War is like a big machine that no one really knows how to
run and when it gets out of control it ends up destroying
the things you thought you were fighting for, and a lot
of other things you kinda forgot you had.
When I discuss with others the idea of living in a peaceful, stateless world, I am most frequently asked: “but what about national defense? What if the Chinese, or North Korean, or an aggressive Islamic state, wanted to invade America, destroy our way of life, and enslave us to their regime? How might we defend ourselves from those who want to use force to take us over?”
While such questions reflect legitimate concerns, they overlook one disturbing truth: what people fear took place centuries ago. America was “taken over” by powerful interests who used the machinery of the state to reduce all of us to their violent control; that we might be the resources for the accomplishment of their purposes. That one of the most popular Broadway shows is based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, reflects just how thoroughly most of us have internalized the grasping purposes of the so-called “Founding Fathers.” Should anyone put together a show on the life and thinking of Sam Adams, please let me know!
The problems we encounter through the politicization of society arise from confusions concerning the benefits of organizing ourselves with others. Because we are social beings who could not survive without the help of others – who would have cared for you immediately following your birth? – we have become lazy in distinguishing the organizational forms available for our benefit. We humans have long known of the advantages derived from a division of labor. Beyond living at a subsistence level, in which we consume all of our production just to survive, we are able to generate surpluses that we can exchange with others to increase our well-being. It is this reality that underlies the economic means by which we organize with others.
The economic means are an expression of the private property principle: owners decide for themselves how – and if at all – they choose to share or exchange their respective claims to what is theirs. They require no superintending authorities to impose rules and other costs upon their transactions. One of the most familiar examples of this marketplace behavior is found in “farmers’ markets” that exist in almost every community, as well as in roadside stands where farmers offer their produce for sale to passing motorists. What is noteworthy in these, and other marketplace transactions, is that the parties internalize all of the costs of getting their produce to the market. The farmer prepared the ground, planted the seeds, watered and protected the crops from predators, kept out weeds, harvested and cleaned the crops, and then transported them to the market. All of such costs were borne by the farmer in the expectation that the prices he or she realized from customer purchases will exceed the total costs invested to make his or her farming a profitable undertaking so as to continue the processes.
But there are others who see that energies driven by self-interested men and women using spontaneously-ordered organizations, can be corrupted by those who can use coercion for their benefit. There is nothing new in this, although our so-called “primitive” ancestors were too sophisticated to trust power in the hands of tribal leaders. Those interested in pursuing this topic might want to read the late French anthropologist, Pierre Clastres’ book Society Against the State. It was our more recent ancestors who concocted the street-gang looting-party known as the state. In selling this institutionalized violence to its victims with the pretense that the arrangement was the product of a contract, the state actually arose through conquest.
In order to bamboozle their intended prey, political schemers must fabricate threats which they, alone, are capable of overcoming. The threats may be of domestic origin: murderers, rapists, burglars, or people who use the wrong pronoun in speaking of others. Some threats are genuine, for which an intended victim must always rely on his or her methods of protection. Whether a threat is genuine depends upon
A Libertarian Critique… Butler Shaffer Buy New $5.50 (as of 11:48 EDT – Details) whether a property trespass is visited upon an owner. But who pays attention to the property principle any more, right?
Other threats may be hatched from foreign sources. Persons from outside one’s territory make for easy targeting, as they often have different cultures, languages, religions, economic interests, racial features, and other distinctions that can easily be exploited by politicians and their media propagandizers and turned into the “greatest threat since Hitler.” Like unseen hobgoblins with which children like to scare one another in the night, invisibility heightens fears. The scene of Jacob Marley dragging his chains up the stairs in the movie A Christmas Carol, was nowhere as terrifying to me as the same event only imagined on radio, in Lionel Barrymore’s annual Christmas Eve broadcast of that story.
Warmongers in the Establishment-owned media have been twisting every conceivable event into a renewal of the Cold War contrived conflict that posed Russia as the “greatest threat since Hitler” to take over the world. That show ran for some four decades, with Boobus Americanus eagerly buying up tickets when it went on the road to such places as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, even Grenada which, like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, was hypothecated, yet again, into the “greatest threat since Hitler.”
Most of my childhood years were spent during World War II, when the government had some degree of honesty in having the war conducted by “The War Department.” When the post-war years were spent fashioning the state into a “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” the war-making machinery was renamed “The Defense Department.” “Cynical” souls inclined to regard the war system as yet another lucrative racket run by and for members of the military-industrial complex, will be countered by the lyrics from the musical Li’l Abner: “what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A.”
