Mises Daily Articles
How and Why the State Destroys Society
[From The Rise and Fall of Society]
It is not incumbent on a diagnostician to prescribe a remedy, and it would be quackery for him to do so when he has misgivings as to its curative value. It may be that the struggle between Society and the State is inevitable; it may be in the nature of things for the struggle to continue until mutual destruction clears the ground for the emergence of a new Society, to which a new political establishment attaches itself to effect a new doom.
Perhaps the malignancy is inherent in man. It would be silly to suggest that four-footed males, driven by the reproductive urge, ought to know better than engage in deathly battles over possession of females, and it is possible that the historical struggle between the social organization and the political organization is likewise meant to be.
Support for this conclusion is found in the ground we have covered.
Beginning with man — where else can we begin? — we find him impelled by an inner urge to improve his circumstances and widen his horizon; a self-generating capacity for wanting drives him from one gratification to another. Each gratification represents an expenditure of labor, which, because it produces a feeling of weariness, he finds distasteful. His inclination is to bypass labor as much as possible, but without sacrificing his betterment.
He brings to bear on this natural modus operandi a peculiarly human gift: the faculty of reason. (It is this faculty that suggests a possible solution of the Society-State conflict, which we will discuss later.) His reason tells him that the business of multiplying satisfactions is best pursued by cooperation with his fellow man.
Thus arises Society and its techniques: specialization and exchange, capital accumulations, competition. Society is a labor-saving device, instinctively invented; it is not a contractual arrangement any more than the family is, but like the family it germinates in the composition of man.
The marketplace method yields more for less labor than individual self-sufficiency does, yet the price it always demands is labor. There is no getting away from that. Still, it is a price paid with reluctance, and out of this inner conflict between cost and desires comes the drama of organized man.
The impossibility of getting something for nothing, the summum bonum, does not banish hope or intimidate the imagination, and in his effort to realize the dream, man frequently turns to predation: the transference of possession and enjoyment of satisfactions from producer to nonproducer. Since men work only to satisfy their desires, this transference induces a feeling of hurt, and in response to that feeling the producer sets up a protective mechanism.
Under primitive conditions, he relies on his own powers of resistance to robbery, his personal strength plus such weapons as he has at his disposal. That is his Government. Since this protective occupation interferes with his primary business of producing satisfactions, and is frequently ineffective, he is quite willing to turn it over to a specialist when the size and opulence of Society call for such a service. Government provides the specialized social service of safeguarding the marketplace.
The distinctive feature of this service is that it enjoys a monopoly of coercion. That is the necessary condition for the conduct of the business; any division of authority would defeat the purpose for which Government is set up.
Yet, the fact remains that Government is a human organization, consisting of men who are exactly like the men they serve. That is, they too seek to satisfy their desires with the minimum of exertion, and they too are insatiable in their appetites. In addition to the run-of-the-mill desires that possess all men, Government personnel acquire one peculiar to their occupation: the adulation showered on them because they alone exercise coercion. They are people apart.
The honorifics that stem from the exercise of power arouse a passion for power, particularly with men whose capacities would go quite unnoticed in the marketplace, and the temptation is strong to expand the area of power; the negative function of protection is too confining for men of ambition. The tendency then in the world of officialdom is to assume a capacity for positive functions, to invade the marketplace, to undertake to regulate, control, manage, and manipulate its techniques.
In point of fact, it does nothing of the kind, since the techniques are self-operating, and all that political power can accomplish by its interventions is to control human behavior; it effects compliance by the threat of physical punishment. That, indeed, is the be-all and end-all of political power. Yet, such is the makeup of the human that he looks up to, and sometimes worships, the fellow human who dominates his will, and it is this acquired sense of superiority that is the principal profit of officialdom.
The transition from negative Government to positive State is marked by the use of political power for predatory purposes. In its pursuit of power, officialdom takes into consideration the ineluctable something-for-nothing passion, and proceeds to win the support of segments of Society bent on feathering their nests without picking feathers.
It is a quid pro quo arrangement, by which the power of compulsion is sublet to favored individuals or groups in return for their acquiescence to the acquisition of power. The State sells privilege, which is nothing but an economic advantage gained by some at the expense of others.
In olden times, the privileged group were a land-owning class, who furnished military support for political power, or a mercantilist group, who contributed to the imperial coffers out of their politically generated monopoly profits; with the advent of popular suffrage, making political preferment dependent on wider favor, the business of bribery had to be extended, and so came the subsidization of farmers, tenants, the aged, users of electric power, and so on. Their vested interest in the State makes them amenable to its purposes.
It is this partnership in predation that characterizes the State. Without the support of privileged groups the State would collapse. Without the State the privileged groups would disappear. The contract is rooted in the law of parsimony.
The instrument that puts the State into a bargaining position with its favorites is taxation. In the beginning, when the simple community sets up Government, it is admitted that its operatives cannot be productive and therefore have to be supported by the marketplace. Services must be paid for.
