Under False Premises

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We live under false premises, the false premises of power. The State has been put over as a fraud. We are promised one thing. We get quite another.

The journey to self-government (anarchism) will be long and tough. We won’t arrive unless and until we clearly understand what the goal implies and why the goal is a good goal. Changes in human nature, in the ways we think, feel, and act, are not a necessary condition for us to create better social and political lives. Changes in understanding are.

We will understand the logic of self-government better when we understand the illogic of the State better. Most portrayals of the State draw on at least three concepts: sovereignty, legitimacy, and territorial integrity. States are defined by legitimate sovereignty over a fixed territorial area, or a legal monopoly of violence in a fixed region. I will argue that each of these three aspects of the State is inherently illogical and self-contradictory: sovereignty or a power monopoly, legality of such a power, and legality of such a power over a fixed area. The confused disorder and insecurity that flow from these contradictions help make the State a fundamentally malignant institution, securing not the blessings of liberty and security but their opposites. .


In organizing human society, the present tendency is to gravitate toward central and monopoly power relations. This understanding is so strong, so taken for granted, that it seems all but inherent in human nature. States are regarded as a foregone conclusion. We read that: "Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region’s peoples have opted for a mode of national development common throughout Eurasia – they all want to have sovereign states of their own."

Sovereignty is the ability to exercise supreme rule in a country without outside interference. A desire for one’s own State seems an entirely natural outcome of the history of many regions and peoples. After being tossed back and forth from empire to empire for hundreds of years, for example, no wonder that the Moldovan people voted heavily in favor of an independent Moldova rather than be contained in Romania.

If each of us owns clothing or a car, why don’t we have ourselves a State? The construction of a State will, however, usually be found to involve particular men and groups of men who use or stand ready to use violence to accomplish their aim, others who finance the procedure, and others who stand ready to occupy and run the new machinery. When we the voters are involved, we supply a patina of respectability by blessing the machine.

At present, (State) sovereignty is a widely-accepted concept. It shouldn’t be. We human beings should set a higher goal still, namely, the sovereignty of the individual over himself. We should come to understand that individual sovereignty (self-governance, liberty) is what holds out the greater promise for human life to prosper.

Sovereignty of the State is currently viewed as a good thing, especially when the ultimate sovereignty is thought to rest in "the people" as a whole. Sovereignty stemming from the people is an improvement, it is taught, over sovereignty of a lord, a dictator, a king, a pasha, an emperor, or an aristocrat. Is it? Why should this be so? If scientifically we could hold other things equal, would this be true? The resolution to that question depends on the extent of self-ownership, freedom, and property rights that these rulers grant. Which type of rule brings a higher degree of slavery with it? Which fosters more human progress? The comparison depends on the arbitrariness of that rule and the costs of injustice that it imposes. It depends on the costs of altering destructive government. Self-ownership, injustice, and the ability to control and alter the system are the criteria by which such judgments can be properly made. Hoppe argues that monarchy is better than democracy and self-governance better than both. For if a better taskmaster is one that provides more freedom, more rights, and fosters more prosperity, as is so fondly hoped of democracy, then logically the best condition of all is self-governance.

Logically, sovereignty means there are rulers and ruled. That often means rule by a group that perpetuates itself. That group may often rule over a restive and rebellious minority group that wishes to separate itself from the State. Bloody and prolonged violence sometimes results. Sovereignty in our day is thought a blessing, yet sovereignty is linked to rule over a territorial area with fixed geographical boundaries. The sovereign group does not countenance the sovereignty of a minority group on that territory, nor does it look kindly on sharing power with that minority or losing power if that minority gains in strength. Sovereignty then becomes a self-contradictory and illogical concept: It demands rule over a region separate from other surrounding regions, but it disallows a division of its own territorial area into areas of separate rule. It rules over others, but they have no chance to become rulers themselves.

In Moldova there exists a continuing ethnic dispute concerning eastern Moldova in which Russian-oriented groups in Transnistria seek separation from Moldova, while a large ethnic minority of Moldovans prefers to be under Moldova. Although Moldova has separated from the former Soviet Union, it does not want further separation of its claimed land. In Bhutan the ruling group has driven 120,000 Lhotshampas from their homes in the South into Nepal and India. Ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Sudan and many other places provide more examples of the violent and death-laden implications of an inconsistent concept of power like State sovereignty.

