The State

Author:   Murray Rothbard 13 March 2013 font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size

Murray Rothbard (1926-95) was a prolific scholar who played a key role in the formation of a consciously libertarian intellectual and political movement. He staked out a radical position within libertarian scholarship, arguing that individual rights were absolute and that all goods and services, including law and justice, could be provided without coercive government. He published books in the fields of economics (Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market), political philosophy (The Ethics of Liberty), history (four volumes of Conceived in Liberty), and contemporary policy (For a New Liberty). In this excerpt from For a New Liberty he argues that the state is “the supreme, the eternal, the best organized aggressor against persons and property.”

The State as Aggressor

            The central thrust of libertarian thought, then, is to oppose any and all aggression against the property rights of individuals in their own persons and in the material objects they have voluntarily acquired. While individual and gangs of criminals are of course opposed, there is nothing unique here to the libertarian creed, since almost all persons and schools of thought oppose the exercise of random violence against persons and property….

            But the critical difference between libertarians and other people is not in the area of private crime; the critical difference is their view of the role of the State—the government. For libertarians regard the State as the supreme, the eternal, the best organized aggressor against the persons and property of the mass of the public. All States everywhere, whether democratic, dictatorial, or monarchical, whether red, white, blue, or brown.

            The State! Always and ever the government and its rulers and operators have been considered above the general moral law. The “Pentagon Papers” are only one recent instance among innumerable instances in history of men, most of whom are perfectly honorable in their private lives, who lie in their teeth before the public. Why? For “reasons of State.” Service to the State is supposed to excuse all actions that would be considered immoral or criminal if committed by “private” citizens. The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as “members of the government”) has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it “war” then ennobled the mass slaughter that “war” involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it “conscription” in the “national service.” For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it “taxation.” In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.

            Let us consider, for example, what it is that sharply distinguishes government from all other organizations in society. Many political scientists and sociologists have blurred this vital distinction, and refer to all organizations and groups as hierarchical, structured, “governmental,” etc. Left-wing anarchists, for example, will oppose equally government and private organizations such as corporations on the ground that each is equally “elitist” and “coercive.” But the “rightist” libertarian is not opposed to inequality, and his concept of “coercion” applies only to the use of violence. The libertarian sees a crucial distinction between government, whether central, state, or local, and all other institutions in society. Or rather, two crucial distinctions. First, every other person or group receives its income by voluntary payment: either by voluntary contribution or gift (such as the local community chest or bridge club), or by voluntary purchase of its goods or services on the market (i.e., grocery store owner, baseball player, steel manufacturer, etc.). Only the government obtains its income by coercion and violence—i.e., by the direct threat of confiscation or imprisonment if payment is not forthcoming. This coerced levy is “taxation.” A second distinction is that, apart from criminal outlaws, only the government can use its funds to commit violence against its own or any other subjects; only the government can prohibit pornography, compel a religious observance, or put people in jail for selling goods at a higher price than the government deems fit. Both distinctions, of course, can be summed up as: only the government, in society, is empowered to aggress against the property rights of its subjects, whether to extract revenue, to impose its moral code, or to kill those with whom it disagrees. Furthermore, any and all governments, even the least despotic, have always obtained the bulk of their income from the coercive taxing power. And historically, by far the overwhelming portion of all enslavement and murder in the history of the world have come from the hands of government. And since we have seen that the central thrust of the libertarian is to oppose all aggression against the rights of person and property, the libertarian necessarily opposes the institution of the State as the inherent and overwhelmingly the most important enemy of those precious rights.

            There is another reason why State aggression has been far more important than private, a reason apart from the greater organization and central mobilizing of resources that the rulers of the State can impose. The reason is the absence of any check upon State depredation, a check that does exist when we have to worry about muggers or the Mafia. To guard against private criminals we have been able to turn to the State and its police; but who can guard us against the State itself? No one. For another critical distinction of the State is that it compels the monopolization of the service of protection; the State arrogates to itself a virtual monopoly of violence and of ultimate decision-making in society. If we don’t like the decisions of the State courts, for example, there are no other agencies of protection to which we may turn.

            It is true that, in the United States, at least, we have a constitution that imposes strict limits on some powers of government. But, as we have discovered in the past century, no constitution can interpret or enforce itself; it must be interpreted by men. And if the ultimate power to interpret a constitution is given to the government’s own Supreme Court, then the inevitable tendency is for the Court to continue to place its imprimatur on ever-broader powers for its own government. Furthermore, the highly touted “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” in the American government are flimsy indeed, since in the final analysis all of these divisions are part of the same government and are governed by the same set of rulers.

            One of America’s most brilliant political theorists, John C. Calhoun, wrote prophetically of the inherent tendency of a State to break through the limits of its written constitution:

            A written constitution certainly has many and considerable advantages, but it is a great mistake to suppose that the mere insertion of provisions to restrict and limit the powers of the government, without investing those for whose protection they are inserted with the means of enforcing their observance, will be sufficient to prevent the major and dominant party from abusing its powers. Being the party in possession of the government, they will … be in favor of the powers granted by the constitution and opposed to the restrictions intended to limit them. As the major and dominant parties, they will have no need of these restrictions for their protection….

