The State is an Epidemic

by Thomas Knapp

Of all the standard counter-arguments to the anarchist idea that I run into, perhaps the most frustrating is “well, yes, I concede that there are a lot of problems with political government, but how do I know that whatever you propose as a replacement won’t be even worse?”

My equally standard five-word retort — “how COULD it be worse?” — obviously bears some elaboration, but I think that the laundry list of reasons why it probably couldn’t be worse deserves a prefatory analogy:

Suppose that you have suffered, since childhood, from a chronic cough, and that as an adult you begin to notice that this cough is accompanied by the spitting up of blood.

Suppose further that all your life, all around you, you have seen your friends suffering the same kind of cough, the same bloody sputum, and eventual death.

Finally, suppose that when you consult a physician, he declines to treat the cough. “After all,” he asks, “if we get rid of the cough, who knows what will replace it? Your feet might fall off. Your head might explode. Yes, I know the cough is painful, serves no useful purpose and portends your eventual death, but the alternative might be even worse! What if curing it turns you into a brain-eating zombie? Sorry, but unless I know exactly what would follow a cure, I’m just going to keep these antibiotics locked up.”

I doubt you’d find such an answer satisfactory … but that’s exactly the answer supporters of the state offer in response to any suggestion that it may be time for their overgrown killer street gangs — “governments” — to stand down.

Political government has always been a useless, painful cancer on humanity. Its most evolved mutation, the Westphalian nation-state, has metastasized over the last 360-odd years, covering the globe with tumors of “national sovereignty” which perpetually eat away at the humanity they infest, using that humanity partially as fuel for their own growth and partially as fodder for their wars with other, similar tumors.

It’s difficult to grasp the scale of damage political government has done, but the work of Professor Emeritus RJ Rummel of the University of Hawaii — no anarchist himself — is a good place to start. In the 20th century alone, according to Rummel, “democide” (murder by government) resulted in at least 262 million human deaths.

When I call Rummel’s work a place to start, that’s exactly what I mean. His definition of “democide” encompasses only “killing on purpose.” Accidental and incidental deaths (for example, the deaths of tens of thousands of patients awaiting regulatory approval of life-saving medications, police killings not pursuant to a policy aimed specifically at those deaths, etc.) aren’t included.

The population of the United States at the end of the 20th century stood at about 280 million. Even using low numbers, we can be reasonably sure that in the 20th century, a number of human beings nearly equivalent to that entire population were murdered by governments worldwide.

My personal guess for actual deaths inflicted by Westphalian nation-statism in the 20th century, when we add in those accidental and incidental deaths, is at least twice Rummel’s number, and probably more. For the sake of argument, let’s call it 600 million. That’s 1/10th of the world’s population as of 2000.

That, fellow humans, is an epidemic on a global scale unlike anything seen since the Black Death of the Middle Ages.

When smallpox, polio, tuberculosis or flu kill millions, our response is to isolate or quarantine their carriers, develop treatments and vaccines, and do our damnedest to eradicate those diseases. We don’t waste our time worrying about what new diseases may pop up or what might follow a cure; we deal with that which afflicts us first and foremost.

But when anarchists point out the deadly nature of the state, which routinely and predictably kills people in numbers on the same scale as any of those aforementioned scourges, its defenders clasp the disease to their breasts and wail that they just don’t know what we’d do without it.

Well, I know what most of us would do without it: We’d live. And personally I think living is better than dying. How about you?

17 responses to “The State is an Epidemic

  1. “how COULD it be worse?”

    Interesting fact: the 20th Century, even with two mechanised world wars and two great bloody dictatorships (Communism and Fascism), didn’t equal the standard violent death rate in pre-State societies (upwards of 1 in 5 for males from raiding, feuding and tribal war). Not even the worst affected such as the Soviet Union. The highest violent death rates in western State societies, by far, are in those cultural pockets which revert to tribal retributive extra-State social systems- ghetto blacks, Sicilians, etc.

    So, could be worse in fact.

  2. Wow! Now we’re reading hints regarding guesswork taken from places and periods were no meaningful statistics were ever gathered. It is surely undeniable that the UK Limited itself is bust and that Family UK, as we knew it, is dying. Saving the old girl needs a major miracle but the medics are all busy selecting Rolex watch bands and our magicians political are all busy boiling cabbages in a bid to buy back Russian-owned properties in London. ‘Pure green M’Lord!’

