Jones has the right to repel him and try to catch him, but Jones
has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent
people or to catch him by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent
crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more) a criminal aggressor
as Smith is.
The same criteria
hold if Smith and Jones each have men on his side, i.e., if “war”
breaks out between Smith and his henchmen and Jones and his bodyguards.
If Smith and a group of henchmen aggress against Jones, and Jones
and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer
Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested
in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally
to Jones’s cause. But Jones and his men have no right, any more
than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of
their “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance
their pursuit, to conscript others into their posse by use of violence,
or to kill others in the course of their struggle to capture the
Smith forces. If Jones and his men should do any of these things,
they become criminals as fully as Smith, and they too become
subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality.
In fact if Smith’s crime was theft, and Jones should use conscription
to catch him, or should kill innocent people in the pursuit, then
Jones becomes more of a criminal than Smith, for such crimes against
another person as enslavement and murder are surely far worse than
Jones, in the course of his “just war” against the ravages of Smith,
should kill some innocent people; and suppose that he should declaim,
in defense of this murder, that he was simply acting on the slogan,
“give me liberty or give me death.” The absurdity of this “defense”
should be evident at once, for the issue is not whether Jones was
willing to risk death personally in his defensive struggle against
Smith; the issue is whether he was willing to kill other innocent
people in pursuit of his legitimate end. For Jones was in truth
acting on the completely indefensible slogan: “Give me liberty or
give them death” – surely a far less noble battle cry.
even a just defensive war, is only proper when the exercise of violence
is rigorously limited to the individual criminals themselves. We
may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have
met this criterion.
It has often
been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development
of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons,
rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree
rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era.
Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number
of human lives, the difference is a very big one. But a particularly
libertarian reply is that while the bow and arrow, and even the
rifle, can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals,
modern nuclear weapons cannot. Here is a crucial difference in kind.
the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it
could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear
weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons
are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction.
(The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass
of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical
area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar
weapons, or the threat thereof, is a crime against humanity for
which there can be no justification.
This is why
the old clich no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will
to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace.
For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they
cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian
manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear
disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake.
all the aspects of liberty, such disarmament becomes the highest
political good that can be pursued in the modern world. For just
as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny
so mass murder – indeed murder so widespread as to threaten
human civilization and human survival itself – is the worst
crime that any man could possibly commit. And that crime is now
all too possible. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant
about price controls or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders
at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?
warfare is totally illegitimate even for individuals defending themselves
against criminal assault, how much more so is nuclear or even “conventional”
warfare between States!
Let us now
bring the State into our discussion. Since each State arrogates
to itself a monopoly of violence over a territorial area, so long
as its depredations and extortions go unresisted, there is said
to be “peace” within the area, since the only violence is continuing
and one-way, directed by the State downward against its people.
Open conflict within the area only breaks out in the case of “revolutions,”
in which people resist the use of State power against them. Both
the quiet case of the State unresisted and the case of open revolution
may be termed “vertical violence”: violence of the State against
its public or vice versa.
In the existing
world, each land area is ruled over by a State organization, with
a number of States scattered over the earth, each with a monopoly
of violence over its own territory. No super-state exists with a
monopoly of violence over the entire world; and so a state of “anarchy”
exists between the several States.
And so, except for revolutions, which occur only sporadically, the
open violence and two-sided conflict in the world takes place between
two or more States, i.e., what is called “international war” or
Now there are
crucial and vital differences between inter-State warfare on the
one hand and revolutions against the State or conflicts between
private individuals on the other. In a revolution the conflict takes
place within the same geographical area: both the minions
of the State and the revolutionaries inhabit the same territory.
Inter-State warfare, on the other hand, takes place between two
groups, each having a monopoly over its own geographical area, i.e.,
it takes place between inhabitants of different territories. From
this difference flow several important consequences:
- In inter-State
war, the scope for the use of modern weapons of mass destruction
is far greater. For if the escalation of weaponry in an intra-territorial
conflict becomes too great, each side will blow itself up with
the weapons directed against the other. Neither a revolutionary
group nor a State combatting revolution, for example, can use
nuclear weapons against the other. But, on the other hand, when
the warring parties inhabit different territorial areas, the
scope for modern weaponry becomes enormous, and the entire arsenal
of mass devastation can come into play.
