Mises Daily Articles
The Power of the State vs. the Power of Love
For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that society must invest great power in the rulers because only great power can hold back the forces of evil — violence, plunder, and disorder. They have often conceded, however, that this solution has a down side: powerful rulers may themselves resort to violence and plunder.
In any event, society’s positive, productive forces always resided within the people themselves. All the genuine peace, cooperation, production, and order the society enjoyed sprang from them. So the state was never a solution to a problem the people could not solve for themselves, but itself a problem masquerading as the only solution to problems whose real solutions already lay close at hand, if they existed at all.
Given that wealth destruction undermines social well-being, how did it come to pass that the state — an institution based on violence and plunder — has overridden peaceful cooperation as the dominant factor in social life virtually everywhere on earth? Although this simple question requires a complex answer, we know that the rulers have used fear — of themselves and of other dangers known and unknown — to terrorize the people and convince them that they are incapable of providing security, that only the state can provide it. First through fear alone, then through complementary religion, and ultimately through complementary ideology, the people’s convictions were twisted into forms compatible with the rulers, the priest/ideologists, and the military elite’s living at the expense of the plundered masses, who were kept in line more by false beliefs than by raw force.
So it remains today. Is any feasible alternative conceivable?
Hardheaded people mock the idea that “love is the answer” to the people’s dire situation. They insist that evil forces and evil men are afoot in the world, men who care nothing for love and seek only vile ends, and that such malevolence can be fended off effectively only by meeting it with adequate force and violence. Thus does the perceived “security gap” fuel a race to the bottom in which the ostensible protectors become more and more indistinguishable from the evil men who allegedly seek to hurt us. By meeting evil only with the rulers’ upward ratcheting force and violence and their upward ratcheting suppression of our liberties and our means of self-protection, the ultimate goal — a social environment of real security and peaceful cooperation — recedes ever farther from realization.
Jesus declared, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Of course, people — even most Christians, no doubt — will say that this admonition, however lovely it might sound in a sermon, is utterly impractical, that behaving in accordance with it would leave us entirely at the mercy of those who seek to harm us. Perhaps it would.
Yet, here we are, inhabiting a world divided in countless ways by mutual misunderstandings, hatreds, and yearnings for vengeance. Because each society is subject to a state whose own interests are served by keeping this vicious pot boiling, we have no prospect of ever breaking out of the endless cycle of evil, violence, and retribution. In the process, the whole world forgoes the immense blessings that would flow from mutual cooperation, peace, and tolerance.
Individuals may rest their personal lives on love and thereby find the peace that seemingly evades all philosophical and sociological understanding of social affairs. Whatever wise men and women may know and practice in their own lives, however, essentially Hobbesian analysis holds the great thinkers in its iron grip, and those who recommend love are dismissed as muddle-headed and simplistic. Yet, to repeat, here we are, inhabiting a world made no better by our hanging on the words of the greatest political philosophers, statesmen, and international-relations experts. In their view, the state is a given, and their analyses take for granted its nature and conduct. Perhaps this point of departure is their root error: that they readily accept what most needs to be challenged.
So long as the state exists, with its intrinsic violence, plunder, and insolence, and we seek solutions to our pressing social problems through it or in its dark shadow, we are doomed not to second-best or third-best solutions, but to make-believe solutions that are, at best, momentary rest stops on the road to our worsening degradation and ultimate demise. Destruction is what states do (or threaten to do); it is the nature of the beast. As technological changes augment state powers, the culmination of this terrible sequence may be our absolute annihilation.
Love turns us in the opposite direction. It seeks to build up, whereas the state seeks to overawe and kill in the service of the self-interested elites who control it at the expense of the people at large. Love has no need to flex violent muscles or seek vengeance time and again. Love intends the good of the other for its own sake, not as a means toward the end of one’s own aggrandizement. Love is patient and long-suffering; power is impatient and easily provoked.
Love does not keep score; international rivals do so in numerous dimensions. Love leads to inner peace and cordial relations with others, whereas the state remains always at war, if not against other states, then certainly against its own subjects, on whom it preys ceaselessly in order to sustain itself and to gratify the rulers’ insatiable ambitions for personal acclaim and unchecked power.
Hardheaded people will say, of course, that in socio-political life, love just doesn’t work. In sharp contrast, they insist, power in the hands of the rulers does work. And indeed it does. That’s the trouble.
Note: This article is adapted from a blog post at The Beacon Blog.