            The minor or weaker party, on the contrary, would take the opposite direction and regard them as essential to their protection against the dominant party…. But where there are no means by which they could compel the major party to observe the restrictions, the only resort left them would be a strict construction of the constitution…. To this the major party would oppose a liberal construction—one which would give to the words of the grant the broadest meaning of which they were susceptible. It would then be construction against construction—the one to contract and the other to enlarge the powers of the government to the utmost. But of what possible avail could the strict construction of the minor party be, against the liberal interpretation of the major, when the one would have all the powers of the government to carry its construction into effect and the other be deprived of all means of enforcing its construction? In a contest so unequal, the result would not be doubtful. The party in favor of the restrictions would be over-powered…. The end of the contest would be the subversion of the constitution … the restrictions would ultimately be annulled and the government be converted into one of unlimited powers.

            Nor would the division of government into separate and, as it regards each other, independent departments prevent this result … as each and all the departments—and, of course, the entire government—would be under the control of the numerical majority, it is too clear to require explanation that a mere distribution of its powers among its agents or representatives could do little or nothing to counteract its tendency to oppression and abuse of powers.1

            But why worry about the weakness of limits on governmental power? Especially in a “democracy,” in the phrase so often used by American liberals in their heyday before the mid-1960s when doubts began to creep into the liberal utopia: “Are we not the government?” In the phrase “we are the government,” the useful collective term “we” has enabled an ideological camouflage to be thrown over the naked exploitative reality of political life. For if we truly are the government, then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and not tyrannical; it is also “voluntary” on the part of the individual concerned. If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group on behalf of another, this reality of burden is conveniently obscured by blithely saying that “we owe it to ourselves” (but who are the “we” and who the “ourselves”?). If the government drafts a man, or even throws him into jail for dissident opinions, then he is only “doing it to himself” and therefore nothing improper has occurred. Under this reasoning, then, Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; they must have “committed suicide,” since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and therefore anything the government did to them was only voluntary on their part. But there is no way out of such grotesqueries for those supporters of government who see the State merely as a benevolent and voluntary agent of the public.

            And so we must conclude that “we” are not the government; the government is not “us.” The government does not in any accurate sense “represent” the majority of the people, but even if it did, even if 90% of the people decided to murder or enslave the other 10%, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority. Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression. There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.

            But while, as in the lynch mob, the majority can become actively tyrannical and aggressive, the normal and continuing condition of the State is oligarchic rule: rule by a coercive elite which has managed to gain control of the State machinery. There are two basic reasons for this: one is the inequality and division of labor inherent in the nature of man, which gives rise to an “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in all of man’s activities; and second is the parasitic nature of the State enterprise itself.

            We have said that the individualist is not an egalitarian. Part of the reason for this is the individualist’s insight into the vast diversity and individuality within mankind, a diversity that has the chance to flower and expand as civilization and living standards progress. Individuals differ in ability and in interest both within and between occupations; and hence, in all occupations and walks of life, whether it be steel production or the organization of a bridge club, leadership in the activity will inevitably be assumed by a relative handful of the most able and energetic, while the remaining majority will form themselves into rank-and-file followers. This truth applies to all activities, whether they are beneficial or malevolent (as in criminal organizations). Indeed, the discovery of the Iron Law of Oligarchy was made by the Italian sociologist Robert Michels, who found that the Social Democratic Party of Germany, despite its rhetorical commitment to egalitarianism, was rigidly oligarchical and hierarchical in its actual functioning.

            A second basic reason for the oligarchic rule of the State is its parasitic nature—the fact that it lives coercively off the production of the citizenry. To be successful to its practitioners, the fruits of parasitic exploitation must be confined to a relative minority, otherwise a meaningless plunder of all by all would result in no gains for anyone. Nowhere has the coercive and parasitic nature of the State been more clearly limned than by the great late nineteenth-century German sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer pointed out that there are two and only two mutually exclusive means for man to obtain wealth. One, the method of production and voluntary exchange, the method of the free market, Oppenheimer termed the “economic means” the other, the method of robbery by the use of violence, he called the “political means.” The political means is clearly parasitic, for it requires previous production for the exploiters to confiscate, and it subtracts from instead of adding to the total production in society. Oppenheimer then proceeded to define the State as the “organization of the political means”—the systematization of the predatory process over a given territorial area.2

            If the State is a group of plunderers, who then constitutes the State? Clearly, the ruling elite consists at any time of (a) the full-time apparatus—the kings, politicians, and bureaucrats who man and operate the State; and (b) the groups who have maneuvered to gain privileges, subsidies, and benefices from the State. The remainder of society constitutes the ruled. It was, again, John C. Calhoun who saw with crystal clarity that, no matter how small the power of government, no matter how low the tax burden or how equal its distribution, the very nature of government creates two unequal and inherently conflicting classes in society: those who, on net, pay the taxes (the “tax-payers”), and those who, on net, live off taxes (the “tax-consumers”). Suppose that the government imposes a low and seemingly equally distributed tax to pay for building a dam. This very act takes money from most of the public to pay it out to net “tax-consumers”: the bureaucrats who run the operation, the contractors and workers who build the dam, etc….

            If states have everywhere been run by an oligarchic group of predators, how have they been able to maintain their rule over the mass of the population? The answer, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, is that in the long run every government, no matter how dictatorial, rests on the support of the majority of its subjects. Now this does not of course render these governments “voluntary,” since the very existence of the tax and other coercive powers shows how much compulsion the State must exercise. Nor does the majority support have to be eager and enthusiastic approval; it could well be mere passive acquiescence and resignation. The conjunction in the famous phrase “death and taxes” implies a passive and resigned acceptance to the assumed inevitability of the State and its taxation.

Source: The Libertarian Reader, David Boaz

Liberty is not a means to a political end. It is itself the highest political end.

Lord Acton

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