- A second
corollary consequence is that while it is possible for
revolutionaries to pinpoint their targets and confine them to
their State enemies, and thus avoid aggressing against innocent
people, pinpointing is far less possible in an inter-State war.
This is true even with older weapons; and, of course, with modern
weapons there can be no pinpointing whatever.
since each State can mobilize all the people and resources in
its territory, the other State comes to regard all the citizens
of the opposing country as at least temporarily its enemies
and to treat them accordingly by extending the war to them.
of the consequences of inter-territorial war make it almost inevitable
that inter-State war will involve aggression by each side against
the innocent civilians – the private individuals – of
the other. This inevitability becomes absolute with modern weapons
of mass destruction.
If one distinct
attribute of inter-State war is inter-territoriality, another unique
attribute stems from the fact that each State lives by taxation
over its subjects. Any war against another State, therefore, involves
the increase and extension of taxation-aggression against its own
people. Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually
are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions
can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions
of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression
against the taxpayer.
All State wars,
therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own
taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare)
involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians
ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are often
financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the
State rulers; and private conflicts may confine their violence to
the actual criminals. We must therefore conclude that, while some
revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State
wars are always to be condemned.
might object as follows: “While we too deplore the use of taxation
for warfare, and the State’s monopoly of defense service, we have
to recognize that these conditions exist, and while they do, we
must support the State in just wars of defense.”
In the light
of our discussion above, the reply would go as follows: “Yes, States
exist, and as long as they do, the libertarian attitude toward the
State should be to say to it, in effect: ‘All right, you exist,
but so long as you do, at least confine your activities to
the area which you monopolize.'”
In short, the
libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area
of State aggression against all private individuals, “foreign” and
“domestic.” The only way to do this, in international affairs, is
for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine
its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress
against other State-monopolists – particularly the people
ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian
is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion
of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance
of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective
States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break
out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as
that we have that rarity – an unusually clear-cut case in which
the State is actually trying to defend the property of one of its
citizens. A citizen of country A travels or invests in country B,
and then State B aggresses against his person or confiscates his
property. Surely, our libertarian critic might argue, here is a
clear-cut case where State A should threaten or commit war against
State B in order to defend the property of “its” citizen. Since,
the argument runs, the State has taken upon itself the monopoly
of defense of its citizens, it then has the obligation to go to
war on behalf of any citizen, and libertarians must support such
a war as a just one.
But the point
again is that each State has a monopoly of violence, and therefore
of defense, only over its territorial area. It has no such
monopoly – in fact it has no power at all – over any other
geographical area. Therefore, if an inhabitant of country A should
move to or invest in country B, the libertarian must argue that
he thereby takes his chances with the State monopolist of country
B, and that it would be immoral and criminal for State A to tax
people in country A and to kill numerous innocents in country
B in order to defend the property of the traveller or investor.
It should also
be pointed out that there is no defense against nuclear weapons
(the only current “defense” being the threat of “mutually assured
destruction”) and, therefore, that the State cannot fulfill
any sort of international defense function so long as these weapons
objective, then, should be, regardless of the specific causes of
any conflict, to pressure States not to launch wars against other
States and, should a war break out, to pressure them to sue for
peace and negotiate a cease-fire and a peace treaty as quickly as
physically possible. This objective, incidentally, was enshrined
in the old-fashioned international law of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, i.e., the ideal that no State aggress against the territory
of another – which is now called the “peaceful coexistence”
that despite libertarian opposition, war has begun and the warring
States are not negotiating a peace. What, then, should be the libertarian
position? Clearly, to reduce the scope of assault against innocent
civilians as much as possible. Old-fashioned international law had
two excellent devices for this purpose: the “laws of war,” and the
“laws of neutrality” or “neutrals’ rights.” The laws of neutrality
were designed to keep any war that breaks out strictly confined
to the warring States themselves, without aggression against the
States, or particularly the peoples, of the other nations. Hence,
the importance of such ancient and now forgotten American principles
as “freedom of the seas” or severe limitations upon the rights of
warring States to repress neutral trade with the enemy country.