State sovereignty, supposedly a bulwark of security, is not a stable or secure structure. It always contains a time bomb of oppressive power ready to go off. Under its roof, one group may seize power over another and forcefully impose its preferences, for dress, language, religion, custom, thought, etc. One group may drive another from the land. One group may exterminate another group. That this does not always happen in "good" countries is beside the point. The risk or tendency of these things occurring in minor or major degree is always present because that is what sovereignty means, a monopoly on legalized violence. State sovereignty which is set up for the good of "the people" is easily turned against the people. This is another of its contradictions.

Why live under such circumstances? The alternative, which is individual sovereignty, is entirely logical. There is no inherent inconsistency in individuals of different persuasions living in proximity to one another as long as they are not forced to live together. If they wish voluntarily to separate and form cliques or communities, it can happen. Individuals may not understand or like each other. They may have vastly different ideas about how to live. If each can find its place and rightful property, which is what individual sovereignty entails, then fighting is not a necessary accompaniment of difference.

Self-governance does not mean human beings will dispense with violence or subdue age-old passions. Rivalries and hatreds that go back hundreds of years will not disappear under self-governance. However, matters are worse when the State enters the picture. Under State sovereignty, irritations, disagreements, feuds and rivalries turn into long-lasting struggles, battles, and full-scale wars in which many innocents are slaughtered. Disagreements are exacerbated by the arbitrary and discriminatory exercise of power that characterizes States, as well as by the strength of States which draws resources from an entire population.

The Israeli-Palestinian struggle hinges on dreams of Statehood. If there had been no aspirations for an Israeli State and a Palestinian State, there would have been conflict enough in this troubled land. Troubles between Jewish settlers and Palestinians go back to the 1880′s. Later, given an Israeli State juxtaposed with Palestinian aspirations, there began a history of serious conflict, dispossession, war, refugees, and international politics.

It is difficult to see how the existing conflicts could have reached their current virulence and lasted through numerous wars and acts of terrorism without State sovereignty having been heavily involved. The entire issue is phrased in terms of the survival of Israel as a State versus its destruction. The Zionist program was stated in terms of a Jewish State. The notion of non-Middle Eastern Jews immigrating and living side-by-side with Palestinians (of several religions) and coming to terms with each other without State involvement was never conceived of at the outset. The Zionist goal of a "home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured by public law" led to British support in 1917 for "a national home for the Jewish people." The seeds of conflict were sown both by the aspiration for a Jewish State and British support of it. Accommodations and agreements might have been worked out over time between Jew and Palestinian, but the logic of sovereignty was against it. Sovereignty is a drive for exclusive power in a territorial area. Either one group will be ruled by another, or it will be driven out, or it will be slain. Sovereignty too easily turns in these directions rather than peaceful co-existence.

In the Palestine of 1880 onwards, conflicts over land, water, holy places, proper ownership and titles seemed bound to occur both because they always do and by the nature of the situation under the Ottoman Empire. If instead of the idea of States, the inhabitants had had the idea of self-governance, then they would have kept their conflicts at a local and individual level. They would have focused them more clearly on the property rights differences at their core. They probably would have wanted judgment or arbitration services. In that epoch, there was nowhere to turn for these. At various points, each side relied on the extremely poor assurances and vague letters, promises, and utterances of the British officials who were the over-seeing authority. With a State pre-empting the role of adjudicator, and a State with its own colonial and imperialistic aims to boot, conflict resolution was hampered. Why accept an inefficient, slow, bumbling, partial, arbitrary, unjust, remote, costly, and inaccessible authority that creates more problems than it solves? Why accept State sovereignty with its improper incentives? Why not turn to private, neutral, competing institutions of justice, institutions of dispute resolution that have the proper incentives to provide swift, inexpensive, impartial, widely distributed and accessible justice?


When rulers act and use sovereignty, they do so based on premises or assumptions. One premise is that, as officials or rulers of a State, they act for the nation as a whole or the people as a whole. They claim the legitimacy to act for the group.

The notion of legitimacy of the actions of the rulers is riddled with contradictions. The rulers cannot possibly act for every individual inasmuch as people vary greatly in views, people alter their views as time passes, and the leader cannot know what these views are. Furthermore, being human, the rulers speak for themselves. It is impossible for them not to, even when they claim or try to speak for others. At best then, the rulers’ actions are faint shadows of what people themselves might have done if the rulers had done nothing. The fact that a ruler is acting surely tells us that the individuals being ruled are not acting as they would have if they were free to do so.

