The term “the state” is a term that gets thrown around a lot with various meanings. Even excluding the confusing American terminology in which the United States is composed of “states,” we’re still left with many other meanings. For example, in the international relations literature, most independent countries are generally referred to as states. Historically, governments and polities of all types have been referred to as states.
Moreover, the audience here will certainly be familiar with the term in the context of opposing the state. In libertarian circles, we often hear—although perhaps not often enough—about the need to fight the state, smash the state, abolish the state, etc. Certainly, one doesn’t have to spend an enormous amount of time reading Murray Rothbard to be familiar with this position.
Why We Must Be Precise about the State
But often, when the “smash the state” position is invoked—especially among those less familiar with the state as an institution—further investigation often reveals a dangerous lack of precision about what exactly the state is.
In many cases, “the state” is (wrongly) understood as all forms of civil government, or any institution that employs coercion such as law courts and other legal institutions. “The state” can include everything from the highest levels of the national security apparatus right on down to your local dog catcher. Or historically, it can mean everything from the local feudal lord to the grandest imperial despot.
This vague and all-inclusive notion of the state, however, exposes the antistate position to a pretty convincing objection from others.
That is, if “the state” is any and all types of government, then the state is as old as mankind and apparently endemic to the human condition. By this definition, no group of human beings has ever existed without a state, because even the most primitive tribal elders have “coerced” members, in the form of forcing guilty parties to pay retribution to wronged parties. Or in extreme cases, local leaders have sometimes imposed exile or enslavement on others in their community. No human association simply lets people do whatever they want whenever they want and still remain members of that group in good standing.
If this is true, then eliminating the state—defined as any organization using coercion—this would strike many if not most reasonable people as utopian in the extreme. If “the state” has always existed and is found in every human society, then its elimination is about as likely or wise as eliminating the family.
This objection can be addressed by being more precise and clear about what we mean by “the state.”
By better understanding what the state is, we can perhaps also better see why it is an especially damaging and dangerous institution. And once we understand that, we can better see how to fight and unravel the state more effectively.
What I want to do here today is 2 things. I want to show how the state—which I will sometimes call “the sovereign state” or the “modern state” is a very specific type of government, and not at all eternal or necessary in ordering human affairs. Its abolition is by no means utopian.
Secondly, I want to discuss what is the role of liberal—that is the “classical liberal” or libertarian—in advocating for the radical reining in and ideally, the elimination of the state altogether. (As a side note: I agree with historian Ralph Raico, one of our late senior fellows here who regarded what we now call libertarianism as simply a modern variant of so-called classical liberalism or more correctly, simply liberalism. Raico used all three terms interchangeably, and I’ll do the same
What Is the State?
So, when I say, “the state” what do I mean?
First, we can briefly note what the state is not. Rothbard covers this well in his essay “The Anatomy of the State,” so there’s no need to belabor the point here, but the jist of it is this:
Rothbard uses the standard Weberian definition for the most part: the state is an organization with a monopoly on the means of coercion within a specific territory. Even if we don’t quite agree with it in every respect, it is at least a good starting point.
As Rothbard points out, the fact that it is a specific organization means it is not us. The state is not society overall. The old classical liberals made this distinction. In fact they invented the notion of using the word “society” to be something distinct from the state. “Society” is all those things that are not the state. Families, churches, the marketplace, even arguably some local governments where power is more localized and specific rather than centralized and general. But society is certainly any voluntary institution built on voluntary relations.
Now, this can be confusing for readers of older writers. St Augustine uses the term “the state” to mean something closer to society in general. Or more correctly, he uses a Latin term rem publicum—or other variants—which are generally translated as “the state.” But what St Augustine means by this is better understood as the word “polity” which is a community of human beings and all its institutions, including its governmental institutions.
So, in our usage here the state is not the same thing as a polity, a community, or even a civil government.
So we’ve declared what the state is not—is not the community, or the polity in which we live.
And what is the nature of this organization?
There are four main aspects of what the state is that I want to discuss here.
ONE: the first point is that the state exists in the people’s minds.
Martin van Creveld, for instance, states
The state … is an abstract entity which can be neither seen, nor touched.
Van Creveld’s observation takes us back to Joseph Strayer, author of On The Medieval Origins of the Modern State, who reiterates that the state exists in the minds of people. And the crucial step takes place when people start to believe that they need a state.
Now, neither Van Creveld not most other historians of the state would deny that the tools of the state are obviously real and tangible. We can touch and see the state’s prisons, its armies, its execution chambers, its nuclear bombs, its bureaucrats, its judges, its courtrooms, and so on. But nonstate organizations (with the exception of nuclear weapons–only states have ever owned those) have controlled these other state amenities in history.
