The State and Illusion

by Gene Callahan

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.

"All 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 Flies.

  • 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 brilliantly 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.

  • The 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 modern state.

  • 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?"

    "What about that paper on your desk?" I asked him. "How was that provided?"

    "You’re 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 same.

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 masters.

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 freedom.

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.

July 26, 2001

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives