Reflections on the State

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Why the State?

Just about everyone lives under a State. States are what the world has come to. We and our forefathers have both chosen this order and had it imposed on us. Can this whole order be a bad mistake? Yes, it can, if it is based upon faulty theory. Believing in spontaneous generation, not the germ theory of disease, doctors didn’t know enough to wash their hands 140 years ago. We’re like those doctors.

States were far weaker only 50 years ago and weaker still 100 years ago. Are bigger and stronger and more intrusive States, like the germ theory of disease, a great boon for mankind, a wonderful discovery that prolongs and saves lives? The bloody 20th century, a ton of evidence to the contrary, and the best theory all strongly suggest the opposite: All States harm mankind and the bigger they are the more harm they cause.

If the State destroys, then why is it the dominant political form? Basically because it gains power over its subjects who, for a variety of reasons, either cannot or do not resist that power. Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock tell us much about these developments.

The reactions of the State’s citizens to the State fall into a great many categories, ranging from love to hate, indifference to resistance. Three prominent categories are worth mentioning. There are those who do not like the State but do not resist it. They realize that the State possesses the monopoly of legal violence in the area over which it rules and they view it as an irresistible force. They don’t think it’s worth fighting City Hall. Their behavior looks like those who are indifferent.

Then there are people who’d like to resist. Some even try but they fail to do much. They discover that the rulers are clever enough to prevent serious organized resistance from groups within the State. The rulers have a catalog of methods of control, including co-opting, subsidy, taxes, smear, propaganda, force, law, ballot access control, press dominance, etc.

Then there are very many people who loyally support, even love, the State. There are many reasons why they cling to the State.

  1. Error of identification. People long to be identified as something, an American or a Frenchman or a Russian. These are matters of nation, country, society, custom, language, group, religion, culture, not State. Yet in many people’s minds, they merge. The State comes to represent what a person is. The State gains loyalty by blurring the lines between itself, country and society. Patriotism, a love of country, overlaps with love of State.

  2. Error of attribution. People make the logical error of attributing progress achieved by the country to the State: Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. If a horse wins a race despite a 5-pound handicap, it wins despite the extra weight not because of it.

  3. Illusion of order. People fear anarchy. They think that the power of the State to suppress and keep order is better than exposure to unnamed and unseen anarchic forces. Fear of one’s fellow man sows the seeds of support of the State. This solution to the problem of order is an illusion that is based on contradiction, however. If one fears men, and the rulers are men, then the rulers are also to be feared. In fact, the State to whom one gives such great power is even more to be feared. There is no security of life when one turns one’s life over to one’s jailer.

  4. Illusion of security. People want security, insurance against the trials of life, a father that is there to feed and house them when they have troubles. It is illusion to think that the State can provide comfort. The State has no resources of its own, so it must draw them from the citizens themselves. In the process, much waste occurs, insecurity of rights is fostered, and the overall productivity of the people is reduced. In its external relations, which are frequently aggressive, the State wastes still more resources. Hence, the State makes people less secure.

  5. Vicarious pleasure. Many identify with the State’s power. They feel good when the State uses its power. Death and destruction do not bother them. They like the idea of wars and armies marching, big tanks, missiles and rockets, and space ships flying to the moon. If the State is a superpower, all the better.

  6. Hunger for power and wealth. Many people benefit from the State. Perhaps they rule, or gain subsidies or laws that favor them.

  7. Philosophy. There are those like Hegel who justify the State and replace God with the State.

  8. Miscalculation. Many people think the State is a good deal. These people can’t count or calculate. They give up $1 and get back $0.80 and do not know it. Sometimes they underestimate the costs they bear now and in the future. Sometimes they overestimate the benefits. Of course, the State does what it can to help them miscalculate.

  9. Hope. This is a kind of misplaced faith. People irrationally hope and believe that the State’s power will ameliorate various evils, usually in a social context. When the State’s programs fail, these people are incapable of analyzing the reason for the failure because of the complexity of social situations and because of their biased hopes.

  10. Gullibility and propaganda. The State encourages illusions about its powers and abilities.

The State’s success as a political form, even though it is a counterproductive form of human organization, has all these roots and no doubt more that I am overlooking.

The State’s concentration of power

States are defined by their possession of a monopoly of legalized violence in a territorial area. But they usually also possess another signal feature: a peculiar pyramidal power structure. The State has a leadership consisting of a rather small group of men. Below each leader is the entire power of the people, and this amplifies the leader into a powerful concentrated force. The men in a country who like to use power see it for the taking in every State, and they take it by becoming its leaders. This process brings power-loving men into positions of power. This turns a nation’s pinnacle into a power-wielding dynamo that can be turned internally or externally.

The leaders represent all their subjects in their inter-State (called international) relations. The various rulers, many being power-loving men, often do not get along with one another and have ambitions to expand their rule. Hence, the system of States with their concentrated powers is geared to produce strife and often war of a more serious scope than mankind’s wars before the advent of States. Total war is an invention of the modern State.

If the masses have evil aspirations, and they do, the State focuses and embodies them. If the leaders have evil impulses, and they do, they are given greater scope. Hardly ever do leaders work as hard for peace as they do for conquest, because the State is power and attracts those who wish to use power. Peace talk comes mainly from those outside the State system. Even peaceable rulers are trapped by the system, often their own nasty subjects, and find it hard to promote peace. The results are deadly for the human race.