But the fact that these are all held together toward the pursuit of certain goals, is evidence that there is a unifying idea, in the minds of the people who use these tools—and the populations who accept their usage.
TWO: a second important aspect is the fact the state is impersonal and bureaucratic, and permanent. The prestate princes of Europe were expected to provide a provided an actual service in that he led soldiers in battle and he often traveled around his domains personally acting as judge in legal cases.
Charles Tilly paints an important picture here—the medieval king before the age of states was personally provided security services. He could be found on the field of battle.
The monarch after the rise of state—say in the sixteenth century—sat behind a desk. He headed an enormous, permanent, and impersonal apparatus designed to impose his edicts across a large territory. He did paperwork.
THREE: this takes us to the next crucial and more dangerous step: when people start to believe the state is sovereign.
Strayer says that yes, people must believe the state exists in order for it to exist. But critical in creating a state is that people must believe the state is sovereign in that the state gets the final say on everything within its borders. There is no peer or higher organization that can challenge is decisions. As we will see, sovereignty is a key issue here. It’s one of two key differences that makes the state what it is.
FOUR: but there is one final key step in understanding the state, and this, along with sovereignty, is what truly makes the state different and modern and distinct from other types of civil government.
This is the fact that morality does not apply to the state the way it applies to you and me.
Van Creveld provides a key insight here:
Hobbes deserves the credit, for inventing the `state’ … Bound by no law except that which [the sovereign ruler] himself laid down (and which, of course, he could change at any moment), Hobbes’s sovereign was much more powerful than … any Western ruler since late antiquity.
That is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of the state, European society did not, in theory, buy into the idea that the state could do whatever it wanted regardless of ordinary morality. Notions like “there are not rules in war” or the basic idea, loved by politicians that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Certainly, there were abuses. Certainly many princes acted at times like they could do whatever they wanted. But it was not generally accepted on a theoretical level—as it is today—that it was a positive good that states and state agents be freed from the inconveniences of morality for the sake of statecraft. That came later with theorists like Machiavelli
So, this gives us some basic clues as to identifying a state when we see one, but its these last two characteristics that I want to focus on here, because they’re the most dangerous. The sovereignty of the state, and the state’s detachment from ordinary morality.
Let’s let Luigi Bassani and Carlo Lottieri explain why this is important:
One of the central axioms of libertarianism is the idea that the same morality applies to every person, whether acting on behalf of a public apparatus or in his individual capacity. Society and individuals must be judged as a whole: if something is morally unacceptable, it should be so for everybody. In Human Action, Mises affirms that the most weighty revolt against reason can be found in the idea that “there is no such thing as a universally valid logic.” Mises calls this polylogism: “Marxian polylogism asserts that the logical structure of mind is different with the members of various social classes. Racial polylogism differs from Marxian polylogism only insofar as it ascribes to each race a peculiar logical structure of mind.” The rise of the State brought about a different kind of polylogism, whose paramount importance for the general theory escapes no one: the division between the mass of subjects and the elite of political rulers.
So that’s the state in theory.
Law before the State
But it’s important to remember we’re not dealing with mere theory here. These are real institutions that exist in real history.
The state really came into its own in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with the rise of the Westphalian state or modern state, and especially with the rise of absolutism.
But understanding what came before the state in western Europe remains difficult for people to understand, largely because people have been so completely indoctrinated into the idea that there must always be a final sovereign authority within a specific territory.
But prior to the state, this was not the case.
Prior to the rise of the state and notions of patriotism and national identity, the medieval Europeans were much more pragmatic in their view of government power. The prince or king existed to address problems in emergencies. Moreover, he and the many other lords, dukes, and other members of the warrior class existed to be arbitrators in disputes, and to exact retribution from wrongdoers.
Naturally, this sort of work required violence, and these groups used coercive means in their work.
But these groups were not strong enough to claim sovereignty or a true monopoly on the means of coercion, and each prince had to compete with other princes. Indeed, kings were, in the words of Hendryk Spruyt, just a first among equal princes within their realms.
Political units tended to be very small. Moreover, as described by Spuyt, human beings were in the West subject to overlapping legal claims—people could be vassals of more than one prince. This meant an attempt to tax a city, a bishopric, an individual local lord, could encounter stiff resistance from the church, from a city council, or from another prince. Spruyt writes:
One could simultaneously be the vassal of the German emperor, the French king, and various counts and bishops, none of whom necessarily had precedence over the other. … a vassal might recognize different superiors under different circumstances.
The effect this meant that various competing powers sought consensus, negotiation, and other means of dispute resolution other than simply calling upon a sovereign to impose his will through the power of physical force.
