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Ten Books on the State

August 28, 2002Alberto Mingardi

Tags Political Theory

The main political divide of our time is between those who trust the state and those who do not. We can argue without end about economics, regulation, trade, and war, but we have not touched the core issue until we address the questions: what is the state, and how much, if any, faith should we put in it?

Here is an attempt to identify 10 essential readings on the state, some in the field of historical reconstruction, some in the field of political philosophy. The list is not comprehensive, and many important works are not here, such as Franz Oppenheimer's The State, Albert Jay Nock's Our Enemy, The State, Martin van Creveld's remarkable The Rise and Decline of The State, Ludwig von Mises's Omnipotent Government, or Bertrand de Jouvenel's On Power.

I have preferred to concentrate on authors who are often not well appreciated by libertarians, and/or whose recent, important work should not be underestimated. Anyhow, this list may be a good starting point for readers who are open to seeing the state for what it is.

(1) Carl Schmitt's Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press, 1996, reprint) regarded by Leo Strauss as "an inquiry into the 'order of human things,'" is fundamental. Schmitt conceptualizes the "political" in terms of a primordial and definitive antithesis between "friend" and "enemy" ("foe"). The very existence of the state rests on this dichotomy. This means that, far more than being a third, "impartial" actor, the state is always the expression of a particular group of individuals. Schmitt teaches that no political order can be conceived as universal, but always and only as a form that originates from a concrete partiality. Against the manipulated justification of government by law, Schmitt's realism demonstrates how, in reality, there are no abstract institutions, but only clusters of men counterposed as "friends" and "enemies."

(2) Columbia University historian Charles Tilly's Coercion, Capital, and European States (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) develops a skillful analysis of how national sovereignty imposed itself as a model for the whole of Europe. War played quite a role in this, since, as Professor Tilly writes,

"going to war accelerated the move from indirect to direct rule. Almost any state that makes war finds that it cannot pay the bill from its accumulated reserves and current revenues. Almost all war-making states borrow extensively, raise taxes, and conscript the means of combat--including men--from reluctant citizens."

Among Tilly's many insights, it is especially important for libertarians to understand how, in an increasingly violent world, the political experiments that predominated were necessarily those which facilitated the greatest access to resources needed to make war on a large scale: this is the vicious circle of war and compulsory production of defense (via taxation) that made the modern state the most successful collective institution of our times.

(3) If Professor Tilly is a Marxist historian, Robert Nisbet was a well-known and influential conservative sociologist. But his analysis of the state as "nothing more, basically, than an institutionalization of the war-making power" is extremely useful for libertarians. In his Twilight of Authority (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, [1975] 2000), Professor Nisbet explores in depth two surprisingly related issues, which he has yet touched in other works such as the famous The Quest for Community: first, the aggressive habits of power, and second, the relationship between the decline of traditional morality and rise of the state.

According to Nisbet, breaking down the traditional order--favoring at the same time a sort of egalitarian utopianism--was a condicio sine qua non for the state to take off: "the thrust toward equalitarianism inevitably led to a disintegration of old social unities, and only the power of the state was left to fill this vacuum." It is true that "the political state arose first in precisely those areas where the traditional kinship and religious system of a given people broke down as the result of strained imposed by warfare." We may understand the inherent military nature of the state by looking at the fact that "primordially military qualities such as centralization of command, unremitting discipline, a chain of power from military chief straight down to individual soldier, even communalism, were in course of time transmitted to the political state."

(4) This warmongering nature of the state resulted in some 174 million deaths in the last century. This estimate is provided by University of Hawaii Professor Rudolph J. Rummell. His Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1994), far from being a theoretical treatise, is seminal as an empirical account of the magnitude of government mass murders. Professor Rummel called them "democides," referring to political murders committed in peacetime: the number of 174 million refers just to peacetime victims of government violence, compared with about 36 million as a result of government violence in time of war.

(5) Robert Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) focuses instead on the causes and events that have made the U.S. government bigger and bigger. Professor Higgs, a well-known historian and editor of the Independent Review, argues that it is when a crisis of major significance occurs--something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars--that there is an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has prompted the federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to national security.

These actions have taken a wide variety of forms, but the common ingredient is that they all entail increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy: historically, a large proportion of all government expansion has taken place as emergency or crisis action. What Professor Higgs particularly emphasizes is the role ideology played in this continuous enlargement of the state's scope and ambitions. The same idea that a crisis must be "solved" by political means is a result of that statist ideological vision that has pervaded society since the beginning of the last century--namely, collectivism, in its various forms.

