Of Fantasy or History

by David S. D’Amato
Of Fantasy or History

Every day, I’m confronted with articles and opeds that discuss and defend an institution I don’t recognize, an abstraction projected by those who seem to be invested in convincing us that it actually exists. This institution is said to preserve law and order in society through various arms, all accountable to something else called “the people” or “the electorate.” The concept under consideration is identified as the state or government, but there are at least two ways to consider that concept.

The state as we find it in these pieces is the state of fantasy, a phenomenon we might contrast with the state of history. The state of liberal fantasy is a result of social contract, freely developed from the will of autonomous, equal citizens; it provides crucial services, protects individual prerogatives and rights, and furnishes the foundation of society. That this state has never existed is of no import to the proselytizers of statism. Because they want to believe that the state is a well-meaning quasi-charity that the social body has organized and instituted voluntarily, it matters not that the historical state is a very different creature.

Defined by war, conquest and spoliation, the state we find all throughout history has been fundamentally antisocial and antithetical to the principle of contract. Rather than dispensing necessary services and aiding the poor, the historical state has dedicated itself to establishing the preconditions for predation and for the exploitation of the laboring classes. The historical state stole and monopolized in order to make the working poor the tools of the idle rich. Were we ever to find the state of fantasy, it would indeed be inaccurate to call it the state at all. Having shed all of the definitive traits of the state — which is coercive rather than contractual, predatory rather than philanthropic — we mightn’t, as anarchists, find it objectionable at all.

The state of fantasy is in point of fact what we look forward to as proponents of a free society, a condition in which free, sovereign individuals in genuine community provide for one another through consensual trading and giving. The historical state is the foremost enemy and impediment to the emergence of this kind of society. It is interesting, therefore, to see so many apologies for the state from those whose interest in the poor and underprivileged is sincere, those who actually care about wealth inequality and social justice. But these defenses of the state make perfect sense once we understand that the state of fantasy is the one liberals see.

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9 responses to “Of Fantasy or History

  1. The state is indeed the product of crises – often the crises of war. But this can be a successful war of defence, not just a war of conquest.

    Take the example of the Republic of Venice – refugees fleeing into the marshes after their city was burned by the invading Huns. They, the refugees in the marshes created as state, the Republic of Venice, that lasted a thousand years (and became a great power – for centuries, for both good and bad) – are we just supposed to go “boo-hiss” at this.

    Or take the Republic of San Marino – there the people fled up a hill (rather than into a coastal marsh) and founded a state that still exists. The heads of families elected two consuls to lead them in time of war (war of defence).

    War, including defensive war, is a brutal business – it is not civil (not peaceful) and is, therefore, not part of civil society – it is NOT a “business like any other” it is very different and one needs to act differently (if one wishes to survive).

    For example one may be living on land that was voluntarily bought (say in the 19th century or in the 1920s and 1930s), but if one comes under fire from people on near by high ground, one is going to have to drive the enemy population off that high ground – and prevent them coming back. It is no use pretending this is not taking their property away from them (because that is what it is). Nor is this just a matter of a little while – war-hostility is not a rare thing in human history, often population groups will be enemies for a very long time indeed (for example Muslim corsairs raided coastal European villages for more than a thousand years – a conflict that lasts more than a thousand years becomes the norm).

    The assumption that peace is “natural” and would exist if it were not for a few naughty statists is just wrong – flat wrong. Conflict between different groups of people is often natural and normal – and those who do not understand this doom themselves (and doom those who follow their advice).

    However, the great danger is that the distinction between state and community (between war and peace – between conflict with enemies and domestic civil society) will break down – and that people may fall for the delusion that the state is “the people” or “the community” and that “collective action” (force and fear) is needed in peace as well as war.

    This may be open (the state giving commands to people) or it may be hidden (the hidden totalitarianism of “Nudge” – with the iron fist hidden in a velvet glove), but the basic totalitarian assumption is the same.

