Books / Digital Text

1. The Foundations of Liberal Policy

13. The State and Antisocial Conduct

The state is the apparatus of compulsion and coercion. This holds not only for the "night-watchman" state, but just as much for every other, and most of all for the socialist state. Everything that the state is capable of doing it does by compulsion and the application of force. To suppress conduct dangerous to the existence of the social order is the sum and substance of state activity; to this is added, in a socialist community, control over the means of production.

The sober logic of the Romans expressed this fact symbolically by adopting the axe and the bundle of rods as the emblem of the state. Abstruse mysticism, calling itself philosophy, has done as much as possible in modern times to obscure the truth of the matter. For Schelling, the state is the direct and visible image of absolute life, a phase in the revelation of the Absolute or World Soul. It exists only for its own sake, and its activity is directed exclusively to the maintenance of both the substance and the form of its existence. For Hegel, Absolute Reason reveals itself in the state, and Objective Spirit realizes itself in it. It is ethical mind developed into an organic reality—reality and the ethical idea as the revealed substantial will intelligible to itself. The epigones of idealist philosophy outdid even their masters in their deification of the state. To be sure, one comes no closer to the truth if, in reaction to these and similar doctrines, one calls the state, with Nietzsche, the coldest of all cold monsters. The state is neither cold nor warm, for it is an abstract concept in whose name living men—the organs of the state, the government—act. All state activity is human action, an evil inflicted by men on men. The goal—the preservation of society—justifies the action of the organs of the state, but the evils inflicted are not felt as any less evil by those who suffer under them.

The evil that a man inflicts on his fellow man injures both—not only the one to whom it is done, but also the one who does it. Nothing corrupts a man so much as being an arm of the law and making men suffer. The lot of the subject is anxiety, a spirit of servility and fawning adulation; but the pharisaical self-righteousness, conceit, and arrogance of the master are no better.

Liberalism seeks to take the sting out of the relationship of the government official to the citizen. In doing so, of course, it does not follow in the footsteps of those romantics who defend the antisocial behavior of the lawbreaker and condemn not only judges and policemen, but also the social order as such. Liberalism neither wishes to nor can deny that the coercive power of the state and the lawful punishment of criminals are institutions that society could never, under any circumstances, do without. However, the liberal believes that the purpose of punishment is solely to rule out, as far as possible, behavior dangerous to society. Punishment should not be vindictive or retaliatory. The criminal has incurred the penalties of the law, but not the hate and sadism of the judge, the policeman, and the ever lynch-thirsty mob.

What is most mischievous about the coercive power that justifies itself in the name of the "state" is that, because it is always of necessity ultimately sustained by the consent of the majority, it directs its attack against germinating innovations. Human society cannot do without the apparatus of the state, but the whole of mankind's progress has had to be achieved against the resistance and opposition of the state and its power of coercion. No wonder that all who have had something new to offer humanity have had nothing good to say of the state or its laws Incorrigible etatist mystics and state-worshippers may hold this against them; liberals will understand their position even if they cannot approve it. Yet every liberal must oppose this understandable aversion to everything that pertains to jailers and policemen when it is carried to the point of such overweening self-esteem as to proclaim the right of the individual to rebel against the state. Violent resistance against the power of the state is the last resort of the minority in its effort to break loose from the oppression of the majority. The minority that desires to see its ideas triumph must strive by intellectual means to become the majority. The state must be so constituted that the scope of its laws permits the individual a certain amount of latitude within which he can move freely. The citizen must not be so narrowly circumscribed in his activities that, if he thinks differently from those in power, his only choice is either to perish or to destroy the machinery of state.