The idea of legitimacy can only mean that "the people" have ceded power to the ruler to act for them. Logically, what does this mean? The rulers have the power to act. They have discretion. If they depart "too far" from the people’s preferences (somehow aggregated), then the rulers can be changed. In the meantime they have power to act. This seems to make more sense out of the term legitimacy.

However, it is not clear how such a cession can legitimately occur even though it is pretended that it has. "The people" is an abstraction; it cannot cede power. What if some members of society do not wish to make such a cession? What if they change their minds? How is the cession of power made to hold for those freshly coming of age into the society? In addition, is legitimacy an all or none matter? A State has many laws, some worse than others. At what point does a State lose legitimacy? What are legitimate and illegitimate States, or what actions do they take to make them either legitimate or illegitimate?

More fundamentally, suppose that every individual has certain inalienable rights. If they are inalienable, they can’t be given up. And if one individual does not consent to the illegitimate acts of the State, doesn’t this invalidate the State? A vast industry of political scientists has struggled with social contract and other ideas to justify State power. At every turn, there is enormous difficulty in showing that citizens consent to the State, endorse it, and thus make it legitimate. These many attempts to prove that State power is morally justified have come to naught. It is impossible to make legitimate that which inherently is not.

If the concept of legitimacy is invoked, who is the judge of legitimacy and how is it to be judged? For example, on June 28, 2000, The Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women appeared. It did not declare the Taliban regime illegitimate. It simply declared the many rights that the regime had violated. Nasrine Gross later brought up the issue of Taliban legitimacy based upon the many rights violations. Meanwhile, the focus of the Clinton and Bush administrations was on the terrorists inside Afghanistan, and not so much on their human rights violations. After 9/11/01, when arguments against the Taliban regime were useful in bolstering military action against Afghanistan, more was heard about human rights. In his speech of 9/20/01, President Bush strongly criticized the Taliban regime for its treatment of the Afghan people, implying but not stating that the regime was illegitimate. Shortly thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld called the Taliban "an illegitimate unelected group of terrorists,." thereby mixing both rationales for military action.

Violations of rights are crystal clear because they occur at the individual level; the rights of individuals are infringed or trampled upon. When, if, and how a State is legitimate is far from clear. The lack of clarity partly hinges upon aggregation. The State is an aggregative term, but unlike an individual it can’t be tagged and identified. It is a term used to describe a "nexus of powers," that is, a link or connection among power relations. These are really power relations among individuals. Therefore, logically, legitimacy dissolves into mis-uses of power which are discovered by assessments of rights at the individual level. When women’s rights were destroyed in Afghanistan, members of the Taliban did it. The State is a convenient term to use, but to speak of the State possessing or not possessing legitimacy can obscure the issue if one is not careful. Men commit crimes, abuse power and violate rights. If a group such as the Afghan Women group declares rights violations, there can be near-certitude in establishing that fact. If a group declares a regime is illegitimate, who is to say it is or is not? States (via rulers) always violate individual rights because they always impose power arbitrarily and in discriminating ways. States (via rulers) always act illegitimately. States never possess legitimacy.

Can there be a legitimate use of the State’s power? Can one find a criterion of legitimacy? Let us say that the apprehension of a murderer is a legitimate goal. Even in this case, the State rapidly breaches and over-reaches the bounds of legitimacy. It demands that it be the only power capable of such apprehension, that it determine all the trial procedures, judgments, and remedies, if, when, and as it sees fit. And 99 percent of what States do goes way beyond dealing with criminals. If the State says a washing machine must be front loaded, legitimacy means we can transform the statement "You must buy a front loading washer" into the statement "You must buy a front loading washer and also you have agreed to buy a front loading washer." But would one have bought such a washer without having been made to do so? The absurd conclusion that the individual has consented to what he freely would not have done shows the contradiction in saying that the State’s power is legitimate..

