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Does the State Resolve or Create Conflict?

Does the State Resolve or Create Conflict?

[The following is the English translation of a critical comment on Gerard Radnitzky’s article “Das Moralische Problem der Politik, Erwaegen, Wissen, Ethik, 2002, Heft 3, pp. 345-358; my comment appeared originally at the same place on pp. 378-380.]

Not surprisingly, I have no quarrels with Gerard Radnitzky’s criticism of the state or his sympathy for the idea of an “ordered anarchy.” Indeed, I have expressed similar sentiments and ideas, and for many years Radnitzky and I have been friendly allied intellectual combatants.

This not withstanding, my critique of Radnitzky is of a fundamental nature. His critique of the state is not nearly radical enough, and the “deontic ethic” he proposes is no more of an ethic than the utilitarianism that he correctly rejects.1 Radnitzky comes close to the truth, but it ultimately escapes him, because as an avowed Popperian he has rendered himself blind regarding the possibility of necessary — non-hypothetical, aprioristic — empirical truth and “natural laws.”

This is not the place for fundamental epistemological disputations. However, taking off of Radnitzky’s basic thesis, I want to exemplify at least the existence of necessary empirical truths and of universally valid natural laws and indicate their importance in clarifying the questions addressed by Radnitzky.

Radnitzky’s basic thesis is this: “If people want to live together in peace, then collective decision-making cannot be avoided. I use the term ‘collective decisions-making’ for non-unanimous decisions.” “Collective decision-making constitutes the ‘original sin’: because the interests of individuals cannot be identical, something is forced upon a group. This is the moral problem of politics as such.”

This proposition is either incomplete or false. Contrary to Radnitzky’s assertion, it is not difficult to imagine peaceful human cooperation without any collective decision-making. Indeed, is not “ordered anarchy” the very idea of such a social order?

First, it needs to be noted that from the diversity of individual interests it does not follow that conflict is necessary. Two additional conditions are required. I want it to rain, and my neighbor wants the sun to shine. Our interests are contrary. However, neither I nor he controls the sun or the clouds. Hence, our conflicting interests have no practical consequences. Conflicting interests only become a practical problem, when the interests concern controlled or controllable objects, i.e. economic goods or means of action.

Moreover, even if divergent interests concern economic goods, no conflict results so long as these interests concern different — physically separate — goods. Conflict only results, if divergent interests concern one and the same goods. And in order for divergent interests to be possibly directed at the same stock of goods, scarcity must exist. Without scarcity, no possibility of conflict exists.

However, even under conditions of scarcity conflict is not ‘unavoidable.’ To the contrary, conflict can be avoided, if only all goods are privately owned by specified individuals and it is always recognizable what belongs to whom and what not. The interests of different individuals may then be as divergent as can be, and yet no conflict arises, insofar as these interests are concerned exclusively with one’s own property.

Moreover, to avoid conflict from the very beginning on, it is only necessary that private property be founded by acts of original appropriation — through actions instead of mere words. The appropriator of a previously un-appropriated good becomes its first proprietor (without conflict, because he is the first appropriator). And all property goes back, directly or indirectly, through a chain of mutually beneficial and hence likewise conflict-free property transfers to original appropriators and acts of appropriation.

Hence, the answer to the question “Can individuals with divergent interests peacefully coexist under conditions of scarcity?” is: yes, by recognizing the institution of private property and its direct or indirect foundation through acts of original appropriation.

Moreover, this answer is apodictically, i.e. non-hypothetically, true even though it concerns an empirical question. Only private property can help avoid otherwise — under conditions of scarcity — unavoidable conflict. And only the principle of property acquisition by means of original appropriation or mutually beneficial transfer from an earlier to a later proprietor makes it possible that conflict can be avoided throughout — from the very beginning of mankind until the end. No other solution exists. Every other ruling is contrary to the nature of man as a rational actor.

Before the background of these explanations concerning the idea of an ordered anarchy as a society without collective decision-making several other comments suggest themselves.

Radnitzky refers to the institution of private property and the establishment of private property by means of original appropriation as a ‘convention.’ This is either misleading or false. A convention serves a purpose, and it is something to which an alternative exists. For instance, the Latin alphabet serves the purpose of written communication. There exists an alternative to it, the Cyrillic alphabet. That is why we refer to it as a convention. What is the purpose of action-norms? The avoidance of possible conflict! Conflict-generating norms are contrary to the very purpose of norms. Regarding the purpose of conflict-avoidance, however, the two mentioned institutions are not just conventional. No alternative to them exists.