Overlooked costs

The State imposes, controls, robs, kills and invades, all of which is wrong. These actions are unhealthy for the souls of the citizens. They are also very costly. But I think we may not fully understand the long-term dynamic of some of these costs. Costly social programs, once begun, go on and on and on. War can last generations, even after it supposedly has officially ended.

Often with public consent, often without it, States consciously and rationally choose to begin conflicts, but are the underlying calculations flawed? Shortsighted? Do peoples and rulers fail to count all the costs of conflicts? Do they fail to understand the longstanding unhappiness these choices bring? Do they underestimate how long conflicts last and how the human and property costs mount? I hypothesize that this is the case.

Observe. The Kashmiri conflict is 60 years old. Today’s Irish and English still are paying the price of the English invasion of Ireland over 800 years ago and the subsequent attempt to wipe out Catholicism. The South has not forgotten the North’s invasion 145 years ago. Many generations of Arabs will remember the U.S. invasion of Iraq and seek justice. The 9/11/01 attack is related to the U.S. presence in Lebanon which goes back to 1957, some 44 years earlier. The Tamil-Sri Lankan conflict over secession is 30 years old. The Korean conflict is still not settled after 55 years.

Four elements of psychology underlie my hypothesis. First, human beings can be very determined. Second, human beings can pass memories of injustice on indefinitely. Third, human beings are prepared to die for what they believe in. Fourth, the horizon of a leader is approximately his tenure of leadership which is far shorter than the collective and enduring memories of those who bear the ultimate costs of his decisions..

To a leader and his cheerleaders, power looks a lot better in the short-run than in the long-run. But none of them will be around in the long-run. They won’t even be around beyond a few terms in office. This is a strong argument for greatly limiting State power.

Costs of conflicts are sometimes hidden and forgotten. The 45-year Cold War has ended, for the time being. It is altogether too easy to forget that the bad and unrealized outcome of the Cold War, nuclear Armageddon, could have occurred. The risk was high. We might have suffered grievously heavy costs. To forget that risk because the gamble paid off is to misunderstand the flawed calculations upon which the Cold War was based. Mutual assured destruction was an incredibly poor policy choice compared to the no-holds-barred pursuit of peace. Trumpeting that we won the Cold War by an arms race is not only bad history but a bad basis for future policy based once again on even more force of arms. The next series of armed conflicts need not end so happily.

Risk is a peculiar thing and not well understood. It has to do with the loss you might incur if something bad happens. Sometimes the bad outcome does not happen and the player begins to forget the risk or figure it isn’t really there anymore. But it is. And when it hits, you understand, even if it is too late to do anything about it.

And have all the costs of the Cold War been incurred yet? Far from it. Our leaders still have the cold war mentality. Our troops are still in far-flung places with missions redefined. Disarmament has not proceeded very far. If even one atomic device left over from the Cold War is exploded over one city anywhere in the world, what will we then think? Probably about blame. We’ll be blaming the evil men who exploded it, the lax security of those who lost it, and the failures of those who could have stopped it. We’ll be out for revenge. But what we should be thinking is that this is the cost of war-making rather than peace-making. This is a long-term cost of the Cold War.

Costs of the State that involve risk are also hidden. For example, we have a few men who are given enormous power. The risk is obvious but overlooked. The nation is vulnerable to the defects of character and emotion, limitations of mind and intelligence, and limited information of a few men. Concentrating power in a few men is like an investment with all one’s wealth placed on one stock. Plunging in stocks usually fails and all is lost.

The U.S. has experienced this problem time and time again, but we have not recognized this problem for what it is. In fact, the Congress has supinely abdicated any serious debate on issues of war and defers to the President. So we have given him even more power! This is really a dumb thing to do. An all-powerful President is nothing more than a highly risky gamble. We have already lost that gamble far too many times. Count the wars and interventions since 1945 and you will know how many times.

Our leaders and their supporters among us overestimate the expected net benefits of fighting. They think navely that there is a benefit to a superpower stemming from its ability to impose on others. This is illusion. Superpowers create multiple enemies. The fights grow larger, more frequent, and more destructive as the opponents multiply and build their strength. As the superpower expands, it requires ever more territory and expenditure to secure its new outposts. It becomes ever more vulnerable. There is no security whatsoever in superpower politics and expansion.

Do we the people gain as the U.S. exercises its so-called leadership responsibility in the world? What a lot of hooey that is, designed to justify a losing power game. Is the game worth it, or is it illusion? When the sons are slain and maimed, when nothing real is gained or attained, isn’t it illusion, La Grande Illusion? What are the gains from World Wars I and II? Some States fended off some other States. We ran just to stay in one place. We were held back by the struggles. We were not made better off. We defended, without necessity, because of the piled-up errors of States. Many millions of lives were destroyed. Each War created the conditions for yet more wars, such as the Cold War. What were the gains from Korea and Vietnam? The U.S. heavily inserted itself into the Middle East during the Cold War in order to contain the Soviet Union. From that questionable policy has sprung today’s involvement for which the bills are piling up.

Are the long-run costs of the power game that produces world-wide flashpoints such as Taiwan and the 38th parallel adequately appreciated by its supporters? I very much doubt it.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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