    The current crop of German graduates, the fore-runners of whom used to laugh or sneer when the words ‘Great Britain’ were used, are now much too embarrassed on our behalf to offer a smile.

    Thomas is quite right – things could not be worse. As for England, God bless her, a bloody civil war braking out is just about the best thing that can realistically be hoped for.

  3. We have plenty of anthropoligical studies of pre-civilised societies, and they all show shockingly high violent death rates compared to civilised societies. It’s just a fact.

  4. The rates may be much higher Ian but the numbers involved were much lower as the population was much lower.

    As to the article, it should be pointed out that as well as the deaths vast numbers who were not themselves killed have had their lives ruined as a result of the butchery and the piss-poor conditions that formed the context for those deaths.

    The casuality lists of state evil read like those of an alien invasion.

  5. The rates may be much higher Ian but the numbers involved were much lower as the population was much lower.

    Um, I’m not sure that if there’s only a hundred blokes in your tribe and 20 get murdered, that’s better than 20 out of a thousand. Looks worse to me.

    I’m just pointing out that living in a State Of Nature is actually a more violent experience than we currently enjoy. Hobbes had it closer than Rousseau.

  6. The % rates is what metters to the gene pool, Mr Ecks.

  7. James Halifax

    Perhaps some people are confusing anarchy with primitivism?

  8. The % rate of mortality of functioning virile males, to impregnate females, is what matters to the gene pool, Mr Ecks. The maths just need to be done. For all I know, we could be saying that, of the generations that went to WW1 from the British Empire, it doesn’t matter that 11% were killed and 45% more or less disabled for life, as “it was only “11%” and not “20%”. 911,023 killed sounds like a major disaster to me, man.

    Of course, a higher % of young males of all the other nations involved were killed too. Germany indeed suffered about 17%, llike France. The figures for Turkey are “unknown”.

  9. I don’t know what’s happening to the internet round here: it only posted a draft of what should have been my last comment.

  10. Perhaps some people are confusing anarchy with primitivism?

    The same effects occur in advanced societies, as I said regarding ghetto blacks, Sicilians, etc. It’s just killing more efficiently with guns instead of spears. Once you remove the hegemonic law code (the most basic characteristic of “the State”) the only alternative is a retrbutive system, and with that civilised behaviour rapidly collapses into escalating feuds and raids, with a cheapness of life, level of brutality and death rate (particularly among young males) incompatible with anything we might call “civilisation”.

  11. Ian B “the only alternative is a retrbutive system”

    So, you don’t see the possibility of free-market solutions providing protection / justice in a post-state society as possible? I’m sure we’ve all seen models outlined with perfectly good, rational arguments to support them. Seems a bit high-handed to dismiss them without consideration.

  12. So–the only thing that stops us from all being killers is the state’s dictate (ie only our costumed thugs have the right to kill)?.

    Think you are on the wrong website with that one Ian. I can’t speak for others but I don’t kill people because I was brought up with appropriate morals and values. However, if the issue was important enough I would kill by my own choice and fight back against any of the states gang sent after me.

  13. The experiment was done numerous times historically. Without a hegemonic law code to shortcut retribution, you get a retributive system. It’s not so much that the State stops you being a killer. It is that the social market will force you to be one, or be a victim. Effectively, civilisation is synonymous with law.

    It’s important to realise that anarchism is not the logical endpoint of libertarianism, in the same way that the question “what is the smallest possible mobile phone?” is not “no phone at all”.

    This requries of course a long article. But the short answer to Ben is that there is no possible free market in law. Either we are all subject to a law, or there is no law at all. Without that hegemony of law, your only defence is your ability to retaliate effectively; which is why tribal societies are riven by feuds and phenomenal murder rates. You stole my pig, so I kill you, so your family kills me, so my family and their friends… etc.

    None of the “rational” systems (basically, Rothbard et al, right?) address the issue of legal hegemony. Rothbard was a clever man, but he overreached in trying to eradicate the State from his Utopia entirely. Effectively, he (and anarcho-capitalists in general) always write as if everyone carries on acting as if the State is there, despite it not being there. Everyone dutifully trots along to court as requested, despite in an anarchy a “court” being impossible. The question of how you get the authority to arrest me for allegedly stealing your pig- when I refuse to comply with your outrageous allegation- is not addressed. Etc.

