Mises Daily Articles
Does the State Protect Us?
[This article is excerpted from chapter 13 of The Rise and Fall of Society. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]
Foremost among the services which the State claims to render Society is its protection from other predatory States. This is a considerable service, to be sure.
In former times, when political morals were differently phrased, the State prosecuted war with the avowed purpose of adding glory to its name by way of real-estate acquisitions, to say nothing of the ancillary purpose of bringing civilization to barbarians; Napoleon's avowed ambition was to impose on his victims the blessing of "liberty, fraternity, equality."
This is out of fashion these days; wars are now waged to protect the nation from the aggressor, which is the name each side gives to the other. However, it is still de rigueur for the victorious State to add to its exploitable territory at the expense of the conquered.
But we are not here concerned with the aims of war, nor with its causes or its avoidability; what interests us is the effect on Society's economy. Does the housewife have more in her pantry, or less, as a result of the glorious adventure? Does Society acquire shortages or abundances? What is the economic profit of the military protection afforded by the State?
Putting this economic consideration aside, there is the inescapable fact that paying homage to a foreigner goes against the grain of tradition. Until he made his accommodation to the inevitable, no decent Saxon would have any truck with his Norman overlords, and the Indians always resented the British raj. It is this abhorrence of rule by foreigners that makes it easier to stir up a revolt against a State so composed than against an indigenous one. Yet, on balance, are the Indians better off, economically, under their own State than when the British ruled the roost? And the Canadians, who did not emulate the Americans in getting rid of the British Crown, nevertheless enjoy a comparable standard of living. That is to say, regardless of the nationality of the State, Society has to make its way by the usual process of laying labor to raw materials, and the vaunted protection of the State neither promotes nor facilitates that process.
Since Society puts so high a value on independence from a foreign State, it should not demur at the cost of maintaining this independence. One must pay for what one wants. However, when we examine the most approved method of financing war we find that it is based on a general reluctance to foot the bill. Every war is fought with current production — there is no way of shooting off guns that have not yet been made or of feeding soldiers with food that will be raised by the next generation — and in a real sense every war is conducted on a pay-as-you-fight basis.
But the producers of the means of war seem to put a lower value on it than do the management, for they demand receipts for what is taken from them to prosecute the war, receipts which become a claim on future production, not only as to their face value but also as to the interest which patriotism demands; it is possible that if the State raised all the costs of war by taxes, issued no bonds or even issued only non-interest-bearing bonds, the war might be called off, which would be proof enough that Society puts little worth on its political purposes.
The economic consequence of the most approved method of financing wars is that a lien on the future production of the nation is established, and nearly always it is a permanent lien. That is, for all time to come, or as long as the State stays in business, the housewives' pantries must contribute to the cost of a nation's past "protective" wars.
But war, and the preparations for it, is attended with a charge that has nothing to do with protection and is a load that increasingly hampers Society in its search for a better life. That is the power which the State acquires during war and does not relinquish when it is over.
When the enemy is at the city gates, or there is a general fear that he is coming, the individual abdicates his self-reliance and places himself unreservedly under the direction of the captain; he gives up his freedom in order to attain freedom. Or so he thinks. But it is a matter of record that what he gives up is never fully returned to him, that he must fight his own captain to get back his natural heritage.
The State jealously guards the power over Society which it has acquired during a climate of fear. To prove the point, we need not review the history of ancient Rome, where a succession of protective wars ended up in the servitude of the people to the emperors; we need only list and add up the interventionary powers acquired by the American State during the wars it conducted; the sum total is a monstrous tax load, a monstrous bureaucracy, a monstrous statute book, and a popular conviction that the State (which was feared and despised in 1789) is the giver of all things good.
So, then, the "protective" service rendered by the State is paid for not only with taxes but also with subservience. Society is much poorer for it.