Anatomy of an Iraqi State

If you want to understand what is going on in Iraq; why, for example, the US is confiscating weapons and forbidding people from taking their small arms out of their homes, turn to a timeless essay: Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State. Here we find the definition of the state, an examination of the ideological props for the state, the fallacies behind the usual justifications for the state, a contrast between state means and social means, a model for understanding relations between states in a federal system and an international system, and arguments concerning the impossibility of a limited state.

That’s a lot to absorb from one essay. But once you understand it, it is possible to make sense of the grim scene we are witnessing in Iraq, in which an invader state is attempting to create legitimacy for itself at the same time it is attempting to subjugate the population. It is a perfect case study for understanding the process whereby a small band of conquerors — small relative to the conquered population — attempts to become the one institution in society that produces nothing itself but presumes to make and enforce legislation that everyone in society but itself must obey.

Rothbard defines a state as follows: “The State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion. While other individuals or institutions obtain their income by production of goods and services and by the peaceful and voluntary sale of these goods and services to others, the State obtains its revenue by the use of compulsion; that is, by the use and the threat of the jailhouse and the bayonet. Having used force and violence to obtain its revenue, the State generally goes on to regulate and dictate the other actions of its individual subjects.”

The case of a conquering state like the US in Iraq introduces complicating factors. The state in question does not have a revenue problem. It takes from US taxpayers and spends the money in Iraq, the only remaining problem being that people prefer Saddam dinars to US dollars. But the US does have a compliance problem. It is not at all clear to most Iraqis why, precisely, they have an obligation to obey the US occupiers except to the extent that they are forced to do so. Establishing and maintaining a monopoly on the use of force becomes crucial. That means being the largest possessors of firepower and keeping all competitors at bay.

Now, following Rothbard’s definition of the state, whether the state is military or civilian does nothing to change its essential nature. The monopoly on force in normal civic affairs can be disguised through civilian institutions such as courts and peaceful-looking bureaus and the like. Then force is used only after a series of steps defined by legislation. In the military state, such as that running Iraq and much of the third world, it takes a cruder form: men in uniforms driving Humvees and wielding large-caliber machine guns. The only question is whether the state’s weapons can be concealed, which suggests a degree of legitimacy, or must be out in the open, which suggests instability.

Now to the news that the US military is confiscating citizens’ weapons in Iraq. The goal is to secure a monopoly of force and violence. By decree of the occupation government, broadcast through leaflets and loudspeakers, Iraqis will not be allowed to carry any concealed weapons except by permit issued by the US. All AK-47s, etc. must be turned in. Citizens will be allowed to keep small arms for home protection, but they may not take them out of the house. Open-air arms markets — one of the few sectors of thriving business in Iraq — will be shut down. There will be an amnesty period, but after that? Crackdown. No more shooting in the air at night, for example.

As the New York Times explains, “The main emphasis is to enable American forces to protect themselves against attacks.” Weapons confiscation is “an important part” of the allied forces “efforts to secure the country…. The intention is to reduce attacks against allied forces, reduce crime, and stop violent fights among rival Iraqi groups.”

Now, you don’t have to be John Lott to know the result. The groups that the US is targeting in particular have the least reason to give up their weapons and every reason to keep them. The US can be sure that anyone who does turn in weapons is not a threat to the US or to anyone else. The criminals, meanwhile, will feel safer in the knowledge that people on the street and in cars are unarmed.

In short, US efforts to enforce gun control can only result in increased crime and ever more problems with armed gangs using ever more desperate tactics. In the end, this whole project will come to naught. The US has been unable to enforce gun control in Washington, DC. It sure as heck can’t do it in Iraq, and to the extent it is successful, it only means more crime and violence.

What’s interesting here is the motivation, which isn’t really about stopping petty thievery but primarily about the state’s control over society. What’s true in Iraq is also true in the US. The most forthright defenders of gun ownership have made it clear that the best case for permitting it is precisely that it protects citizens against government tyranny.

When the US went into Iraq, no one imagined that months later the military would be searching people for weapons and attempting to impose a gun ban more severe than exists in many US states. But the logic of the situation has propelled the US into acting ever more tyrannically in Iraq, ever more brazenly in its coercive methods, and ever more comprehensively in its degree of attempted control over society. It must do this because it has no other source of legitimacy.

But in politics, every action generates a reaction. Iraqis will not comply with this order. They will keep and hide their weapons. And they will work to acquire more, now that the US has said it has no immediate intention of allowing Iraq to govern itself. Every additional step in attempted control will lead to ever more resistance. The US said it was going into Iraq to liberate that country. But it seems that, with these latest efforts, the end result will be an unending mire of a brutal and unstable military dictatorship or a humiliating pullout that will leave the country in chaos.

Put it this way: if you were an Iraqi, would you turn in your weapon?

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