As mentioned above, I was in the midst of a column for LRC on this subject. I present it below. Comments welcome.
Why Don’t More
People Realize That a Stable Statist Society Requires Belief?
- By Wilton D. Alston
“The sovereign, after taking
individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking,
reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of
uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original
minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not
break men's wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone
to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents
them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses,
saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing
but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in
America, Vol. 2 
As I read Butler
Shaffer’s outstanding piece “The Messenger is the
Message”, which was ostensibly about Tim Russert, but was actually about so
much more, several conclusions occurred to me.
First, Dr. Shaffer almost always seems to cover the concepts I’ve been
considering better than I would have.
Secondly, the ironic timing of his essay confirmed that more seasoned
libertarian philosophers have apparently noticed what just occurred to me. That
was: the State wouldn’t “work” if the
population didn’t “believe” either! The
apparatus of the State, fine-tuned in the U.S. since the time of Washington
and Jefferson, has risen to a level of fine art as it generates a belief system
in its necessity while simultaneously remaining just out of view.
Given that we are both
anarchists, it is no surprise that I have cited Dr. Shaffer so many times, most
recently in my “Anarchy,
Anarchy – Wherefore Art Thou?” piece.
That the solid logic that undergirds market anarchism – or whatever you
want to call it – remains somehow in doubt is one of the most troubling and
fascinating subjects to which I apply any available skills of analysis and
modest writing talents. Why is it that
almost any suggestion of even the possibility of a peaceful, anarchistic
society is met with pseudo-intellectual derision or worse yet, insulting,
pat-on-the-head “utopian dreamer” condescension? Excluding the corruption of those who enrich
themselves with the State, it is met with these responses because honest people
have been programmed, over years and years of public (Read: statist propaganda-laden) schooling.
I do not draw this
conclusion – that the stability of the State requires belief – anew in the
sense that no one has said it before.
Thinkers such as Hoppe have eloquently spoken about the fact that the
State obtains its legitimacy from the belief of those upon whom it
aggresses. I draw this conclusion in
direct contrast to those who question the possibility that an anarchistic
society is possible, as they simultaneously fail to note that a severely
freedom-limited, statist regime is possible only as a direct result of shared
beliefs of those imposed upon by that State.
His Imperial Programming is Strong
When I say “people have
been programmed” I’m not talking just about other
people. I include myself in that
category as well. The phenomenon of
which I speak came into view recently, again ironically, in a thread I was
reading on the FreedomainRadio
Discussion Forum (FDR), the creation of another staunch anarchist (and one
of my occasional co-authors) Stefan Molyneux.
In that thread, entitled “My Emotional
Resistance to Anarcho-Capitalism” the initial poster summed up the feelings
of many budding anarchists with:
We [people who suggest that anarchy is not only possible but also
preferable] are talking about completely abolishing the public sector.
Are there any guarantees that
we (and I use the first person plural because I am strongly sympathetic to your
arguments) will not create a nightmare like the intellectuals that dreamed of
completely abolishing private property?
Or, to ask a more concrete question, do you believe that any society,
from ancient Iceland to 1917
Russia to modern Iraq,
is capable of anarcho-capitalism?
Are there certain infrastructures and philosophies that must be in place
first? Can anyone think of a realistic
narrative to the creation of anarcho-capitalism? And, most
importantly of all, would there be any requisite change to "human
To say that many an
anarchist has heard these questions more than once would be a gargantuan understatement. If you read FDR with any regularity you will
probably come across several similar questions, posed by very sincere people
with very sincere concerns, at least
twice a week.
Furthermore, I would bet
my very last money that any person who alludes to having the slightest
sympathies for even the so-called limited government ostensibly envisioned by
the founding fathers would be besieged by similar questions regarding, among
other things: maintenance of the common
goods, the certain destruction of any semblance of peace, and (of course) the
eventual rise of roaming rape gangs.
(Mad Max lives! That the
prevalence of bath tub ring and the lack of a cure for hemorrhoids are not also
mentioned just as often is probably dumb luck.)
Having personally taken part in
more than a couple of these debates with thoughtful people spanning the
educational spectrum from Ph.D. to high school drop-out, I still didn’t understand the stickiness of such reasoning until recently.
Same Question, Same Answer
Note the words I’ve
emphasized in the quotations above. Is
there any “guarantee” that the abolition of the State won’t create a nightmare? Is society “capable” of anarchy? Can one furnish a “realistic narrative” of
the past creation of an anarcho-capitalist society? Verily I say unto thee (yes, even an atheist
can use Bible-esque sentence structure) I’ve been answering these same
questions, or variations of them since (and before) my “A Libertarian Cheat Sheet”
column. Worse yet, I’ve not been
alone. Many a gifted, and often more
talented writer than I, has attempted to do the same thing.
Still, this “emotional
resistance” to the basic truth and validity of market anarchism (and more
distressing, a psychological blind spot to the foundational nature of the universally
preferable behavior upon which it is so firmly based) rises like a Phoenix out
of the ashes of the burnt, inconsistent, barely noticeable logic – and use the
term very loosely – of statism! What in
What valid guarantee has ever
been offered for any societal construct?
None. Is society capable of
anarchy? Of course. If not, then no peaceful voluntary interactions
would ever take place. This might
surprise a few statists, but I haven’t had to call the police to help me deal
with another human being in, well, ever.