But the manner of paying for Government service poses a problem: taxes are compulsory charges, not voluntary payments, and their collection has to be entrusted to the very people who live by them; the compulsory power entrusted to them is used in the collection of their own wages.
That this function should be pursued with vigor is understandable. Yet, where political power is under the constant surveillance of Society, the urgency to increase taxes for the purpose of enlarging political power can be held in leash. But this restraint loses potency as Society grows in size and in complexity of interests; the preoccupation of its members with productive enterprise dims their interest in public affairs, which tend to become the private concern of officials.
Centralization of political power, which is merely its release from the restraint of social sanctions, ensues, and tax levies grow apace. The political establishment — the court of Louis XIV or the equally nonproductive bureaucracy of the modern "welfare" state — thus acquires self-sufficiency; it has the wherewithal to meet its enforcement payroll and to invest in power-accumulating enterprises.
There is always good and sufficient reason for more and more taxes. Solomon's temple, the roads of Rome, the rearing of "infant industries," military preparedness, the regulation of morals, the improvement of the "general welfare" — all call for drafts on the marketplace, and the end product of each draft is an increase in the power of the State.
Some of the appropriations seep through to some members of Society, thus satisfying the something-for-nothing urge, at least temporarily, and so stimulate a disposition to tolerate the institution and to obliterate understanding of its predatory character. Until the State reaches its ultimate objective, absolutism, its answer to tax-grumbling is that the "other fellow" pays all the levies and that seems to satisfy.
Pushing on fast through the biography of political institutions, the practice of buying the support of privileged and subsidized groups sloughs off when the State becomes self-sufficient; that is, when the marketplace is completely under its domination. The State then becomes the only privileged class. Custom and necessity reduce Society to a condition of subservience to the bureaucracy and the police, the components of the State.
This condition is currently known as totalitarianism, but it is in fact nothing but conquest, the conquest of Society by the State. So that, whether or not the State originated in conquest, as some historians hold, the end result of unchecked political institutions is the same: Society is enslaved.
The end is not yet. The stature of the State grows by predation, the stature of Society shrinks in proportion. For an explanation for this antithesis we return to the composition of man. We find that he works only to satisfy his desires, of which he has a plenitude, and that his output of effort is in proportion to his intake of satisfactions.
If his investment of labor yields no profit, or if experience tells him none can be expected, his interest in laboring flags. That is, production declines by the amount of expropriation he must endure; if expropriation is severe enough and evasion becomes impossible, so that he learns to accept it as a way of life and forgets what it actually is, his output tends to the minimum of mere existence.
But, since the State thrives on what it expropriates, the general decline in production that it induces by its avarice foretells its own doom. Its source of income dries up. Thus, in pulling Society down it pulls itself down. Its ultimate collapse is usually occasioned by a disastrous war, but preceding that event is a history of increasing and discouraging levies on the marketplace, causing a decline in the aspirations, hopes, and self-esteem of its victims.
When we speak of the disappearance of a civilization we do not mean that a people has been extinguished. Every holocaust leaves survivors. What is implied by the fall of a civilization is the disappearance from memory of an accumulation of knowledge and of values that once obtained among a people.
The prevailing arts and sciences, the religion and manners, the ways of living and of making a living have been forgotten. They have been obliterated not by a pile of dust but by a general lack of interest in marginal satisfactions, in the things men strive to achieve when the struggle for existence is won. One can manage to get along without knives and forks when the getting of food is trouble enough, and the first business of raiment is to provide warmth, not adornment.
Contrariwise, as the primary necessaries accumulate, the human begins to dream of new worlds to conquer, including the world of the mind — culture, ideas, values. The accumulating conquests become the indicia of a civilization. The loss of a civilization is the reverse of that process of cultural accumulation. It is the giving up, as a matter of necessity, of those satisfactions that are not essential to existence. It is a process of forgetting through force of circumstance; it is abstinence imposed by environment.
Sometimes nature will for a while impose abstinence, but the record shows that man is quite capable of overcoming such obstacles to his ambitions. The obstacle he does not seem able to overcome is his inclination to predation, which gives rise to the institution of the State; it is this institution that ultimately induces a climate of uselessness, of lack of interest in striving, and thus destroys the civilization it feeds upon. Or so the record shows: every civilization that declined or was lost carried an all-powerful State on its back.
Collapse of a State means a weakening of the instruments of coercion by means of which property in the fruits of one's labors was transferred to nonproducing rulership or its supporting accomplices. Thereafter, maybe for centuries, freedom prevails, men learn to dream and hope again, and the realization of each dream through effort encourages further fantasy and generates more effort; thus wealth multiplies, knowledge accumulates, manners take shape, and the nonmaterial values attain importance in man's hierarchy. A new civilization is born.
Although something of the lost civilization is recaptured by accident, what is dug up has to be relearned; the new civilization does not grow out of its predecessor, but emerges from the efforts of the living. At any rate, history tells us, a civilization no more than gets started when a political institution attaches itself to it, feeds on it, and in the end devours it. And the roundelay starts all over again.