(6) An effective critique of collectivist dogmas is developed by Arthur Seldon, in his short and witty The Dilemma of Democracy, The Political Economics of Over-Government (London: IEA, [1996] 2002). It is a kind of synthetical primer of the best insights developed by the so-called "public choice" school of economics. Seldon (who, with Ralph--later, Lord--Harris back in the '50s founded London's Institute of Economic Affairs, the grandfather of all the libertarian think tanks) explains how the notion of  "public goods" has provided the intellectual pretext for  the expansion of government-produced goods and services. But what Seldon comes to question is the responsibility of democratic institutions in this process. According to him, the historic failure of democracy--which he has defined as "government of the busy, by the bully, for the bossy"--is that majority rule, and the religion of the ballot box, wound up preventing or discouraging "the people from learning from the discovery process of the market."

(7) James Dale-Davidson and Lord Rees-Mogg go even further. In a neglected book, The Sovereign Individual: Mastering The Transition to the Information Age (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), they define democracy as the "fraternal twin of communism." Davidson, a venture capitalist, and Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times and now a director of the Private Bank of London, dare to write that "seen dispassionately, democracy was superior to state socialism as a recipe for enriching the state," not as a political system to keep men free. Sovereign individuals are not particularly satisfied by this status quo, which is why Davidson and Rees-Mogg devote a large part of their book to investigating and testing possible loopholes and escape routes, to allow people to live as sovereign individuals in the "natural economy" of the information age.

(8) The ultimate account of what democracy really amounts to is presented in Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy, The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2001) . A prominent libertarian scholar, Professor Hoppe recognizes not only that political power does not transform political people into selfless saints or all-wise seers, but also that the very structure of incentives that democracy itself establishes brings some of the worst exemplars of  mankind to the very top of the political pile. Since political competition is a vehicle for politically talented people to get power, "given that in every society more 'have-nots' of everything worth having exist than 'haves,' the politically talented who have little or no inhibition against taking property and lording it over others, will have a clear advantages over those with such scruples." So, far from being a restraint upon political power, democracy "virtually assures that exclusively dangerous men will rise to the pinnacle of government power and that moral behavior and ethical standards will tend to decline and deteriorate all-around."

(9) Some of the books I have listed so far not only provide a realistic account of what the state is, how it has grown, and what it does do to survive as a political institution, but they maintain the opinion that state interventionism turns out to be quite dangerous for people and the economy. The best book that explains what government has done to our (economic) life is Murray N. Rothbard's Power and Market: Government & the Economy (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, [1970] 1977—available online).

In this seminal work, Rothbard argues that no provision of goods and services requires the existence of government, and he heavily criticizes the so-called "public choice" school of economics for assimilating state and market action when, by definition, government action and voluntary market action are diametric opposites. He also rejects the concept of "justice" in taxation and the very idea of "neutral" taxation. It may look like a marginal point, but this rejection plays a crucial role in demystifying the state, as did Carl Schmitt's rejection of the concept of a neutral authority. This same idea of neutrality is nothing more than "a benchmark to answer the question: why do you want the state to step in and alter market conditions in this case?"

(10) Of these 10 books on understanding the nature of the state, I have kept for last the one which I believe is perhaps the best essay ever written on the subject: The State  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, [1986] 1998), by Anthony de Jasay. De Jasay starts his book with the notorious question, "What would you do if you were the state?" which he answers in a 300-page-long systematic treatise. Among the most important lessons we may learn from The State is de Jasay's total demystification of the liberal illusion of constitutional government.

First, he explains how a separation of powers does not work, and how it tends to be "overcome by reciprocal swamps of functions and attributions, if not by their unilateral usurpation." Second, constitutionalism, traditionally portrayed as a generous act by political power to limit itself (as if "government of law," instead of government by men, were enough to preserve freedom), is more likely a product of "historical conjuctures where it is rational for the state actually to suggest limits to its own power if its purpose is to maximize it."

But here is the core of de Jasay's analysis: "instead of saying, tautologically, that the rational state pursues its interests and maximizes its ends, whatever they are," de Jasay proposes a more realistic "criterion of its rationality, that it seeks to maximize its discretionary power," which is the power that "permits to the state to make its subjects do what it wants, rather than what they want."

Anthony de Jasay's seminal account of the (basically destructive) role the state plays in our life is not simple, cheerful reading But it is a challenge and a good exercise for critics of the modern state, who may remember that panem et circenses (bread and circuses) was the typical formula Roman emperors used to keep simple-minded citizens quiet during difficult periods. It is worth enduring some difficult reading to open one's eyes finally to the real nature of political power, rather than simply enjoying panem et circenses and thus keeping them hermetically closed.


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