Being social creatures, it is our nature to organize with others for our mutual benefit. Franz Oppenheimer suggested the “economic means” and the “political means” as two mutually-exclusive ways of accomplishing such beneficial ends. The peaceful, creative, and autonomous actions that serve our individual interests, are expressions of the economic means. But is it possible for us to cooperate with one another in order to protect ourselves from acts of trespass, theft, and other forms of victimization, by using only the economic means?
Those who have given focused attention to this question can attest to the reality that only individuals – be they armed, clever, or free to contract for protective services – can accomplish such ends. We have been conditioned to believe that the political means (i.e., the use of vertically-organized systems of violence), are necessary to provide for such security. Thomas Hobbes’ 17th century views are invoked on behalf of the political structuring of society. Without the state, Hobbes observed, mankind would live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” I wonder whether, four centuries later, Hobbes would have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that the apocalyptic conditions he foresaw in a “state of nature,” were more descriptive of the nature of the state he so admired?
I am not so innocent as to believe there are no greedy, power-hungry thugs menacing us. Indeed, as I have stated, we are already victimized by such creatures. Domestic despots are able to maintain their power only by convincing the rest of us that they can protect us from the feared threats which they concoct for our consumption! To carve out some foreign menace is much easier, as the identity of the alleged adversary is often wrapped in cloudy dimensions with shifting leadership (e.g., the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS). The more the foe is hidden in darkness, the more effective its role as a bogeyman. The prospect that the enemy-of-the-month might have spies or other operatives secreted away in America – perhaps going so far as to interfere with and corrupt the sacred electoral process – helps to bring the fear-ridden into a tighter herd. Over the years, I have heard otherwise intelligent people contend that the lack of evidence for many of these “threats,” shows just how sinister and deeply-embedded the menace is!
But let us imagine that some other nation does, indeed, desire to attack and subdue America, and that our country has no state apparatus with which to respond. Suppose that the Chinese government sent shiploads of soldiers to Los Angeles, or San Francisco, with orders to “take over” the American people. Where would these troops begin? Not having the advantages Hitler enjoyed in being able to get centralized authorities to “surrender” the populace to him, how would the Chinese government go about subduing over three-hundred million independent people to its will? Furthermore, what would be the states of mind of both the American resident and the Chinese soldier who both knew that a government was not present to “protect” the residents? What would be the state of mind of the Chinese government? Might it have been the same as that of the German government, in WWII, which knew of the practice, in Switzerland, of a universally-armed population?
We recite political catechisms about how “we” created the state through an imagined “social contract;” and that, like parties to economic transactions, we can amend, modify, or terminate the contractual relationship whenever we so choose. But the hostility with which state officials react to efforts to secede from political arrangements illustrates the fraudulent nature of the arrangement. In order to carry out the illusion that “we” control the system, the Establishment owners permit us to play with nonessential issues that never challenge the core of their authority over our lives. We can tinker with the details of how the state presumes to rule us: tax rates, the liberty to smoke marijuana, the 55 mph speed limit, or the required use of seat-belts. We engage in energized debates on these and other superficial topics and, should we get a court or legislature to agree with us on some point we pretend that we have advanced the cause of liberty. We are like dogs who have learned to carry their leashes in their mouths, convinced that we are leading our masters on the walk!
As we celebrate our ersatz sense of independence with a multitude of John Wayne films and documentaries about the increased militarization of the American government, we continue to chant our mantras about being “the freest people on earth.” We will find evidence for such a claim in a city council ordinance in Mud Flats, Kansas, allowing people to smoke cigarettes and cigars within their homes. We ignore the inconsistency of believing that our liberty is to be found in asking the state for a longer leg-chain. In the words of Ezra Pound, “A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him.”
One request most of us are afraid to make of ourselves as well as the state is that of freeing us from the deadly, destructive and submissive nature of the “national defense” racket. In order to reinforce the illusion that “we” control the state, we will be allowed to play around at the edges of state power. “We” will not, however, be permitted to question the sacred center of statism, which is found in its legal monopoly on the use of violence over us. In Randolph Bourne’s famous words, “war is the health of the state.” We need to learn from Oppenheimer that the only way to advance human well-being is through the economic means of organizing with others; and never to resort to the political means.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] is Professor Emeritus at Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.