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The State: Evil and Idol

October 29, 2002

For some time now I’ve been advocating the idea of society without the state, or anarchism. This is no more than an affirmation of the principle of the Declaration of Independence: that no man can be justly ruled by another without his consent. To be ruled by force is to be a slave.

So far, I’ve encountered only one serious argument against this principle: that it’s utopian. It can’t work. An utterly free society would be quickly overwhelmed and enslaved or annihilated by a ruthless neighboring society, or by organized criminal elements within. The free society’s freedom would be very brief. The world is ruled by force; always has been, always will be. War is the rule, peace the exception. The idea of anarchism is plausible only to those who naively imagine that peace can be a normal state of affairs.

History offers much to support this pessimistic view. Someone has estimated that mankind has been at war, on the average, for 13 years for every year of peace. And the wars have generally been wars of annihilation, no holds barred. “Civilized” warfare, sparing noncombatants, has been almost exclusively European, existing chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when war was sometimes almost a gentlemen’s pastime, rather like fox-hunting.

If you want to survive in this harsh world, the argument runs, you’d better seek the protection of a state, just as, in a tough neighborhood, you may have to join one gang or the other. Anarchism, in this view, is simply not an option. It’s only a dream.

To live, then, is to be the slave of a state, a system of force. The most you can hope for is a reasonably mild state, an Athens rather than a Sparta, whose rule is bearable but whose survival is viable. Of course it’s easy for us to forget that many men are more at home in a Sparta than in an Athens. The taste for freedom, including respect for others’ freedom, is far from universal, or we would all be free.

[Breaker quote: Anarchism and doublethink]This is a powerful argument, and I won’t try to refute it here. But at most it proves only that the state is a necessary evil and that the rule of force is inescapable. Even if we are all doomed to live under the state, it doesn’t follow that there is, or even can be, such a thing as a good state.

Of course some states are worse than others, and the differences matter. Sometimes their subjects can impose limits on them — bills of rights, for example. But since the state is finally a monopoly of force, such limits are always tenuous and unstable. The state’s excuse for being is its protective function, but no state that I know of has ever been confined to this role for long. It soon becomes aggressive, either toward neighboring communities or, more often, against its own subjects.

The remarkable fact is that men are so loyal to the states that rule them. They actually idealize and take pride in their rulers. It may be obvious to outsiders that those rulers are tyrants, but their subjects seldom see it that way. They are often ready, and proud, to fight and die for the men who theoretically protect them! It’s like sacrificing your life to save your bodyguard.

Consider that strange creature, the American conservative. He constantly, and rightly, complains that his government is oppressive. At the same time he insists that his country is the freest on earth. What’s more, he is proud that it’s also the most militarily powerful on earth. Yet he also thinks his freedom is in constant peril from foreign threats, and only the state can preserve it from imminent destruction.

George Orwell gave us the word doublethink for the ability to hold two contradictory views simultaneously. Conservatives have now achieved doublethink and are approaching something like triplethink. They forget that the state is at best a necessary evil, a threat to liberty, and extol their own state as a positive good, even a glorious thing we should take pride in. They quote Lord Acton — “All power tends to corrupt,” et cetera — and celebrate American power. Which is it?

Thus does a “necessary evil” become an idol. Maybe we’re stuck with it. But do we have to worship it?

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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