One 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 State. 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.
The Dilemma of the Redistributive State
The 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.)
Redistribution 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.
For 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.)
State 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.”
The War on Terror as an Attempt To Leave the Rut
In 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.)
The 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 attacks.
They eagerly seized the moment. Within hours after the attacks occurred, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asking subordinates to draw up plans for attacking Iraq (see point number six in the article linked to). The New York Post, a neoconservative stronghold, engaged in a campaign worthy of William 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.”
It 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.
No 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.
Of 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.
The 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, 2003