I wander through shopping malls, crowed streets, open-air markets in the
and abroad, interacting with other people and vendors willy-nilly, with no
concern that around the corner there lurks a criminal waiting to pounce. I’ve been in ghettos, or, if you prefer,
inner cities, all over the U.S. and in fact, unfamiliar communities all over
Never once have I thought I should take a cop with me, just in case! I’ve also never mistakenly concluded that it
was only because a policeman or other “law giver” was close-at-hand that kept
the hideous folks at bay. In fact I defy
anyone to logically conclude that the presence of the threat of police presence
provides one ounce of protection. Consider: I can absolutely guarantee that in some
communities with which I am intimately familiar, a robber could break into your
home, beat you to within an inch of your life, take a shower, roll a huge spliff, and
smoke it completely before you got off hold with 9-1-1. How’s that for a realistic narrative?
As I responded to that poster, I will similarly declare here. People forget, I think, that every
societal construct is based upon: shared beliefs, Schelling Points, and
yes, maybe even propaganda to some extent. In other words, we learn from
very early ages much, if not all, of the behavior that undergirds our societies.
(Hat tip: “All
I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” -- although that book title
is probably a stretch on the concept.) Exactly which lessons are taught, and in what order, given what
priority, which are omitted, undergirded or justified by which authority, is a
direct result on pre-existing and long-standing societal mores. Happily for us anarchists, it turns out that
the undergirding premises of anarchy exist as universally preferable behavior!
A school child in Iraq
already “knows” (and more importantly accepts) many of the premises that will
govern his life choices and behavior.
Exactly the same can be said about a middle schooler in North Dakota. (That some folks believe that the current version
of freedom in the U.S.
– such as it exists – is not taught, is troubling, but expected. When paternalism is mistaken for patriotism
even though neither is a proper substitute for a logical, evidence-based,
dare-I-say, scientific paradigm for
distinguishing truth from falsehood, this is the outcome.) On top of these early premises is layered a
belief in the necessity of the State and a belief in the ostensibly otherwise
unavailable benefits of statism. Both of these latter beliefs are taught
in government schools and are seminal to their existence and the need for them. In
fact, the (un)stated mission of government schools spells this out for all to
A brief visit to the website for the Alliance for the Separation
of School and State provides a few educational (pun intended) quotes from
“Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education
from happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role
~ William T. Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education in the late 1800s
“Only a system of state-controlled schools can be free to teach whatever
the welfare of the State may demand.”
~ Ellwood P. Cubberley, former superintendent of San Diego schools and Dean
of Stanford University School of Education (late 1800s-early 1900s)
Now, I am not suggesting that once the propaganda has taken root in one’s
mind that he cannot unplug from the socket.
People take the red pill
all the time. But it is indeed difficult
to do so. Nor am I suggesting, as the Alliance for the
Separation of School and State seems to imply, that it is primarily via
religious teaching that society can be peaceful. My opinions on any type of unquestioned authority, no matter its genesis (pun
intended, again) should be clear by this time.
Think for yourself. Treat people
with universalizability in mind. The argument from morality
Far too much of a statist society is based upon the acceptance of naked
authority, and this reliance and belief begins very early in everyone’s
life. Many a parent has answered his
child with, “…because I said so!” in response to incessant use of the
anti-authoritarian’s favorite question, “Why?”
(I openly admit to extreme embarrassment that I ever uttered those words, but I digress.) The raw fact is that the State says,
“…because I said so” often enough and in so many situations that the practice
can easily retreat into the white noise of what we mistake for a civilized existence.
Contrary to the most basic premise of the garden-variety anti-anarchist –
that under anarchy society would devolve into chaos – it is far truer that
without the free-thought-squelching grip of statist propaganda, the typical
statist society is much closer to
pandemonium than almost any anarchistic society. I submit that without the inculcation in the
supposedly-inherent goodness of the State, the U.S. would have an uprising like
the Whiskey Rebellion
every other week! Let us place this
assertion in context.
The amount of tax on whiskey imposed by Alexander Hamilton’s mercantilist
scheme amounted to about 7 to 18 cents per
gallon. Today there is an
average of about $1.16 of tax per
pack of cigarettes. (One should note
that that the amount of taxation on cigarettes is far from uniform, as was the
case with the whiskey tax. Major tobacco
states have an average of about $0.33 per pack while other states average out
at about $1.27 per pack.) When you hear
about cigarette producers or cigarette consumers taking up arms and refusing to
pay the taxes on cigarettes let me know!
Instead, the bulk of the population seems to agree that [place government
program here] is not only a good idea, but also that without it [place negative
outcome here] would most assuredly happen, and all without one shred of
evidence! The faith – the belief – that
supports not only the presence of heavily statist practices, but also the
apparent willingness with which they are accepted provides ample evidence that
the government educational system is producing exactly the effect for which it was created. (One may lament the apparent lack of good
performance in the three R’s, but let us conclude that an ignorant statist is
very likely a better citizen for the coercive state than an informed anarchist
and leave it at that!)
As such, there is no need to prove that anarchy is stable or possible, since statism itself requires "work" to be stable, despite the obviousness of universally preferable behaviors upon which market anarchism and fundamentally peaceful human interaction, is based.