In short, the libertarian position is to induce the warring States
to observe fully the rights of neutral citizens.
For their part,
the “laws of war” were designed to limit as much as possible the
invasion by warring States of the rights of the civilians of the
respective warring countries. As the British jurist F.J.P. Veale
principle of this code was that hostilities between civilized
peoples must be limited to the armed forces actually engaged….
It drew a distinction between combatants and noncombatants by
laying down that the sole business of the combatants is to fight
each other and, consequently that noncombatants must be excluded
from the scope of military operations.
all wars, regardless of motive, the libertarian knows that there
may well be varying degrees of guilt among States for any specific
war. But his overriding consideration is the condemnation of any
State participation in war. Hence, his policy is that of exerting
pressure on all States not to start or engage in a war, to stop
one that has begun, and to reduce the scope of any persisting war
in injuring civilians of either side or no side.
of the libertarian policy of peaceful coexistence and nonintervention
between States is the rigorous abstention from any foreign aid,
aid from one State to another. For any aid given by State A to State
B (1) increases the tax aggression against the people of country
A, and (2) aggravates the suppression by State B of its own people.
Let us see
how libertarian theory applies to the problem of imperialism,
which may be defined as the aggression of State A over the people
of country B, and the subsequent maintenance of this foreign rule.
This rule could either be directly over country B, or indirectly
through a subsidiary client State B. Revolution by the people of
B against the imperial rule of A (either directly or against client
State B) is certainly legitimate, provided again that the revolutionary
fire be directed only against the rulers.
It has often
been maintained by conservatives – and even by some libertarians
– that Western imperialism over undeveloped countries should
be supported as more watchful of property rights than any successor
native government might be. But first, judging what might follow
the status quo is purely speculative, whereas the oppression of
existing imperial rule over the people of country B is all too real
and culpable. And secondly, this analysis neglects the injuries
of imperialism suffered by the Western taxpayer, who is mulcted
and burdened to pay for the wars of conquest and then for the maintenance
of the imperial bureaucracy. On this latter ground alone, the libertarian
must condemn imperialism.
to all inter-State war mean that the libertarian can never countenance
change of geographical boundaries – that he is consigning the
world to a freezing of unjust territorial regimes? Certainly not.
example, that the hypothetical State of “Walldavia” has attacked
“Ruritania” and annexed the western part of the country. The Western
Ruritanians now long to be reunited with their Ruritanian brethren
(perhaps because they wish to use their Ruritanian language undisturbed).
How is this to be achieved? There is, of course, the route of peaceful
negotiations between the two powers; but suppose that the Walldavian
imperialists prove adamant. Or, libertarian Walldavians can put
pressure on their State to abandon its conquest in the name of justice.
But suppose that this, too, does not work. What then?
We must still
maintain the illegitimacy of the Ruritanian State’s mounting a war
against Walldavia. The legitimate routes to geographical change
are (1) revolutionary uprisings by the oppressed Western Ruritanian
people, and (2) aid by private Ruritanian groups (or, for that matter,
by friends of the Ruritanian cause in other countries) to the Western
rebels – either in the form of equipment or volunteer personnel.
must allude to the domestic tyranny that is the inevitable accompaniment
of inter-State war, a tyranny that usually lingers long after the
war is over. Randolph Bourne realized that “war is the health of
the State.” It is in war
that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in
number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the
The root myth
that enables the State to wax fat off war is the canard that war
is a defense by the State of its subjects. The facts
are precisely the reverse. For if war is the health of the State,
it is also its greatest danger. A State can only “die” by defeat
in war or by revolution. In war, therefore, the State frantically
mobilizes the people to fight for it against another State, under
the pretext that it is fighting for them. Society becomes militarized
and statized, it becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies,
rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort,
happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest. Society
becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morale – as
Albert Jay Nock once phrased it – of an “army on the march.”
See Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas
City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 172–81; Murray N.
a New Liberty, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp.
Ibid., p. 15.
Spooner, No Treason, p. 19.
Thus, as Hume stated:
more surprising … than the easiness with which the many
are governed by the few and the implicit submission with which
men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their
rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected,
we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed,
the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is,
therefore, on opinion that government is founded; and this maxim
extends to the most despotic and most military governments.