    The false idea that state is the people – that the threat of force is not coercive if the state represents the people (if the people are the state – the way Rousseau attempted to square the circle of the tyranny supported by Thomas Hobbes with his, Rousseau’s, desire for “freedom” – in reality the “freedom” of Rousseau is worse than any tyranny that Hobbes ever dreamed of).

    “But we can defend against enemies (both foreign and domestic) without the state”.

    That remains to be proved – but the first step to defending against the enemies of property (of civil society) without the state, would be to accept (to understand) that enemies are not the fantasy creation of statists. Enemies really exist – and it is natural and normal for them to do so. And dealing with enemies is NOT a “business like any other” it is not a matter of making deals – it is a matter of kill-or-be-killed. Both with foreign enemies – and with domestic ones.

  2. The last paragraph of the post is interesting.

    Talk of the “under privileged” rather than just the poor – as if wealth was some sort of unjust “privilege”.

    Also talk of “wealth inequality” as if it was some sort of bad thing – ignoring the fundamental principle of Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism of the fundamental harmony of the long term economic interests of rich and poor, employers and employees (the idea that private employment is some sort of violation of freedom is one of the many errors of Rousseau and his totalitarian followers).

    And lastly the use of “Social Justice” as a positive term – when Social Justice is the standard justification for most forms of tyranny. Not just Marxists, but also Fascists, National Socialists and Islamists are loyal to the doctrine of “Social Justice” (it is a fundamental thing that Classical Liberals and Libertarians are AGAINST). To a totalitarian justice is some sort of “distribution” of income and wealth – to a libertarian justice is to-each-their-own and for person to have a thousand times (or a million times) more land (or whatever) than another person is in no way unjust.

    Sadly (and it is unfortunate) I suspect that the author of the post is one of those domestic enemies with whom the normal relationships of business (of civil society) are not possible, that the only logical long term relationship between such a person and libertarians is kill-or-be-killed.

  3. Paul, your first comment is particularly good.

    I fear that many libertarians tend to replace one fantasy of the State with another. We really must strive to engage with humanity as it is, warts and all, rather than with some idealisation of what we think it ought to be. There is a recurrent belief among idealists on the Left, and also Libertarians, that peace is mankind’s natural state, and some sort of “outside force” must be conjured to explain its absence. If this perceived “outside influence” is removed- in the Libertarian case it is “the State”- then mankind reverts naturally into a state of peaceful trade and harmony. There is a perception that violence itself- treated in a kind of essentialist manner- is not natural. This just isn’t true.

    Violence is a strategy that humans use or not depending on perceived pragmatic reasoning. Humans will peacefully interact when they perceive that it is in their interests to do so; this might be at an individual level, or through a pereception of the benefit of a “general peace”; in that latter more “advanced” “ethical” state, we recognise that one will personally benefit from a “public good” of peaceful interaction even if this produces less immediate personal good. For instance, I could benefit, short term, by burglarising my elderly neighbour and stealing his money and goods. But I would ultimately lose because the loss of safety and trust in the general community would cause an ultmately inferior state. The difference then between the criminal and the law abiding citizen is which pragmatic choice they make in that regard.

    It is thus easy to see the problem with the presumption of a peaceful anarchism. It is the problem that has dogged humanity throughout history and prehistory, and led to all the wars and empires. If we imagine a state in which there are some large number of peaceful, voluntary (however defined) communities; villages scattered across a plain. They all trade peacefully with one another.

    But then one group thinks- if we concentrate not on the production of goods for our own consumption and trade, but in the production of weapons, and the training of our men for war, we can prosper more by invading the next village and stealing their stuff; we can then add their strength to ours and invade the next village. It’s a pragmatic choice, and has happened over and over again. And the key point is, it only takes *one* village to do that. The other villages must now respond with their own war preparations, switching to some degree of war economy, making weapons and training warriors; and each of them now pragmatically realises that they too must invade and take over other villages and add their strength, so they can withstand or conquer the first movers.

