Feb 16, 2004: The Power of the State–More Than You Know

The libertarian movement, which comprises the bulk of contemporary “classical” liberalism, is a movement doomed in its current course. The leadership has insisted on engaging the state on the state’s own turf, on the question of how to best exercise material power, and not on its own terms, on the question of the very legitimacy of the government.

Opposition to particular administrations and particular policies and actions can only be successful as part of a comprehensive plan to undermine the state. But, no such plan exists, no evidence exists to suggest that defeat of this administration will result in a defeat for statism, and no libertarian leaders or commentators bother to explain the existence of any such link.

The failure of “radical” libertarians to genuinely confront the question of the establishment of a liberal order is a sad but likely indicator that the movement is unprepared, and wholly unfit, to bring it about. The growing popularity of libertarian-leaning thought is a necessary but ultimately insufficient cause for a liberal revolution, particularly when that thought is itself compromised by a desire to gain notoriety in the mainstream or to take revenge on former political allies.

If we are to found a free political order, we must carefully assess the true power of the state and attack it. Anything less is an implicit condemnation of our convictions and, quite possibly, our ideology. We intend to suggest here that the state is far more powerful than the libertarians have acknowledged and will require a comparable amount of effort and sacrifice in order to defeat it. In relation to the task before it, the libertarian movement is likely to continue to be fundamentally inconsequential in the struggle against statism, whatever victories it may acquire in the realm of popular politics.

The most tangible examples of government power are those that libertarians spend most of their time obsessing about, namely guns and butter, which are simply symbols for the power to take and the power to give. The particulars change depending on which party is in office, but the fundamental drive to take and to give is as old as the world. And, certainly without the power to forcibly take property and to buy the favor and support of others with government largesse (or, from another perspective, stolen property), libertarians would have little to complain about. A government without guns and butter would be no government at all, really.

But, the state is not something that stands beside or over society, terrorizing it. Its power to point guns in this direction and hand out butter in the other is not one it must lord over everyone, only those on the fringes who might consider bolting and encourage others to do likewise. Rather, it is a power we have always given it–and will continue giving into the foreseeable future. If even a sizeable minority of a society, particularly in an established democracy, were to decide to simply stop obeying the state, the underlying, unspoken agreement between the various segments (or, factions) of that society would be shattered and a new compromise would have to emerge or result in the dissolution of that particular state.

In other words, while libertarians justifiably insist on the right to consent to any measures asked of them individually, the fact is that the state is built on consent and could not live without it. Society funds the government, pledges itself to its flag, and stocks it with old men and women to run it and young men and women to kill for it. But, while we often identify the state with the government, the government itself has no real power. The will of a nation could easily thwart any physical power its government could bring to bear.

The state is not the government. Rather, the state is the sum total of activities a society takes to realize a social order. If people by and large wanted to run red lights, they would. If they were so offended by the things their taxes go to pay for, they would stop paying them. We must stop seeing the state merely as an object whose weight holds down society and recognize that it is and always has been actively willed by society. Moreover, while acknowledging our conscientious disapproval of those things willed by it, we must also recognize that we are not so aggrieved as to withdraw our consent from the state, and thus we continue to participate in it and perpetrate it.

Therefore, when governments great and small, empires vast and powerful, fall to the forces of history, that god, the State, never trembles, for those who have felled the old powers are the new and more vigorous sect of devotees of his religion.

The fight against the state is not against a particular set of bureaucrats and politicians and their sympathizers, however useful that conception is in libertarian propaganda. The fight against the state is against the social consensus that the use of force is an acceptable means to achieve social and personal ends. This is a consensus that we have effectively assented to, however much we may dislike it and oppose it in our rhetoric. The vast majority of libertarians (as well as your correspondent) have not found this proposition so intolerable that they have been willing to completely withdraw from the state or challenge it in a meaningful way.

But, so long as we condemn the state with our words and support it with our deeds, our calls for a free society will ring very hollow indeed. It is this unspoken truth that echoes in virtually every libertarian article and pronouncement and that can be felt in the ultimately irrelevant banter about the war, about the monetary system, about the welfare state, about civil liberties, and about countless other things.

And, when we realize this, we come to realize the true power of the state, its beauty. Our ideology inspires essays and websites. The state inspires devotion, love, sacrifice, and courage. People are risking their lives and, we all know, are currently losing them to promote the state. We may attempt to explain away such willing devotion, or we may ask ourselves why we do not inspire that degree of conviction for our own cause. If the state is the sum total of social action, its real power is in its ability to manifest the dreams and aspirations of the human spirit and to call forth sentiments and deeds that ought to appeal to every human soul, however much we may question the cause for which statists sacrifice themselves.

Before this awesome power, we do not have time to waste on fighting policy battles with the passing administrations of the hour. Our battle must be for the hearts and minds of our neighbors, and this is a battle we are clearly losing with our utterly unimaginative, uninspiring ideology. It is a battle for the dreams of humanity, one that will be won by the side that is the most visionary and the most willing to sacrifice.

February 16, 2004


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