A theme running through several recent pieces on both this
site and other
sites is that the state is sustained by illusion. I thought
it might be useful to examine the notion of illusion more thoroughly,
to deepen our understanding of what is indicated by this theme.
What do we mean by illusion? Does this mean that the state is
like a dream or a movie, that it is some sort of fantasy? Although
this definition of illusion may pass muster in common usage,
we need to be more precise. Dreams or fantasies are not inherently
illusory. As Michael Oakeshott points out, every experience
is real if we do not take it for more or less than it is. A
dream is real: it is a real dream. Illusion arises when we take
fact for non-fact or non-fact for fact. If I dream that I have
sold my next book for a million dollars, I had a real experience.
But, if I wake up the next day and try to start spending the
money by purchasing things with my credit card, I am under an
illusion. The dream money does not exist in the realm of fact,
but the bills I subsequently will receive do! I have mistaken
a non-fact for a fact.
Belief is necessary for illusion to persist. While transitory
illusions occur all the time for instance, when someone mistakes
a certain play of light and shadow for an animal the nature
of the world of facts is such that the truth tends to intrude
and dispel the illusion. I might easily mistake a moving shadow
for an animal. But if I attempt to live by eating these illusions,
I will soon find myself very hungry. I can only maintain such
an illusion if I adopt a belief that supports it, such as deciding
that these shadows are spirit animals that vanish back into
the spirit world upon my approach.
Belief in illusion will occur when the believer is unwilling
or unable to confront the facts of the situation. Someone who
is fearful of his own death might find it easier to externalize
that fear, seeing ghosts and spirits in the shadows, instead
of his own mortality. Or consider a person who doesn't wish
to give up some unfortunate practice, such as stealing from
his employer. He may adopt a belief that he is owed the money
he steals, and that his victim really stole it from him, by
"exploiting" his labor.
Illusion cannot be forced on anyone. Social pressure to go along
with some illusion may be a powerful motivator, but ultimately
a person must buy into the illusion-supporting belief on his
own. Thinking is, as Mises points out, an action. All action
is undertaken by individuals, and has the goal of replacing
what is with what ought to be. Therefore, the person adopting
an illusory belief must feel he is better off having done so.
right, all right," you say, "what has all this to
do with the state?" Well, I was getting to that, but since
you're rushing me, I'll jump right into it. Here are just a
few of the illusions that support the state:
Public schools are necessary to socialize children.
When my wife and I tell people that we intend to home school
our children, this is the most frequent comment we hear. People
are willing to believe that we can handle the instructional
tasks of the schools, but what about socialization?
This is clearly a non-fact taken as a fact. The non-fact seems
to originate chiefly from the teacher's unions. A little examination
shows how fragile this particular illusion is. Institutional
schooling has only been widespread in the last 150 years.
Before that, we had three or four million years of human history
during which, by some means, children managed to become socialized.
Furthermore, we have strong theoretical and empirical reasons
to believe that the public schools de-socialize rather than
socialize children. Where were the pre-modern Columbines,
where adolescents simply go bonkers and wipe out large numbers
of people at random? The public schools are so many thousand
experiments in duplicating the scenario of The Lord of
The state must exist in order to provide us with security.
But the state has been the main threat to the life of its
own citizens, let alone the lives of citizens of other states,
during most of the twentieth century. Hans-Hermann Hoppe has
outlined how security against war and invasion can be
better provided privately than by the state. Daniel McCarthy
notes that traditional
law enforcement often was performed by private citizens. As
governments have seized this role, disorder and lack of security
have become the rule.
state is equivalent to the country it rules.
Recently, in response to a column from
Benjamin Kepple in Front Page Magazine, "A Real
American" wrote in that: "It is long past due
that someone exposed the Libertarians for the traitors that
they are." By talking about secession, anarchy, and
so on, we are betraying our neighbors, friends, and family our
"community" and "homeland." They are
one with the state, and to act against the state is to reject
all social bonds.