    So that’s the problem; peace isn’t metastable. People throughout history have wrestled with how to deal with this fundamental problem. However much one prefers pacifism, the rules of the game say the pacifists lose. And all because of one troublemaker starting the ball rolling.

  4. Edward Spalton

    Was it not Adam Smith who said that “a tolerable administration of justice” was a prerequisite for any economy and stable society or, as it is prayed in the Litany of the Church of England
    ” That it may please thee to bless and keep the Magistrates, giving them grace to execute justice and to maintain truth”.
    You need a state for that and, human nature bing what it is, will continue to need it to the end of time – unless you can find a way to abolish Original Sin (something apparently envisaged in the new service of baptism!)
    The problem is to keep the ” Magistrates” – by which is meant the rulers generally from the monarch downwards not just those in a strictly judicial capacity – up to the mark.

    The Whigs thought that the post 1688 settlement came close to that, as it developed.

  5. Mr Spalton – I am not an anarchist (or anarcho capitalist), but I think that Adam Smith went a bit far in his moderation, the state needs to be limited by rather more strict principles than those of Mr Smith (no wiggle room – see what the American government has done with a few loose words in the Constitution of the United States, never put words such as the “general welfare” even in the preamble to a specific clause).

    One can not rely on good people holding office – one needs good principles, and clear ways of enforcing them.

    Sometimes a Constitution written by rather nasty people (such as the Constitution of Alabama – which was indeed written by nasty people) will be better than a Constitution written by good people (such as the Constitution of California) – as it will have “what happens if nasty people are in office” in mind (“what would happen if someone like me, but NOT me, was in charge of the state” – “would they not rob and oppress me – how do I stop this happening”).

    The Republic of Venice lasted for more than a thousand years because as Nick says – its Constitution took people as they are (not as angels).

    But remember the flaws of the Republic of Venice.

    Eventually the state in Venice became much too big and intrusive.

    True the constitutional system prevented any one person (or family) taking control – but the state itself was too big (undermining civil society).

    Long before the French marched in (and made everything WORSE) some people were saying (and rightly saying) that the Republic of R. (Dubrovnik) was less interventionist than Venice had become.

  6. When I was born in 1965 (yes I know – there were Cave Bears and so on) there were no “Social Security contributions” in Andorra, and no income tax and no sales tax.

    Now there is a “Social Security system” and a sales tax (VAT) and, soon, an income tax also.

    The argument that a “big government is needed in the modern world” rings hollow – was 1965 some different “historical period”?

    Where there old people dying in the snow in Andorra?

    No – the modern state is NOT “necessary”, it is the product of bad IDEOLOGY.

    There are many other examples I could cite.

    Where were the masses of illiterate people in Iceland before the state education system was set up in the 1900s?

    Where were the starving masses in the Cayman Islands before “compulsory insurance” arrived (only a few years ago)?

    And on and on.

  7. Edward Spalton

    Another Mr Smith, John Smith of Roanoke Virginia, cautioned his fellow Burgesses of the Commonwealth against “too democratical” a constitution ” else we will but have exchanged King George for King Numbers”.
    “Democratical” was a somewhat pejorative term in the vocabulary of the Founding Fathers’ generation. Classically educated, they knew that most democracies tended to degenerate to demagoguery and dictatorship. Hence the initial checks and balances, now worn away by the over mighty federal power, as successive wartime expedients became entrenched.
    You may well be right that nasty people write the best constitutions
    I hadn’t thought of that before.

  8. Nasty people will only write good Constitutions if they assume they will NOT be the people ruling.

    Then the “the government can not be allowed to do X, Y, Z – because they might do this to ME” may kick in.

  9. I once read that Alabama has the world’s longest constitution – 4,000-odd words I think. It was intended to obfuscate and to ‘keep the niggers down’ without saying so explicitly.