The Irrelevance of the State

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I continue to receive responses from readers who cannot understand why I do not have a "what can we do?" answer to the problems that beset not only America, but the entire world. There is a sad, childlike quality to many of these e-mails, as though there is some authority figure — be it a politician or a writer — who can offer a magic solution to any difficulty. When I suggest to them that there is nothing that anyone "in authority" can do to change any of this, and that the only change that can begin to correct our present course is to be found within their own thinking, their shattered confidence in me to offer yet another "bold new program" turns to frustration and anger. For so long we have abdicated our individual responsibility for the direction of our lives, that any suggestion that it is now timely to reclaim it meets with cries of contempt.

For those who have not yet gotten the message that our present condition is beyond institutional repair, and that civilization itself has run out of "solutions" to the problems it has created and is now in a State of collapse, you might wish to consider the warnings of a top CIA official. In an address at Duke University over two weeks ago, CIA Deputy Director for Operations, James Pavitt, declared: "Now for the hard truth. Despite the best efforts of so much of the world, the next terrorist attack — it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when." Even though, today, his agency has "more spies stealing more secrets than at any time in the history of the CIA," Pavitt noted that "with so many possible targets and an enemy more than willing to die, the perfect defense isn’t possible." To his credit, he added that increased counter-terrorism measures would require the sacrifice of so many liberties as to turn America into a system "not worth defending."

Pavitt’s words confirm one of the central theses of "chaos" theory: complex systems are too unpredictable to be controlled in furtherance of a given objective. This is why the Soviet Union and other systems of pervasive State planning have either collapsed or are in a State of disrepair. When this man declared "we in the government of the United States could (sic) neither prevent or precisely predict the devastating tragedy of the September 11th attacks" he was, whether knowingly or not, confirming the irrelevance of the State in a complex world.

There you have it, from someone at the top of the political food-chain: short of turning America into the kind of vicious police-State so familiar to KGB and SS operatives of the past, there is nothing that the most powerful nation-State in the history of the world can do to prevent more attacks such as occurred on September 11th. Out of respect for this man’s candor, please do not deluge him with e-mails berating his stance. Take his words as yet another wakeup call to your own sense of responsibility. You and I are the only persons who can bring about any fundamental changes in the butcherous madness that now besets our world. And our only means of doing so requires you and me to go deep within our own thinking, in order to identify — and discard — the divisive, conflict-ridden, and destructive assumptions whose ancestral voices we continue to channel.

Each of us must learn to energize our minds, to give up our habits of passively recycling the lies that are told us — as well as the truths that are withheld — by institutional voices. We must cease the practice of allowing others to formulate what should be our questions, heeding the warning of Andre Malraux: "[A] civilization can be defined at once by the basic questions it asks and by those it does not ask." We must also give up our eagerness for quick and easy answers — which any sharpie is well-equipped to provide — recalling the words of Milton Mayer: "The questions that can be answered aren’t worth asking." In short, each one of us must pursue what we most dread in this world: our own sense of responsibility.

The apparatus of the State has neither the capability nor the inclination to protect any of your interests. To the contrary, you are expected to provide the means — including your very lives — in order to protect the State. This is why wars have always increased the powers of political systems as they diminish individual liberties. The State is as dependent upon wars as orthodontists are on overbites, or lawyers are on disputes.

While the ostensible enemy is always portrayed as faceless "others," in reality every war is conducted by the State against its own citizenry. If you doubt this, ask yourself these questions: whose liberties have been more greatly curtailed since September 11th, Osama bin Laden’s or yours? Whose belongings are being searched at airports and other public buildings; whose telephone, computer, credit card, medical, bank, and employment records are being monitored: Al Qaida operatives or yours? Whose taxes will be increased and whose children will be called upon to die in this eternal war: leaders of the Islamic Jihad or yours? And who does the State have in mind as the object of a current federal bill to require driver’s licenses to contain computer chip records of the details of your life: Saddam Hussein or you?

If you have not already figured out the essential nature of the State, it is now time for you to do so. Every political system is a racket, run by and for the benefit of the most disreputable people in any society, and employing those methods that, to any decent folk, represent the lowest qualities in human behavior. Lying, threatening, coercing, killing, corrupting, deceiving, are such common characteristics in political life that we scarcely comment upon it anymore. And yet, if your child grew up exhibiting such traits, you would rightfully regard yourself as a parental failure!

Government schools have conditioned us in the belief, long ago Stated by Thomas Hobbes, that without the direction and supervision of the State, our lives would be "nasty, brutish and short." We have been told that, while we are incapable of managing our own lives, we are capable of electing wise leaders to do this for us! We have learned how to recite all of our socio-political catechisms with nary a glitch in meter. We laugh at notions of "political correctness," not realizing that the joke is on us: our minds have become little more than a mélange of contradictory beliefs and bromides about the necessity for the political domination of our lives. How many among us, while chortling over some bureaucratic nonsense, are prepared to admit to the absurdity of all of politics? "The Emperor’s New Clothes" is a story that every parent should not only read to his or her children, but should discuss with them its significance.

The "War on Terror" is the clearest expression of the failure of the State to foster a harmonious and orderly society. Having a diminished appeal to the minds and souls of increasing numbers of people, the American State has had to resort to ubiquitous fear and violence in an effort to sustain its authority. In so doing, it has revealed its own terrorist inclinations, the "dark side" of its character that it prefers to project onto others.

There are many otherwise intelligent people declaring that the attacks of September 11th were occasioned not by policies and practices of the United States government, but by some combination of "evil," petulance, and cultural envy! According to this view, some dozen and a half "terrorists" carefully plotted and carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center — knowing full well that they were going to be killed in the process — for no other reason than resentment of the fact that we have MTV and Calvin Klein jeans and women who can go out into public without being covered by a tent. In the end, their sandbox syllogism comes down to nothing more than this: "we" are "good," but "they" are "evil."

