Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What the State Produces

In anarchist literature, one often finds the contention that the State produces nothing, and is entirely parasitic on the rest of society.

This claim is false. Of course, it is true for some things that modern states do, such as the provision of welfare. But it is false applied to the state as a whole, because there is one service that is highly productive, and that only the state can provide: the service of being the final arbiter for all disputes between its members. This service must, logically, come from a monopoly provider: if there are multiple providers of arbitration at the same level, then none of them are final. (And that is why, if a network of ancap defense agencies can provide this service, they will, in fact, compose a state. And if they can't provide it, then we will have "anarchy" in the bad sense of social chaos.)

Once one focuses on this service, one can easily understand why German barbarians would fight to get inside the Roman Empire: both productivity and security go up in the presence of such a final arbiter. And that is why we have never seen any wealthy, stateless societies.


  1. This is a pretty conventional argument, and the anarchist responses are set pieces: they have proposals for other final arbiters, and they can show that the state is certainly not the final arbiter among other states. Gene, it seems to me the state's role as final arbiter is neither its logical origin nor its telos, but a byproduct of the state's supremacy, which has its ultimate grounds elsewhere, probably in the economy of violence: a state is a better instrument of both conquest and territorial defense than any other institution yet devised by man. And it is, of course, a double-edged sword, whose purpose is at least as acquisitive as it is defensive. The legal side of the state, indeed the rule of law itself, is an important secondary development, but it probably is not the "product" for which states are built.

    Any institution can act as final arbiter "among its members" almost by definition—a clan, a sect, a gang of bandits, a firm, a club, all can supply arbitration within their ranks, and some have done so in as "final" a manner as any state. The state is pretty handy for arbitration among these heterogeneous groups, however. What places such groups in so regular a relationship that they need a final arbiter outside themselves? Force is one thing that can create such regular intercourse among heterogeneous institutions, either external force that causes groups to band for defense, or force that that coercively aggregates disparate groups for its own purposes. Arbitration in either case is a helpmeet to power.

    1. Not that force-based characterization a of the state aren't also pretty conventional—what I meant by my opening remark was just that we know what the instantaneous anarchist responses will be. I left out the third anarchist response, namely that the state isn't an arbiter at all when it's a party to a controversy.

    2. Misses the point. "Membership" cannot be voluntary. If I beat you and take your cash then either we are both "members" of the same group even involuntarily or as Gene notes there is no final arbiter.

  2. Nobody said anything about groups being voluntary. Before the state, there were plenty of involuntary groups in the world. In a future without a state, other groups would be involuntary final arbiters. Nor is "final arbiter" as absolute a concept as liberals seem to think: an arbiter is only final within a given context, and that's as true for any real state as it is for the humblest voluntary club. The state is not historically nor conceptually the only possible final arbiter; it's a special kind of final arbiter. Neither its origin nor its essential functioning lies in arbitration, except to the extent that playing the special kind of arbitration it provides has helped to organize power. But even then, "final arbiter" is a means to an end, and the basic end is power. (I think the relationship between power and justice within the state is more complex than this may indicate--justice of some kind is necessary for any group or institution to endure, but that very universality makes justice less of a specifically characteristic trait of the state.)

  3. Those institutions act as final arbiters, too. I'm more used to using the term "government" in place "state"—more people are familiar with it and every human society has one. Somalia has governments but they just aren't organized into Westphalian nation-states. It's still also seems strange to call government a type of service, so calling it a monopoly strikes me as off. I think the problem may be in thinking that " the state" can be separated from society. Any group of humans is going manifest some kind of dedicated enforcement mechanism. A small town of conservatives may not have taxes, but it may have a militia.

  4. Even within the state there can be disputes in which the state is not regarded as the final arbiter. I'm thinking along the lines of Robert Ellickson's "Order Without Law". I suppose one could argue that if anybody had resorted to violence (beyond property damage) the state would have stepped in and that possibility affected their actions (Lucas critique!). But I think that community norm of not resorting to the legal system or the state is an important counter-example.


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