Further, Radnitzky asserts, that property is not a precondition of contract but also can be the result of contract. “Two Robinsons can agree how to divide the island.” This proposition is misleading or wrong, too. Of course property is the precondition of contract, and Radnitzky’s Robinson-agreement constitutes neither a contract nor does it lead to the foundation of property.

On the one hand, a contract requires at least two contracting parties, and both parties must be independent self-owners in order to speak of an agreement between them. On the other hand, contracts concern the transfer of property. Without proprietors and property there can be no contract.

Radnitzky confuses contracts with mere promises or professions. The number of people in his Robinson example is thereby unimportant. In fact, what Radnitzky asserts is that property in unappropriated goods can be established by mere declaration. Just as two Robinsons presumably can become part-owner of the island by declaration, so one Robinson can become full-owner by mere say-so. However, if property can be acquired by means of declaration (instead of through acts of appropriation or transfer), conflicts will not be avoided but rather made unavoidable. Radnitzky overlooks this, because he assumes a harmony of interests among the two Robinsons and thus defines the problem out of existence. But what is going to happen if property can be established per declaration, as Radnitzky claims, whenever different people make incompatible pronouncements?

Finally, concerns regarding Radnitzky’s definition of “coercion” and “state” arise. “Coercion as such is prima facie objectionable and thus requires a justification: the onus probandi is on whoever exercises or threatens to exercise coercion.” Yet how can one unambiguously determine who exercises coercion and who merely defends himself against the exercise of coercion without first having determined who is the owner of what? The definition of property must precede that of coercion.

Further, of the state, defined as “the ultimate authority to which in a given territory no recourse to a higher authority exists,” Radnitzky states, “that coercion is not a characteristic that is implied in its definition. If (per impossibile) the contract theory were a tenable theory, then the institution would not be coercive and yet qualify as a state.” Certainly, one is free in one’s definitions, but not all definitions are fruitful.

According to Radnitzky’s definition, for instance, the founder-proprietor of a settlement — a gated community — would have to be considered a state, because he decides about membership (inclusion and exclusion) and is the ultimate authority in all settler-conflicts. However, the founder of a community does not exact taxes, but he collects fees, contributions or rents from his follow-settlers. And he does not pass laws (legislates) regarding the property of other, but all settler-property is from the outset subject to his ultimate jurisdiction.

Similarly, it is conceivable that all private land owners in a given territory transfer their land to one and the same person, for instance, in order to so establish the ultimate authority which according to Hobbes is necessary for peace. Thereby, they sink from the rank of an owner to that of a renter. Radnitzky would also term such a proprietor, established in this way, a state. But why? It is contrary to common terminology and hence confusing.

And which purpose would be served, to label something entirely different with the same name: namely an institution, which derives its status as ultimate authority neither from an act of original appropriation nor from a real estate transfer on the part of original appropriators? It is this difference in the genesis of the institution, that lets us speak of (coercive) taxes and tribute and of laws and legislation instead of voluntarily paid rents and accepted community standards and house rules. Why not, in accordance with conventional speech, reserve the term state exclusively for the former (compulsory) institution?

However, regarding this (compulsory) state, then, this must be kept in mind: that its institution is even then ‘unjust’, if (per impossible) it rested on unanimous agreement. Consensus does not guarantee truth. A state-agreement is invalid, because it contradicts the nature of things. At any given point in time (and absent any pre-stabilized harmony), a scarce good can only have one owner. Otherwise, contrary to the very purpose of norms, conflict is generated instead of avoided.

Yet multiple ownership regarding one and the same stock of goods is precisely what state-agreement implies. The consenting parties did not transfer all of their land to the state but consider themselves as free land owners (not renters). Yet at the same time they appoint the state as ultimate decision-maker concerning all territorial conflicts and thus make him the owner of all land. The price that must be paid for this ‘unjust’ — contrary to the nature of things — agreement is permanent conflict.

Conflict is not unavoidable but possible. However, it is nonsensical to consider the institution of a state as a solution to the problem of possible conflict, because it is precisely the institution of a state which first makes conflict unavoidable and permanent.

  • 1Radnitzky essentially admits this, when he characterizes a deontic ethic on the one hand as something which is accepted “without consideration of the associated consequences for the individual”, and on the other hand wishes to distinguish his preferred ethic as one whose proscriptions and prohibitions are “reasonable” and “undemanding.” Yet what is a recourse to reasonableness, non-exaction or undemanding-ness, if not a recourse to human nature?
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