The State Attempts To Break Out of Its Rut

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of the most profound works on the nature of the state, in my opinion,
is Anthony de Jasay’s simply and aptly named book, The
. I have commented elsewhere on various aspects of
the book, for instance, de
Jasay’s devastating critique of contractarian theories of the
state’s legitimacy
. But current events make a different part
of de Jasay’s work chillingly relevant today: his analysis of
the dilemma of the democratic, redistributive state.

Dilemma of the Redistributive State

democratic state involves competition for the reins of state power.
However much various political parties may draw ranks when the
power of the state itself is threatened, each would like to have
that power for itself. In order to defeat its rivals, a party
must convince a sufficient number of voters that its program will
benefit them more than that of the other party. (I’m taking a
two-party system for granted, but de Jasay’s analysis applies
just as well to multi-party systems.)

of resources to the voters the party wishes to court is the primary
means it uses to convince them. But the competing party is devising
its own bids for voters’ allegiance. In order to outbid the other
and win the election, each party will tend to up its bids until
it is offering essentially all of the resources the state can
hope to control and redistribute at that time.

those enamored of power, this is a somewhat frustrating situation.
People desire power in order to do something with it, and
that something is their own something, not that of others.
But the democratic, redistributive state must devote the vast
bulk of the resources at its disposal to wooing voters, leaving
little for the goals of those running the state. (Of course, some
of the state actors’ goals may happen to coincide with the redistributive
schemes they promised in order to win power in the first place,
but there will likely be a disappointingly small overlap.)

actors will naturally attempt to correct what for them is a sorry
state of affairs. They have grasped the reins of the awesome power
of the state, only to find themselves constrained to execute a
program determined almost entirely by others. To fulfill their
own goals for the use of state power, they must attempt to break
out of what de Jasay calls the “redistributive rut.”

War on Terror as an Attempt To Leave the Rut

the 1990s, some voices nominally on the American right, who we
can roughly characterize as “neoconservatives,” were working on
getting the state out of that rut. William Kristol and David Brooks
program of “National Greatness Conservatism” was foundational
in this respect. As Doug Bandow commented
on their idea: “While those silly Americans might want to engage
in the normal things of life – family, career, hobbies, and
more – government needs to direct their attention elsewhere.
They must be conscripted into some grand crusade by their betters,
those far-seeing politicos who really know what greatness is.”
In other words, American citizens, rather than attempting to use
the state to pursue their own goals (however self-defeating such
a project eventually must prove to be), instead should accept
that the American state would pursue the goals of Kristol and
Brooks. (State actors and their intellectual supporters always
phrase their projects in terms of pursuing “national interest”
or “society’s interest,” but by these they always mean their
own goals for what the state should do.)

neoconservatives saw the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
as the opportunity they had been waiting for to implement their
program. With the American people shocked and panicked, the neoconservatives
believed they could sell their policies as the remedy for the

eagerly seized the moment. Within hours after the attacks occurred,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was
asking subordinates to draw up plans for attacking Iraq
point number six in the article linked to). The New York Post,
a neoconservative stronghold, engaged in a campaign worthy of
Randolph Hearst
to implicate Iraq in the 9/11 and subsequent
anthrax attacks. National Review, another neoconservative
outlet, became almost exclusively devoted to promoting the “War
on Terror.”

is important to note two things in this regard: Neoconservatives
already had as goals the various proposals they forwarded
in the wake of 9/11. However, they had to package their projects
as in some way connected to 9/11, since there was zero indication
before then that any significant number of the American people
shared their dreams.

Americans voted for Bush because of his promise to “remake the
map of the Middle East,” because he promised to overthrow Saddam
Hussein, or because he promised to bring democracy to all nations
on the earth. That’s because he made no such promises. In fact,
he campaigned promising a “humbler” foreign policy. But, if the
neoconservative program could be presented as the best response
to 9/11, then a complete shift in foreign policy direction might
be sold to the American public.

course, the neoconservatives knew they could not count on people’s
shock and fear lasting forever. Institutional changes were necessary
to ensure that, even as people began to look askance on their
program for remaking the world, the government would be able to
override their concerns and continue with the neoconservatives’
plans. To that end, vast increases in the government’s power to
spy on citizens and to arrest and punish anyone it deemed troublesome
would be very helpful. And so, we have The Patriot Act and the
eternal military detention of suspected terrorists. As Jacob
Hornberger has noted
, the government currently is proposing
that when civilian courts fail to go along with its plans for
incarcerating or executing some suspected terrorist, it be able
to simply switch venues to a military court where it can
obtain a conviction. Such policies, allowed to continue, will
soon make a mockery of the right to dissent from the grand project
of remaking the world.

redistributive state, however unsatisfactory its operation is
from the point of view of true liberty, at least is severely constrained
in what projects it can pursue. It “treads water,” unable to make
truly independent moves. But if the state breaks those fetters,
liberty could be in for a long, dark night. Eventually, any state
stands or falls based on the support of the people it rules. But
the greater the penalties for the failure to grant that support
are, the easier it is for people to “just go along.” A state that
has escaped the redistributive rut can last a long time – witness
the 70-year career of the Soviet Union. If we don’t want to see
the light of liberty extinguished until our grandchildren are
telling their grandchildren forbidden stories of how people were
once free, we’d better act now.

June 17,

Callahan [send him mail],
the author of Economics for Real People, is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a contributing columnist to

Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives


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