The last refuge of those who support the legitimacy idea is to say that legitimacy derives from the acceptance or respect of those being ruled. A tax, for example, is legitimate if it is imposed according to customary and accepted standards. This means that there is no firm line of legitimacy, no fixed standard, except that the tax is imposed in a lawful manner. Whatever an authority does according to the accepted rules of the game is all right. The first problem here is that the rules are not changeable except by a lengthy and obtuse process. The second problem is that the interpretation of the rules is left in the hands of the authority. The third problem is that there is indeed a line beyond which the authority cannot go, that line being the violation of individual rights. Fourth, if acceptance were the criterion, we could undo the relation at any time. But that is impossible because then there would be no cession of power. Power by definition is something irresistible or that must be accepted. It is not a voluntary matter. We cannot accept that which is imposed upon us.

Territorial integrity

Territorial integrity is an imperative of a State. Many States face separatist or secessionist movements. For example, India faces separatist movements in Darjeeling, Assam, and other of its northeastern states. Its response, which is typical of most States, is to try to hold onto the disputed territory and population, just as the North held onto the South in the American Civil War, Russia seeks to hold onto Chechnya, and China wants Taiwan.

When States suppress or fight separatist movements, they act as if they "own" their claimed territory and that no one else does. Even if the breakaway individuals own land, the State acts as if the land is not really theirs but the State’s. The same goes for the individuals trying to separate. They are not allowed to. They must pay tribute to the State and accept the State’s impositions, protections, and regulations such as they are. They cannot organize their own community or non-community. This means that the State has a claim on them and their property that they cannot escape. This means that the State has an ownership claim on them and their property, at least a partial claim.

Thus the claim to territorial integrity actually means the lack of integrity of individuals and their property. Security of property and person becomes insecurity of both. Even if there is no separatist movement in a State, territorial integrity can mean travel restrictions within and outside the country, restrictions on commerce with foreigners, submitting to a census and humiliating searches, and countless other restrictions on individuals within the boundaries.

States even claim ownership of the air above the territory, although how far this extends is anybody’s guess. Overflights are incursions, unless permission is granted. The territory expands into the ocean. This used to be 12 miles but now is 200 miles.

If a State "owns" a territory and everything and everyone in it, then it expects other States also to own their territories. It then expects that other States police and control everyone in their territory too. The premise of being a State is not only owning the territory but also owning everyone in it, so to speak. For example, there is a United Liberation Front of Assam (part of India). Some of its members took refuge in Bhutan. India then demands that Bhutan hunt down these rebels. If Bhutan rules its territory, then India holds it responsible for whoever inhabits the territory of Bhutan. Afghanistan was Al-Qaeda’s domicile, for example. It became vulnerable when the U.S. demanded that it turn over these terrorists.

However, in this case, the U.S. violated Afghanistan’s territorial integrity as the U.S. is accustomed to doing and as many other States have done. Invasions contradict the premise that each State has a sacrosanct territory. States respect each other’s territories a good deal, even most, of the time; but when the rulers decide otherwise, that principle is discarded. At that point, another higher principle is typically invoked. In the invasion of Afghanistan, that principle was security. Sovereignty was also involved. The U.S. could not allow a sanctuary for terrorists accused of being behind the mass destruction of lives on American soil on 9/11. Sovereignty, or the right to exercise supreme rule, in a sense was also questioned on 9/11. Only a State has the right to kill its own citizens; its own inhabitants, foreigners, and terrorists do not.

Strangely, despite the rhetoric demanding that a State not harbor a criminal terrorist or provide a sanctuary for an enemy combatant, the implicit assumption underlying demands like these is that a State does not really regard individuals as responsible for their own actions – it holds responsible the State in which these individuals live, that is, it holds responsible the gang that runs the State. It is as if the individuals were merely objects and the harboring State owned or controlled them. When rulers of States deal with one another and make demands like this, they act as if the people inside the States are nobodies, or merely bodies or pawns to be pushed around at will.

In the aftermath of World War I, for example, whole nations were carved out on maps by a few rulers and people pushed around. This is not merely an attitude but a deeply held philosophical premise, part of the nature of the State. If it has territorial integrity, it follows that everything in it, lock, stock and barrel belongs to the State. Of course, it is rare that the State lives up to this premise 100 percent, but it is always lurking in the background ready to be invoked whenever the rulers want to and can get away with it.

If the State owns its citizens, then that premise can be used to justify incursions and wars against the territory of other States. In this case, there is a conflict in two principles of the State. It "owns" its people but perhaps not the territory where they are living. If Germans live outside Germany, then Hitler justified incursions to consolidate these Germans. That is how he resolved this contradiction. Other States have done the same. For example, a number of irredentist claims on Macedonia from surrounding countries contributed to the First Balkan War (1912).

Now if a State seems unable to hold onto its territory, if the ruling gang is so weak that it doesn’t amount to much, then it becomes fair game for another State to take it over. This enlargement is a corollary to the preservation of territory. It is thought that the bigger the State becomes, the more likely its security and preservation become. This is because a State becomes more difficult to take over if it is larger. This explains why States have perennially tried to take over the world.

Border and other territorial disputes among States are quite common. They are taken very seriously, even when trivial rocky islands or arid real estate are involved. These disputes underscore the importance of the territorial concept. The reasons for the arguments no doubt vary from case to case. China disputes some of Bhutan, but what it seems to be after is a settlement that would allow China greater access to Bhutan as a counterweight to India. South Korea and Japan are engaged in a dispute over several rocky and uninhabited islands in the body of water that separates them. They dispute the name of that water as well (Sea of Japan vs. East Sea.) Sometimes these disputes go back centuries and are a source of national pride that inflame a part of the population, in which case the rulers do not appear to be entirely responsible. Generally, rulers act on the adage "Give an inch, take a mile." Even in the Israeli withdrawal from a few settlements in Gaza, this adage has been invoked by Israelis who fear a Palestinian takeover of Jerusalem.

It might be rather hard for any of us in a peaceable mood to understand such disputes. On the other hand, it seems fairly easy for many people to get stirred up over territorial issues even when they are distant. If loss of life is involved or attacks, the blood begins to boil. If the press stirs the cauldron or the politicians or military take a hand, then virtually any slight provocation, accident, pretext, affront, incursion, or misjudgment by a foreign State can be built up into a cause of war. Enemies can be created almost overnight. An event like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor on one’s own soil is bound to multiply these reactions many times over. The feelings from territorial incursions run a good deal deeper than fear or even revenge. An incident like the sinking of the Maine or the shelling of a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin evoke images of attacks on "us", our nation, our territory – even when the details of these incidents are unknown and it is unclear who is responsible or what the circumstances are. Leaping before looking may superficially appear to be a common reaction. However, the leaps do not happen unless the rulers want them to happen.

People are things

Sovereignty, legitimacy, and territorial integrity possess a still deeper false premise, which is that the individual doesn’t count for anything except as a tool of the ruling power. Basically, the premise of the State is that people are things. Even if they are not legally chattel or slaves according to a code, and even if the State does not operate all the time or in every way to the hilt of this premise, it nevertheless is there. The rulers intone a good deal of rights and freedom mumbo-jumbo but these words speak softer than a long series of actions in which people are basically told what to do and how to do it, or people are so much cannon fodder as was very clear in the brutal and stalemated situation of World War I. The only seeming compromise that the State makes with this premise is to conduct elections and other interactions with people now and then such as press conferences, town meetings, etc. However, these are merely opportunities further to treat people as objects by trying to manipulate their minds through stories and propaganda and spin. After holding a few focus groups, the master minds know just what levers to pull to persuade people of anything. People are viewed by the State as things without the capacity for independent thought or reason.

Another example of this is the term "national security". National security means security of the nation-state. For a State, the security of individuals is only desirable insofar as they support the State. The goal is not security of people themselves or as an end in itself, but security of people because they serve and support the State in various ways. This is also the attitude behind citizen education. It becomes desirable, not for the sake of the person but for that of the State, for its economic strength. People become mere things, a means to the end of enhancement of the State, which means the powers at the disposal of the rulers.

If the U.S. citizens feel free as yet, or the U.S. seems less dramatically invasive of rights than some other States have been, that means less than it may seem. The country has been transitioning from a situation of "by and for the people" to a more traditional State that views the people as its disposable possessions. The point is that the threat of more and more oppression lies beneath the surface of every State by its nature. It’s like a smouldering fire which given enough oxygen breaks out into flame.

The distinction between more and less authoritarian States is one of practice, not theory. The theory of the State is all in one direction. It has the power and the say-so. How this power is modulated and moderated in practice because of many and sundry factors, including the attitudes of the people and its Constitution, the size of the country and its resources, etc. etc. is worthy of study, yet the appropriate way to understand matters is that the State is capable of very, very great oppression and will treat its citizens as mere things unless these other factors intervene to stop this from happening. The State is like a set of bear traps that have been set and are ready to be sprung. The potential is always there to spring them and trap unwary citizens.

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

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