Obviously, this placed substantial limits on the power of political leaders. For examples, historian Charles McIlwain who writes:
[P]roperty which a subject had of legal right in the integrity of his personal status, and the enjoyment of his lands and goods, was normally beyond the reach and control of the King.… At the opening of the fourteenth century John of Paris [a Dominican philosopher] declared that neither Pope nor King could take a subject’s goods without his consent.
Moreover, Bruno Leone concluded:
[A]n early medieval version of the principle, “no taxation without representation,” was intended as “no taxation without the consent of the individual taxed,” and we are told that in 1221, the Bishop of Winchester, “summoned to consent to a scutage tax, refused to pay, after the council had made the grant, on the ground that he dissented, and the Exchequer upheld his plea.”
Power was divided up among local princes, the Holy Roman emperor, and the Church. All competed with each other for power. Over time, this means that all these different groups also were careful to define their own rights within the legal system.
This didn’t mean lawlessness, of course, just as there is not lawlessness today in today’s anarchic world of international relations. There is international law. There are countless agreements among sovereign states. Similarly, in the prestate world of nonsovereign governments, there was law, there was conflict resolution, there was enforcement of legal rulings, and negotiations among semi-independent powers were commonplace. Yet there was no sovereign, final power. Kings existed to settle disputes, to subdue violent aggressors, and engage in conflict resolution. They often succeeded they often failed. Just as in any age of mankind.
These legal systems were often systems of restorative justice designed to offer a means of obtaining payment from those who committed offenses against others. It wasn’t perfect, but it would be hard to argue that the age of absolutism in the seventeenth century, or the age of total war in the twentieth century, was less chaotic or bloody.
Nor were regular people on their own and at the mercy of grand organizations. Human beings and households were affiliated with many organizations. City governments, guilds, churches, family clans, (and more) provided shelter to individuals which could offer legal and physical protection from outsiders and criminals. The untethered, atomistic individual did not really exist.
This of course, was the world that Machiavelli and other “modern” thinkers wanted to do away with.
And they succeeded.
What they got instead was the state, absolutism, and sovereignty.
In the prestate world, no politicians could be confident that he would not be challenged by a party of equal legal stature.
In the state system, every sovereign, whether a king, president, or parliament excises final and total authority within his jurisdiction. Just as important is the fact that most other states, most of the time, recognize the sovereignty of other states.
Not surprisingly, absolutism followed soon thereafter, which is described by absolutism’s defender Jean Bodin:
The sovereign, furthermore, must be unitary and indivisible, the locus of command in society … we see the principal point of sovereign majesty and absolute power to consist in giving laws to subjects in general, without their consent.
So, in both theory and practice, consent if of no importance in the mind of the absolutist. So to this, of course, Machiavelli would give a knowing nod.
Liberals versus the State
It is not surprising that during this period we see a multiplication of efforts to assign “divine right” to monarchs. This is often attributed to the middle ages, but few monarchs in prestate Europe could credibly claim such a title. It was also during this period when absolutists made other outlandish claims, such as the notion that “”God ordains all magistrates.” Or that to disobey the king is to disobey God. We can contrast this with the idea of St. Thomas Aquinas, who sanctioned the killing of tyrant kings, or St. Augustine, of course, who declared that an unjust law is no law at all.
But it wasn’t just in the stylings and claims of the ruling class that communicated the growing power of those who ruled in this period.
Absolutism manifested itself in many ways. The most remembered today, perhaps, is the economic system of absolutism, known as mercantilism. Mercantilism, as described by Rothbard, was simply the everyday expression of absolutism, and a system of special favors and interest group politics that naturally grew up around absolutist rulers. Rothbard writes:
Mercantilism, which reached its height in the Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, was a system of statism which employed economic fallacy to build up a structure of imperial state power, as well as special subsidy and monopolistic privilege to individuals or groups favored by the state.
This was the natural outcome of the sovereign state. No longer bound by any law other than its own will, the state could dole out favors to its supporters, redistributing property and granting monopoly powers at will.
This is where the liberals come in. In many ways liberalism is a reaction against the rise of the state and absolutism.
Rothbard writes that the Levellers of England in the seventeenth century were likely the first self-conscious and true libertarian movement. They explicitly opposed both the mercantilist system of favors, and the absolute power of the monarch. They explained the impoverishment imposed on ordinary people by trade restrictions. They advocated for decentralizing the armed forces into militias.
In the Americas, the Antifederalists carried on this tradition, to an even greater extent. They often nurtured a deep distrust of centralized power, and opposed the idea of federal sovereignty altogether in many cases. In practice, even the state legislatures in America lacked sovereignty, especially since the means of coercion was so diffuse and in the hands, in many cases, of local militias. Decentralization, of course was a key issue.
