Natural Order, State, and Looting

The experience of “regime change” in Iraq raises fundamental questions about political economy and philosophy. For example, the looting and vandalizing occurring after the military defeat of the Saddam Hussein government in Baghdad has been cited as proof of the necessity of a state, a living refutation of the idea that a natural order of private property can produce orderliness within the framework of liberty.

This is far from the truth.

Notwithstanding considerable talk to the contrary, the natural relationship among people is one of peaceful cooperation, based on the recognition of the higher physical productivity of the division of labor. This is not to say that there will be no crime and aggression. Mankind being what it is, murderers, robbers, thieves, thugs, and con artists will always exist.

However, their anti-social behavior is typically suppressed by means of armed self-defense and mutual assistance and insurance arrangements. In most cases, conflicts are settled peacefully through arbitration and by judges endowed with natural, voluntarily acknowledged authority (typically members of the “nobility” or social elite). Men have thus cooperated for thousands of years without the help of a State (as defined below). Even today, in every small village the workings of a natural order are still discernable.

What requires explanation is not the phenomenon of cooperation but that of a State. A State is defined as a territorial monopolist of ultimate decision making in the event of conflict (including conflicts involving itself); and implied in this power to exclude all others from acting as ultimate judge is its second defining element: the State’s power to tax, i.e., to determine unilaterally the price that those seeking justice must pay for its services.

Based on this definition of a State, it is easy to understand why a desire to found a State or to come into control of an existing one might exist: He who is a monopolist of final arbitration within a given territory can make laws in his own favor. Moreover, he who can legislate can also tax and thus enrich himself at the expense of others. Surely this is an enviable position.

More difficult to understand is how anyone can get away with founding a State. Why would others put up with such an extraordinary institution? It is here that the phenomenon of “looting” enters the picture.

A natural order is characterized by peaceful cooperation. Hence, to make a State appear necessary, any would-be State must first destroy the natural order and create a Hobbesian “anarchy” characterized by looting and vandalizing. Typically, this is accomplished by some members of the social elite inciting the propertyless masses (the tenants) to riot against the propertied class (their landlords). In the ensuing chaos, the would-be State then comes to the rescue of the landlords by offering to halt the tenant-rebellion and restore peace in return for recognition of its monopoly status as ultimate judge.

Once the would-be State has thus been transformed into a State, the latter will suppress further looting, if only to have more property left for itself to loot. However, the State has no interest in being “too” successful in suppressing private crime, for it provides a constant reminder of the alleged need for a State. Indeed, to loot its own subjects more successfully, the State will attempt to disarm its citizenry, rendering it more vulnerable to private criminal attack.

Let us turn to the events in Baghdad. States are inherently aggressive. This holds for the U.S. government as well as that of Iraq. If one can externalize the costs of one’s aggression onto others in the form of taxes imposed on one’s citizenry, one will be more aggressive than if one had to pay the full cost of aggression personally. Moreover and seemingly paradoxically, “liberal” States, which tax and regulate their subjects comparatively less (such as the U.S.), tend to be more aggressive in their foreign policy than “nonliberal” States (such as Iraq).

The reason for this is simple. Victory or defeat in interstate war depends on numerous factors, but what is ultimately decisive is the relative amount of economic resources at a government’s disposal. In taxing and regulating, governments do not contribute to the creation of economic wealth. Instead, they draw parasitically on existing wealth.

However, governments can influence the amount of existing wealth negatively. Other things being equal, the lower the tax and regulation burden imposed by government on its domestic economy, the larger its population tends to grow (due to internal reasons as well as immigration factors) and the larger will be the amount of domestically produced wealth on which it can draw in its conflicts with other States. That is, States which tax and regulate comparatively little tend to defeat and expand their territorial control at the expense of nonliberal States. Indeed, it was the U.S. government which aggressed against Iraq, and not the Iraqi government against the U.S.

Predictably, the aggressor State, the U.S., has been successful in invading and occupying Iraq. Once Baghdad was conquered by U.S. troops, the Saddam Hussein government effectively ceased to exist, and a new, U.S. government was established in Iraq. Instead of Saddam Hussein, it was now the U.S. military that acted as ultimate judge in Iraq.

No people can be ruled for long at the point of a gun, however. In order to endure, the new U.S. government must gain legitimacy within the Iraqi public. Yet contrary to U.S. government propaganda, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been no act of liberation. If A frees B, who is held hostage by C, this is an act of liberation.

It is not an act of liberation, however, if A frees B from the hands of C in order to take B hostage himself. It is not an act of liberation if A frees B from the hands of C by killing D. Nor is it an act of liberation if A forcibly takes D’s money to free B from C.

Accordingly, unlike genuine liberation, which is greeted by the liberated with unanimous assent, the U.S. occupation has been met with much less than universal enthusiasm by the “liberated” Iraqis. Even many of Saddam Hussein’s opponents, who gladly saw him overthrown, still consider the U.S. an uninvited invader.

Confronted thus with a legitimacy-deficit, what better way to demonstrate the “necessity” of a continued U.S. presence than by the old and tried method of first creating chaos? The U.S. occupiers incite the Baghdad masses to loot first (seemingly justified) only “government property,” but then also private property. Moreover, in shooting indiscriminately at any armed Iraqi, and then confiscating privately held weapons, the U.S. troops prohibit any effective self-defense on the part of the looters’ Iraqi victims (and hence prevent the re-emergence of a natural order). In the ensuing Hobbesian anarchy, Baghdad’s propertied class comes out and begs its occupiers for protection.

In conclusion, rather than cause and reason for the State, Hobbesian anarchy as seen in Baghdad is result and consequence of State-making and -overtaking, otherwise known as “regime change.”

Hans-Hermann Hoppe Archives