September 22, 2008

The State and Full Spectrum Dominance, Abroad and At Home

I offer here some observations about the State, any state, at any time, anywhere in the world. The continuing economic conflagration has caused me to reexamine certain ideas with additional information, and from a perspective that differs in certain ways from my earlier methods of analysis. While I am confident that what follows is correct with regard to the most important general points, I am still investigating many particulars. It is more than likely I will return to these issues with further specific examples, and with additional thoughts about particular manifestations of the dynamics involved.

When I refer to the State, I use that term with perhaps its most generally accepted meaning: those individuals and those economic-societal interests that direct the mechanisms of control and enforcement over a designated geographic area. These mechanisms may be reflected in a written document, but that is not required. I start from this basic principle:
[F]rom the first historic forms of the State, the State has always formed and will always form alliances with certain individuals and segments of society -- to which the government bureaucrats will provide favors and special dispensations, and to the severe disadvantage of those individuals and groups that are not so favored. ... [O]ur contemporary tribalists believe, without any history or evidence whatsoever to support the claim, that if only members of their tribe were in charge, they would act in saintly and disinterested ways, and they would be uniformly non-venal, non-self-seeking, and non-human. Good luck with that. It has never happened and it never will, barring a fundamental transformation of what it means to be human.
Another crucially related idea flows from this one, and it concerns the significance of law to the State:
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. ... Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself -- to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.
I think these ideas explain a great deal, but to understand the nature and origins of the State, and to grasp how the State will act once it has been established, we have to travel to a still deeper level.

For that, I return to Albert Jay Nock, and to this passage from my essay, "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder":
In his classic book, Our Enemy, the State (first published in 1935), Albert Jay Nock makes a fundamental distinction between government and the State, a distinction I will soon discuss in more detail. For our purposes here, I too briefly note only the following in this regard: by government, Nock means that system that spontaneously arises out of a social order, where "in [Thomas] Paine's view the code of government should be that of the legendary king Pausole, who presented but two laws for his subjects, the first being, Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please, and that the whole business of government should be the purely negative one of seeing that this code is carried out." Nock goes on to note: "Paine's theory of government agrees exactly with the theory set forth by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence."

This was not the concept of government embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Nock makes the argument that with the adoption of the Constitution, our nation's fate was already sealed; I have to confess that the longer I consider the matter and the more I read of world history and political theory, the more I am convinced that Nock was correct. It is worth recalling that many of the founders were notably lacking in confidence about the longevity of the system of government they had devised. The Constitution represented the abandonment of government for the State:
The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner. On the negative side, it has been proved beyond peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origins. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another. In this sense, every State known to history is a class-State. Oppenheimer defines the State, in respect of its origin, as an institution "forced on a defeated group by a conquering group, with a view only to systematizing the domination of the conquered by the conquerors, and safeguarding itself against insurrection from within and attack from without. This domination had no other final purpose than the economic exploitation of the conquered group by the victorious group."
Thus, it is not enough to say, as I myself did, that "the State has always formed and will always form alliances with certain individuals and segments of society," although that is also true. The more accurate statement, and a formulation that delves more deeply, is that the State would never have taken form at all, and it would not have been able to impose its rule, but for the existence of a class or group of individuals that crafted the State to their particular ends. Here, I am not concerned with evaluating whether those ends are good or bad (except for the fact that one may believe that domination and exploitation are always bad, as I do), but rather with identifying the basis on which the State is founded.

Those States that existed in the past and that exist in our world today have nothing to do with government in Nock's sense: a system that spontaneously arises out of a social order. As I have been considering these issues, I was first prepared to argue that Nock's idea of spontaneous social order represents voluntary action in a significant sense that the State does not. But I now think that is not exactly correct, for what appears to be spontaneous social order also relies on many elements of manipulation, control and coercion. I would go still further: order, when applied to any form of social activity, cannot occur in the complete absence of manipulation, control and coercion.

I plan to analyze many aspects of the mechanisms of manipulation, control and coercion in my series on tribalism. These mechanisms will be found in social networks, in political organizations, and -- most importantly, for this is the ultimate origin of all the rest -- in the family. And it is, in fact, in these other forms of order that many of the State's enforcement mechanisms find their start. Yet there remain two critical differences between government and spontaneous social order on the one hand, and the State on the other. The first difference concerns the degree of voluntary activity which is allowed: speaking very generally, instances of spontaneous social order permit a greater degree of voluntariness, both in the origins of that order which finally develops and in the ongoing operations of that order. This is what the word "spontaneous" designates: the order that arises is not imposed on a group of people in a particular area, but it begins on the ground, if you will, and rises up from there.

The second difference concerns the scale and effectiveness of the order involved, and the consequences of the scale and effectiveness attendant upon the State. For some thoughts on this question I turn to a fascinating article by Robert Higgs: "If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-government." The article is unusually provocative, and I strongly recommend reading it when you have time to consider Higgs' arguments and their implications.

Consider just a few brief excerpts. Higgs quotes the famous passage from Madison's Federalist No. 51, and then writes:
The passage that refers to the angels is a rhetorical masterpiece, so memorable that it has become almost a cliché. In Madison’s argument, however, it does more than emphasize that human nature is something less than angelic. It also serves as a springboard that propels Madison directly into a consideration of “framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” which is “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” In short, it moves Madison directly to a consideration of government as we have known it for the past several thousand years—a monopoly operating ultimately by threat or actual use of violence, making rules for and extracting tribute from the residents of the territory it controls. Henceforth, for clarity, I refer to this all-too-familiar type of organization as “the state.”
In evaluating the benefits and dangers of the stateless mode of existence compared to the State, Higgs goes on to write:
Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state (Hayek 1944, 134-52; Bailey 1988; Higgs 2004, 33-56) and, second, by virtue of this control over the state’s powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state (Higgs 2004, 101-05). It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.

Lest anyone protest that the state’s true “function” or “duty” or “end” is, as Locke, Madison, and countless others have argued, to protect individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, the evidence of history clearly shows that, as a rule, real states do not behave accordingly. The idea that states actually function along such lines or that they strive to carry out such a duty or to achieve such an end resides in the realm of wishful thinking. Although some states in their own self-interest may at some times protect some residents of their territories (other than the state’s own functionaries), such protection is at best highly unreliable and all too often nothing but a solemn farce. Moreover, it is invariably mixed with crimes against the very people the state purports to protect, because the state cannot even exist without committing the crimes of extortion and robbery, which states call taxation (Nock 1939), and as a rule, this existential state crime is but the merest beginning of its assaults on the lives, liberties, and property of its resident population.

In the United States, for example, the state at one time or another during recent decades has confined millions of persons in dreadful steel cages because they had the temerity to engage in the wholly voluntary buying and selling or the mere possession of officially disapproved products. Compounding these state crimes (of kidnapping and unjust confinement) with impudence, state officials brazenly claim credit for their assaults on the victims of their so-called War on Drugs. State functionaries have yet to explain how their rampant unprovoked crimes comport with the archetype described and justified in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. In vain do many of us yearn for relief from the state’s duplicitous cruelty: Where is the state of nature when we really need it?
Higgs summarizes this part of his argument as follows:
With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man. All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty, and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.

The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.
Finally, consider this passage from Higgs' concluding section:
[E]verything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state.
You can begin to see how these ideas inevitably lead us to an examination of the present crisis.

This subject is very complex, and this is long enough for one installment. Some further thoughts about the State as such, and about the United States in general and concerning the present crisis in particular, will be offered in the next and concluding part of this essay.