Essays: Literary, Moral and Political (London: Ward, Locke,
and Taylor, n.d.), p. 23; also see, Étienne de la Botie,
Politics of Obedience: The
Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (New York: Free Life Editions,
1975); and Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 188ff.
See Rothbard, For a New Liberty, pp. 109–16.
Joseph Needham, “Review of Karl A. Witffogel, Oriental Despotism,”
Science and Society (1958): 61, 65. On the explicit search for power
on the part of the “collectivist” intellectuals during the Progressive
period of the twentieth century, see James Gilbert, Designing
the Industrial State (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972). For
more on the alliance between intellectuals and the state, see Bertrand
de Jouvenel, “The Treatment of Capitalism by Continental Intellectuals,”
and John Lukacs, “Intellectual Class or Intellectual Profession?”
in George B. deHuszar, ed., The Intellectuals (Glencoe,
Ill.: Free Press, 1960), pp. 385–99, and 521–22; Bertrand
de Jouvenel, On Power (New York: Viking Press, 1949); Murray
N. Rothbard, “The Anatomy of the State,” in Egalitarianism
as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (Washington,
D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), pp. 37–42; and Rothbard,
For a New Liberty, pp. 59–70.
Richard Neustadt, “Presidency at Mid-Century,” Law and Contemporary
Problems (Autumn 1956): 609–45; Townsend Hoopes, “The Persistence
of Illusion: The Soviet Economic Drive and American National Interest,”
Yale Review (March 1960): 336, cited in Robert J. Bresler,
The Ideology of the Executive State: Legacy of Liberal Internationalism
(Menlo Park, Calif.: Institute for Humane Studies, n.d.), pp. 4–5.
Nixon and Huber cited in ibid., pp. 5, 16–17; and in Thomas
Reeves and Karl Hess, The End of the Draft (New York: Vintage
Books, 1970), pp. 64–65. On the national security managers,
also see Marcus Raskin, “The Megadeath Intellectuals,” New York
Review of Books (14 November 1963): 6–7.
“Given territorial area” in this context of course implicitly means
“beyond the area of each property owner’s just property.” Obviously,
in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power
over his own just property, Jones over his, etc. The State, or government,
claims and exercises a compulsory monopoly of defense and ultimate
decision-making over an area larger than an individual’s justly
acquired property. Smith, Jones, etc. are thereby prohibited by
“the government” from having nothing to do with that “government”
and from making their own defense contracts with a competing agency.
I am indebted to Professor Sidney Morgenbesser for raising this
Albert Jay Nock, On Doing the Right Thing, and Other Essays
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), p. 143.
John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government (New York:
Liberal Arts Press, 1953), pp. 16–18.
Ibid., pp. 25–27.
See Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing,
1972); F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1,
Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973),
pp. 72–93, and Murray N. Rothbard, For A New Liberty,
rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 234–43.
On ancient Ireland, see Joseph R. Peden, “Stateless Societies: Ancient
Ireland,” The Libertarian Forum (April 1971): 3. Cf., and
more extensively, Peden, “Property Rights in Celtic Irish Law,”
Journal of Libertarian Studies 1(Spring 1977): 81–95.
Also see Daniel A. Binchy, Anglo-Saxon and Irish Kingship
(London: Oxford University Press, 1970); Myles Dillon, The Celtic
Realms (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967), and
idem, Early Irish Society (Dublin, 1954). Irish law as based
on natural law is discussed in Charles Donahue, “Early Celtic Laws”
(unpublished paper, delivered at the Columbia University Seminar
on the History of Legal and Political Thought, Autumn, 1964), pp.
13ff. Also see Rothbard, For A New Liberty, pp. 239–43.
Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law (New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press), p. 204; quoted in Randy E. Barnett, “Fuller,
Law, and Anarchism,” The Libertarian Forum (February 1976):
Fuller, Morality of Law, p. 32.
Barnett, “Fuller, Law, and Anarchism,” p. 66.
Both features are essential to the historical category of the State;
various utopian schemes to dispense with the first trait and keep
the second would still come under the present strictures as applied
to the second trait.