By the nineteenth century, liberalism gained ground in France, in England, an in Italy. These placed obstacles in the path of the state, in efforts to reduce abuses and to more greatly decentralize power. The Jacksonians and Cleveland Democrats in America carried on this tradition as well, into the very late nineteenth century. But in many cases this failed to address the two most dangerous aspects of the state: sovereignty and moral polylogism. But some liberals did in deed zero in on the central problem of the state.
Systematic opposition to the very idea of state sovereignty among liberals likely reached its most sophisticated level in this period with Gustave de Molinari.
Specifically, he explicitly opposed the very idea of state sovereignty even to the extent of opposing a monopoly over military power and security services. This, of course, was long the main claim the state made in favor of sovereignty—it must be the last word on matters of security, and war and peace.
But at the foundation of Molinari’s opposition to monopoly was his rejection of the idea that the state could apply its own version of morality. He writes:
It offends reason to believe that a well established natural law can admit of exceptions. A natural law must hold everywhere and always, or be invalid.
Just as natural law—i.e., basic moral laws—dictated people were free to choose providers or shoes or food, the same was true for security services. This position would have appeared quite reasonable to many prestate Europeans. Today, however, many consider it to be outlandish.
Unfortunately, few liberals since Molinari go this far. Some Rothbardians qualify, of course, but most assume the state as a given. Even the most seemingly radical theorists, either miss the key problem of state sovereignty and moral exceptionalism, or are simply unwilling to address it.
So What Is to Be Done?
If we accept the idea that the state does not exist on its own moral plane, or that the state should be ultimately be sovereign above all other possible challengers, what is to be done?
First, is to not buy into the grift. And it is a grift.
If the state relies on the perpetuation of the idea of the state, we need to at least stop believing the idea ourselves. But most important is to reject the idea that the state gets to function on its own moral plane. We hear this all the time from regime supporters of course. We shouldn’t complain too much, we’re told, because poiticians make “the hard decisions” and we can’t hold state actors to the same standards as mere ordinary people whose only function should be, apparently, to pay all the bills. This is poisonous thinking, and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
Moreover, we must fight the historical myths that back the state, such as the regime narrative that the state is a progressive force for humanity and human rights. The state has been immensely successful in writing its own history in which it is both inevitable and highly beneficial. Both of these claims must be rejected.
The second step is to support secession and radical decentralization.
It’s very hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea of competing sovereignties, and this is an obstacle to winning them over in the fight against state sovereignty. But one thing people do understand is the right to self-determination, self-government, and local autonomy. People don’t want to be ruled by a culturally alien force imposing the will of the majority on powerless minorities within a large state.
The answer to this problem of course, lies in secession, and in making government power more polycentric, more dispersed, more decentralized. This by itself brings us closer to the prestate model even without requiring a direct attack on the idea of sovereignty.
Moreover, secession does act as a de facto indirect attack on sovereignty in 2 ways. First of all, because a regime that fails to impose perpetual unity on its subjects is a weakened regime. And secondly, because secession creates smaller states, and secession prone, small states are less able to exercise sovereignty. The smallness of the state, and the relative ease with which people may leave that state, mean that it is more constrained in its ability to raise taxes and impose regulations, and to abuse the population in general.
Build up Other Institutions
And lastly—but perhaps most importantly, because it’s the right thing to do in all circumstances, is build up nonstate institutions.
What are these institutions? They’re the institutions that predate the state. The family, the church, the market. Even local governments are key in this equation.
As Van Creveld has explained the rise of the state required the triumph over all these institutions. It has been the decline of these institutions—encouraged by the state itself—that has paved the way for state dominance of society in so many cases.
And it’s easy to understand why. Society naturally organizes around kinship, around religious groups, around economic ties, professional associations, guilds, town governments, and even neighborhoods.
The work of the state for centuries has been to destroy and impoverish these natural organizations, replacing them with the artifice of the state, claiming the whole time that the state can better provide what these institutions once provided. But all the while creating a more fragile society. The project of the state and its intellectuals has been to run down especially families and churches and local allegiances because these groups have been so fundamental in creating parallel institutions that have competed with the state for loyalty and for resources.
Ultimately, it’s not enough to just oppose the state and call it a day because society has to organize itself around some institutions other than the state. If these alternative institutions don’t exist, people will turn to the state and it will only be strengthened.
Most importantly, these other institutions of the marketplace and private society are nothing like the state. They aren’t above morality. They aren’t sovereign, handing down immutable edicts to the rest of us to obey. In fact, these nonstate institutions help to illustrate just how different, and dangerous the state is. It’s a lesson we must not forget. Author:
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power&Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.