These same babblers are quick to condemn any who would doubt the validity of the party line. To suggest that these attacks were brought on by American government policies, they intone, is to justify them; a proposition reflecting not only an intellectual bankruptcy, but their ignorance of Newton’s "third law of motion." The men and women who died in the WTC collapse no more "deserved" to die than did those killed by an earthquake or tornado. If one is to speak intelligently about such matters, he or she ought to have proper respect for distinctions between causation and justification.

But intellectual clarity is not what these apologists for statism have in mind. I suspect that they are aware of the deeper implications these attacks have for the future of the State. The order and liberty that most people have been conditioned to expect from hierarchically structured political systems has been called into grave doubt by a handful of men armed only with box-cutters. Many of those who had been trained to believe that an all-powerful State could protect them from any threat, are now beginning to ask the sorts of questions left behind on government school playgrounds.

Having just completed a century that witnessed the State-caused deaths of some 200 million human beings in wars and genocidal practices; and having become aware of how politicians have manipulated wars and other crises in order to advance State powers, many of us have been looking elsewhere for the peace, liberty, and order that is not to be found in political systems. But to the statists, such inquiries are to be discouraged. And so, we are witnessing a spate of attacks upon "libertarian" thinking of late — some of it even coming from those with pretensions of libertarian sentiments. Those of us who understand that war has always been the greatest threat to liberty, have been accused of being "people who hate America," "delusional," "anti-American," "naïve," and "anti-free market," by men and women with a more restricted sense of what it means to live freely.

One can only ponder the vision of humanity shared by those who can, simultaneously, support the marketplace as a regulator of our economic needs while embracing the war system that negates the value of human beings. Do they believe that the collective exercise of deadly force is the essence of human values? Are missiles, invading armies, and F-16 fighter-bombers what they conceive of as market forces? Shall this become the mantra of the incestuous marriage of political and economic systems — to be emblazoned on allegedly "libertarian" think-tank T-shirts — "General Electric: Love It or Leave It"?

Perhaps the silliest attack on libertarianism came from the conservative Francis Fukuyama, a man whose earlier misprognosis of "the end of history" has not dissuaded him from offering this self-contradictory twaddle: after noting "the hostility of libertarians to big government," he declared that

"Sept. 11 ended this line of argument. It was a reminder to Americans of why government exists, and why it has to tax citizens and spend money to promote collective interests. It was only the government, and not the market or individuals, that could be depended on to send firemen into buildings, or to fight terrorists, or to screen passengers at airports. The terrorists were not attacking Americans as individuals, but symbols of American power like the World Trade Center and Pentagon." [emphasis added]

One must accumulate the benefits of many doubts in Mr. Fukuyama’s favor in endeavoring to explain this absurd paragraph. Perhaps he was lacking in the study of both history and evolutionary biology when he declared, earlier, that human history had come to an end; or perhaps, like so many others, his understanding of basic physics, chemistry, or engineering, gave him a diminished understanding of causality. Then, again, perhaps his parents never read "The Emperor’s New Clothes" to him when he was a child. That he could fail to recognize that his own words confirm the libertarian critique of the State is remarkable. "The terrorists were attacking . . . symbols of American power" on September 11th, and this is why the libertarian criticism of State power is flawed? Perhaps Mr. Fukuyama should read Mr. Pavitt’s assessment not only of September 11th, but of the capacity of the State to prevent future attacks!

There is desperation in the voices of those statists who hope that, by declaring libertarian thinking dead, they will have a clear field for what is the core premise of their social thinking: the subjection of human beings to domination by the State. They may have differing ideas as to how much leg chain to give to each of us — so that we may enjoy the illusions of liberty — but share that attribute so well observed by Hayek: "a fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces."

In this outpouring of writings about the demise of libertarian thinking, one is reminded not only of Shakespeare’s admonition about people who "protest too much," but of Mark Twain’s retort that reports of his death had been "greatly exaggerated." There is more wishful thinking than credibility in such assessments, not unlike that of the Elvis worshippers who would have us believe that he is really alive.

By any standard with which you judge the efficacy of any system, the State is irrelevant. Neither your health, economic well-being, the education of your children, the protection of your life and property, are in any way facilitated by the State: to the contrary, such interests are threatened by political institutions. In one of those last remaining functions that defenders of the State have clung to — i.e., national defense — events of 9/11 have shown the utter uselessness of the State, a fact that finds confirmation in the remarks of this CIA official.

The State may not be able to survive in a world of instant global communication, decentralized decision-making, and computerized "virtual realities." If so, its demise will come about not through "terrorists" or violent revolutionaries, but out of a sense of boredom; it will simply cease to entertain. The statists understand this. They know that, in a world of competing amusements, they must stage a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza — a never-ending war against the entire world — if the boobs are to be induced to keep buying tickets.

While working on my uncle’s farm as a child, I recall seeing him behead chickens. The birds flapped and fluttered about, spattering blood wherever their dying bodies took them. They made a mess of everything and a lot of noise, giving every appearance, to a young child, of purposeful behavior. But the chickens’ fates were sealed. So too, I believe, is that of the State, which insists in going out with the same bloody fanfare as the chickens.

In this age of decentralizing systems, there remains only one State function of which free men and women would readily approve: to go out of business. Its functions are no longer relevant to a complex and interrelated world. Politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, judges, prison officials, tax collectors, one and all, would then be freed up from the burdens of "public service." They could then return to their homes there, in the words of Lysander Spooner, to "content themselves with the exercise of only such rights and powers as nature has given to them in common with the rest of mankind."

May 6, 2002

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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