Let's think about this for a moment. Although social contract
theory as the basis for the state has more than a few theoretical
holes in it (see, for instance, Anthony de Jasay's great
work, The State), let's imagine
for a moment that there was such a contract. We'll call
it "The U.S. Constitution." Based on an examination
of this contract, who, exactly, has betrayed whom? I have
paid my taxes, I haven't led an armed revolt, and have obeyed
the law (well, mostly). But the state has violated my right
to free speech, my freedom of association, my right to bear
arms, my right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure,
and has usurped powers explicitly left to the people and
the states. It has interfered in my pursuit of life, liberty,
and happiness. The verdict is clear: the traitor is the
state is necessary to provide us with roads.
When I suggested to a good friend that the state was unnecessary,
he asked, "Then who would provide all of these roads?"
about that paper on your desk?" I asked him. "How
was that provided?"
saying we should have private roads? That would be chaos!"
The idea is simply accepted without examination. But what
is more chaotic than the current system of state-provided
roads? For many people it is difficult to predict, from
one day to the next, whether their trip to work will take
thirty minutes or two hours. The state closes lanes at its
whim. One day I discovered the New York State Thruway completely
closed at 10:30 in the morning. Other days, I have passed
several miles of cones blocking off a lane to find that
the actual work area comprised only a few yards of highway.
It seems unlikely that private road owners would be able
to impose such costs on their customers without driving
them to an alternate provider.
Furthermore, private roads could provide different levels
of service suited to different drivers' needs. In my neighborhood,
there are two supermarkets. One of them has relatively high
prices, but no lines. The other has low prices, but often
has long lines. Shoppers can make a trade-off between money
and time. Competing road providers could obviously do the
Of course, these are just a few examples, and more could be
given. So why does belief in such non-facts persist? One explanation
is that those in power cynically propagate such ideas because
it suits their ends. This explanation is partially true, but
it is far from the whole story. For one thing, it fails to explain
why those who are not in power adopt these beliefs.
Also, I must confess that I can speak from personal experience
about the beliefs of government employees. Like so many Irish
immigrants, my family has gone in for "civil service"
in a major way. Among my close relatives are a state's attorney,
a colonel in the Army, the former Chief Justice of the Connecticut
Supreme Court, a public school teacher, and more. I can attest
to the fact that not a single one of them holds the cynical
view outlined in the previous paragraph. They all, to a man,
believe that they are providing socially useful services. And,
in fact, to some extent all of them are. But they have failed
to question the context within which their work takes place.
The simple fact of the matter is that it is much easier to take
the world as one finds it than to deeply question the prevailing
social order. Basically decent people will go along with indecent
schemes if these seem to be inevitable features of their world.
To many, questioning the need for the state seems as daft as
arguing with gravity. A comparison with the institution of slavery
is once again apt. Note the attitude of the American founders
toward slavery. Not a grand thing, perhaps, but there it is,
and what is one to do about it? The decent people of the time,
if they found themselves owning slaves, attempted to be decent
Such an instinctive conservatism is not to be dismissed lightly.
The current system can claim that it has at least proven itself
to be a possible way of ordering social life. Look, here
it is, and we're living in it. For most of us, life is not altogether
unpleasant. We have a wealth of material goods, a variety of
choices as to how to conduct our life, and a degree of personal
I believe that the conservative argument for the status quo
can be best answered by highlighting the dynamics of the state.
As Sanford Ikeda demonstrates in The
Dynamics of the Mixed Economy and his more recent work
on social norms, there is an irrepressible tendency for the
state to continue expanding, destroying the institutions of
civil association that stand in its path. It is not so much
a static survey of the current situation that will rouse people
to action, as a dynamic look across the last several centuries.
Recent history is littered with the wreckage of institutions
beloved by conservatives. Once the dynamic of the state is set
in motion, the wreckage will follow. The foremost attempts to
control the state, the American and British forms of government,
have failed. Grendel roams the land, and though we prefer home
and hearth, we must take up sword and shield while there are
still warriors left.*
Hey, I'm talking metaphorically here, OK? An actual sword is
very little use against the BATF.