The Inherent Instability of the State

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Journalists have taken note of the absurdity of US claims that it is running Iraq. US overseers, civilian and military, must travel in armed convoys everywhere they go, guarded by Bradley tanks and heavily armed soldiers in body armor. Authorities assume that they would be gunned down if they traveled without these guards.

Forget trying to tell people how to behave or bringing liberty and order; American authorities are too busy watching their backs. Of the troops Peter Mass of the New York Times says: "Their job is to provide security for [US officials], not for the people of Baghdad." True, no doubt, but easier for a journalist to recognize (and point out) when reporting on a foreign occupation than when the same is true right here at home.

We can learn from watching US efforts in Iraq. The very instability of a foreign regime ruling a hostile country teaches broader lessons on the nature of the state, lessons that apply to any state anywhere.

First, whether US officials are in Iraq or on their home turf, security for themselves is always the first concern. The government secures nothing as elaborately as DC. As for the rest of the country, protecting the public is always and everywhere a luxury the state may or may not afford. These services are dispensable. As for catching criminals, the state always has far stricter punishment for people who attack the state rather than those who attack each other.

To protect itself is why the state insists on owning far more guns than anyone else. Its mouthpieces try to explain that this is because the state is the most essential institution, more important than the individual, the family, the church, or the civic association. But the truth is that the state is the least essential of any institution in society. It has the same relationship to society that a parasite does to its host.

As for the alternative to the state, the Rothbardian position is indisputable: there is nothing worthwhile that the state does that could not be done by voluntary means, and more efficiently. Care for the poor and the weak, protection for consumers, providing infrastructure, countering business cycles, regulating, resolving disputes, and all the rest, can be done better privately.

The security we enjoy day to day, for example, is nearly always provided privately, not publicly: locks, alarm systems, security guards, private ownership of guns, gated subdivisions, good neighbors, and the like. Rather than making us more secure, the government’s military agencies actually stir up trouble. Meanwhile, its military establishment stands ready to attack any threat to the state, but will look past authentic threats to the person and property of private people.

Second, the rule of the state is always vulnerable to serious challenge. The infant state in Iraq is only the most conspicuous case. It does not rule in any comprehensive way. It occupies official buildings and it can claim to speak on behalf of the country. But it doesn’t even enjoy the appearance of legitimacy. This fact is widely known, but usually chalked up to an insufficient numbers of troops.

As Gen. McKiernan, commander of ground forces, admitted in a rare moment of candor: "Ask yourself if you could secure all of California with 150,000 troops. The answer is no." Being a military man, he is convinced that having 100 times as many troops would do the trick, but it wouldn’t. It might curb the gunfire and looting that is a daily part of life in Iraq. And it might go some way toward bringing other areas of the country under control, whereas right now the US doesn’t pretend to be a state in any area but a small part of the country. But troops do not confer legitimacy.

What would confer legitimacy? Certain idealized and largely unrealizable conditions must be in place. The US would have to find real Iraqis who could convince people that they are not puppets of the US. These people would have to be natural elites who earned their status through trust of the people, a trust which would likely be undone the moment they were seen to be backed by the occupying power. To the extent that such people were able to bamboozle Iraqis concerning their independence from the occupier, it would be the success of an illusion.

Which bring us to our third point: legitimacy for any state is based on an illusion. As a conquering, occupying power, the US has a special problem in Iraq that is simply impossible to overcome. It is hardly a mystery that what is seen as an armed gang of robbers calls for voluntary allegiance from few if any Iraqis. What cries out for explanation is why any state anywhere should be obeyed or deferred to in any sense.

What is legitimacy? In the last several hundred years, it has had to do with the belief that the state rules by consent. The usual modern justification for the state is the social-contract model. The idea is that people are looking for some sort of security for their persons and property and, as a society, decide to assign the job to the state. The state undertakes to perform certain social functions in exchange for which people decided that it’s okay for the government to tax them, monopolize certain functions, and tell them what to do.

The problem with the social-contract model is that it is a myth. If it were true that the people agree to be ruled, the state would be essentially a voluntary organization and everyone would clearly see its benefit. It would not have to be armed to the teeth. It would not fear competitive organizations that provide superior services. It would let people out of the deal, even on an individual level, and permit the right of secession. Its officials would not need a vast corps of armed bodyguards, and it would sense the need to ask every new generation if it wanted the same deal the last one had. If the state were voluntary, we would all be free to not pay taxes, not use the state’s money, and not obey its dictates.

Clearly, this is not the case. No matter how much legitimacy a state believes it has, or how much the people are willing to concede it a level of legitimacy, the state rules simply because it grabbed power and somehow managed (through propaganda) to make it seem otherwise. The US state once enjoyed some semblance of legitimacy because it left people alone. Hardly anyone had contact with the federal government in its early years. It didn’t need to worry about consent because it neither asked much nor provided much. That is no longer true. As for voluntary rule, that definitively ended after 1865 when the state finally defeated the Southern attempt to get out from under its rule.

Nowadays, the US state must pursue massive surveillance, use immense coercion, engineer consent through kept intellectuals and media, convince us that the right to vote means that we have somehow chosen our rulers, and distract us with crazy foreign wars while invoking patriotic themes, in order to bring itself legitimacy.

Even so, examining polls across Republican and Democratic administrations, it seems clear that at any one time, 20 to 30 percent of the American public has serious and fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the American regime, as well it should. The numbers ebb and flow depending on circumstances. In a state of war, when people believe that a foreign power is a greater threat than their own government, they are more willing to go along with being ruled by leviathan, which is why leviathan likes war so much.

What would happen if these numbers passed 50 percent or became as high as 70, 80, or 90 percent? Something would have to give, just as something is going to give in Iraq. The troops will have to leave when it is no longer possible to keep up the pretense of control. The costs of maintaining the illusion outweigh the risk. And at some point, it may become impossible for the US state to keep up its pretense to be the legitimate ruler of the US too. In the end, it’s all a matter of the numbers and a large range of inchoate factors like coalitions of interest groups and the relationships among the winners and losers in the ruling configuration of power.

Once we understand that there is nothing inherently legitimate about any state anywhere, we will have traveled a good part of the way toward freedom.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.

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