Barnett, “Fuller, Law, and Anarchism,” p. 7.
See Frank Chodorov, Out
of Step (New York: Devin-Adair, 1962), p. 237. For a critique
of the ability to pay and other attempts to provide canons of “justice”
for taxation, see Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 2nd
ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 135–67.
Mises recognized this point, and supported the right of each individual
to secede in theory, stopping short of the individual for merely
“technical considerations.” Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism,
2nd ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978), pp. 109–10.
On repudiation of government debt, see Frank Chodorov, “Don’t Buy
Government Bonds,” in Out of Step (New York: Devin-Adair,
1962), pp. 170–77; and Murray N. Rothbard, Man,
Economy, and State (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1962),
vol. 2, pp. 881–83.
There is considerable evidence that the Soviet economy only works
at all because of the pervasiveness of bribery or “blat”; Margaret
Miller calls it “the shadow system of private enterprise within
planning.” Margaret Miller, “Markets in Russia,” in M. Miller, T.
Piotrowicz, L. Sirc, and H. Smith, Communist Economy Under Change
(London: Institute for Economic Affairs, 1963), pp. 23–30.
tells a charming and instructive story of the contrast between “corruption”
father] believed that political corruption was inevitable under
democracy, and even argued, out of his own experience, that it
had its uses. One of his favorite anecdotes was about a huge swinging
sign that used to hang outside his place of business in Paca Street.
When the building was built in 1885, he simply hung out the sign,
sent for the city councilman of the district, and gave him $20.
This was in full settlement forevermore of all permit and privilege
fees, easement taxes, and other such costs and imposts. The city
councilman pocketed the money, and in return was supposed to stave
off any cops, building inspectors, or other functionaries who
had any lawful interest in the matter, or tried to horn in for
private profit. Being an honorable man according to his lights,
he kept his bargain, and the sign flapped and squeaked in the
breeze for ten years. But then, in 1895, Baltimore had a reform
wave, the councilman was voted out of office, and the idealists
in the City Hall sent word that a license to maintain the sign
would cost $62.75 a year. It came down the next day. This
was proof to my father that reform was mainly only a conspiracy
of prehensile charlatans to mulct taxpayers.
Happy Days: 1880–1892 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1947),
For more on the proper strategy for liberty, see pp. 257–74
See Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas
City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), p. 237.
For a clear statement of the moral validity of the distinction between
combatants and noncombatants, see G.E.M. Anscombe, Mr. Truman’s
Degree (Oxford: privately printed, 1956). The pamphlet was issued
as a protest against the granting of an honorary doctorate to President
Truman by Oxford University.
It is curious and inconsistent that conservative advocates of “limited
government” denounce as absurd any proposal for eliminating a monopoly
of violence over a given territory, thus leaving private individuals
without an overlord, and yet are equally insistent on leaving
nation-States without an overlord to settle disputes between
There is another consideration which applies rather to “domestic”
defense within a State’s territory: the less the State can
successfully defend the inhabitants of its area against attack by
(non-State) criminals, the more these inhabitants may come
to learn the inefficiency of State operations, and the more they
will turn to non-State methods of defense. Failure by the State
to defend, therefore, may have educative value for the public.
F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism (Appleton, Wisc.: C.C.
Nelson, 1953), p. 58.
Two further empirical points may be made about Western imperialism.
First, the property rights respected were largely those of the Europeans;
the native population often found their best lands stolen
from them by the imperialists, and their labor coerced by violence
into working mines or landed estates acquired by this theft.
another myth holds that the “gunboat diplomacy” of the turn of the
twentieth century was, after all, a defense of the property rights
of Western investors in backward countries. But, apart from our
above strictures against going beyond any given State’s monopolized
land area, it is generally overlooked that the bulk of gunboat actions
were in defense not of private investments, but of Western holders
of native government bonds. The Western powers coerced the native
governments into increasing tax aggression upon their own people
in order to pay off foreign bondholders. This was no action on behalf
of private property – quite the contrary.
Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals, C. Resek, ed.
(New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 69.
An earlier version of this view can be found in Murray N. Rothbard,
“War, Peace, and the State,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against
Nature, and Other Essays (Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review
Press, 1974), pp. 70–80.