    And, we know what happens anyway. Look at the death rate in gangland. They don’t waste time with kangaroo courts and agencies. They shoot each other. That’s how it works.

    Let’s put it this way. Ben thinks I burgled his house. He tells me that he signed a contract with Mr Ecks appointing Ecks his legal agent, and in the contract is a clause protecting him from burglary. I tell him that his private contract is nothing to do with me, and to fuck off. What will Ecks do now? He can’t “arrest” me. Ben can’t authorise him to arrest me either. I never signed any contract agreeing that Ecks could arrest me. Will he shoot me unless I accompany him to his “jail”? Where did he get the right to kidnap me at gunpoint?

    You need a higher level, I’m afraid, with coercive force. It’s just the way things are. Markets work within a meta-framework of coerced rights. That’s what property is, and, indeed, what liberty is; no society means no rights, and thus nothing but “I have more guns than you, and will shoot first”.

  14. @ Ian B
    “You need a higher level, I’m afraid, with coercive force. ”

    This seems a little like the ‘no morality without god’ fallacy to me. The ‘none initiation of force’ doctrine is central (Rothbard, et al, as you say ;-) )

    If you initiate force and steal my TV then you are asking for my ‘retribution’. I don’t want to die so send my peacekeepers. You don’t want to die so have your own peacekeepers. They don’t want to die so appoint an arbitrator (court, judge, etc). Each court / judge would market themselves by their reputation and the ‘codes’ they believe in. A system could evolve quite quickly, as people far more eloquent that me have detailed! The difference is, I can change providers whenever I want. Having no single court and managing it by contract is no different than currently agreeing to be bound by a certain country’s law when signing a contract (eg England and Wales).

    The mafia / drug gang analogy is false, I think. They are already operating in back markets outside of the monopoly legal code. In a free market, their back markets wouldn’t exist to cause their battles, and even if they did they would be free to appoint whatever mutually agreed ‘kangaroo court’ they liked to arbitrate their disagreement. That agreement would be the justification for whatever enforcement is acted out.

  15. You see this is the problem. No such system has ever evolved, despite ample pre-state or external-to-state opportunities for one to do so. And it’s all in the “you don’t want to die” thing. You’ve thrown away the principle of rights, and replaced it with the principle of force. And once that happens, there’s no point being nice about it. No point engaging in legal niceties. You think I did you some wrong- which is defined by your opinion, not any agreement between us, so you send your thugs around and exact retribution. So now, I can only stop that if I’ve got a more powerful gang of thugs.

    Gangland is what every society looks like before it develops a civilised law code. Nobody bothers poncing around with courts and judges; “justice” is swift, not particularly concerned with high levels of proof, and based on greatest force.

    And I’ll repeat this; when your “peacekeepers” arrive at my door, I remind you that I signed no contract with them, or with you. I have no obligations towards you. Now, how do you proceed? Kidnap me?

  16. I’m with Ian B on this. The anarchist state as proposed here leaves out the vital factor of human nature. It assumes that every one will want to settle disputes amicably without a state and will take time and trouble to appoint arbiters.This system is available now, so why all the crime. Ben P; people can be moral and good and kind and all that without a God or imposed set of rules. However a system of moral codes serves to reinforce them with penalties should we stray;penalties which,ostensibly at least are meant to lessen acts of revenge.The mafia/gangland scenario is a good example of resistance to societal norms;take the state away and what will we have. While, not able to destroy these gangs the state does serve to protect society from the excesses.Don’t assume that if the state is dismantled they won’t want to ‘muscle in’ on your enterprise.Or do you think they will become nice, fair, reasonable people.
    I think the libertarian argument is that the state has gone way beyond its basic reasons for existence, which is to moderate the excesses of human nature in order to allow free peaceful interaction between strangers.(loosely based on Scruton) Interestingly, as I write this I am watching a fierce debate in the H.O.C on the extradition, or not of Abu Qatada to Jordan and the role of the E.C.H.R. Is this issue evidence of moderation gone to far? I think so. But, how will issues like this be dealt with post-state?

  17. A state too far? as if on cue here is another clamp down on freedom. Hot on the heels of Boris Johnson banning a Christian group from advertising on London buses,another group is banned from using a council hall because of its literature;its been using this hall for 20 years.Words fail me. Have a read