Mises Wire

Statism and the Unmaking of Reality

The state is, first and foremost, an institution whose overarching goal is the forcible subjugation of all the people who inhabit a given territory. However, what makes the state different from other coercive entities, such as organized crime groups, is that it enjoys some form of popular legitimacy. In other words, in addition to enslaving its inhabitants physically, it needs to secure their mental servitude as well.

Many forms of such servitude have been tested by rulers over the millennia, but by far the most effective among them is that of “representative democracy” coupled with the “welfare state.” “Representative democracy” is the illusion of universal participation in the use of institutional coercion. The “welfare state” is the reality of universal participation in the process of institutional parasitism. Together, they constitute what Frédéric Bastiat described in his immortal words as “the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody.”

An unobvious truth that has become increasingly transparent over the last few decades is that the “great fiction” in question is by no means limited to the economic or crudely political sphere. More specifically, this fiction exploits not only the alleged victimhood of the poor at the hands of the rich and that of the “disenfranchised masses” at the hands of the “privileged elite” but also that of women at the hands of men, blacks at the hands of whites, or the young at the hands of the old (and vice versa).

It is here that the nature of the state in its most mature manifestation comes clearly into view. Far from being exclusively the nexus of institutionalized aggression or even the instigator of permanent conflict, it also turns out to be the ultimate peddler of unreality.

This unreality appears on several interlocking levels. First, there is the unreality of statist promises: legal plunder can bring about general prosperity, legal counterfeiting can alleviate business cycles, and legal murder can secure world peace—none of which are true. Then, there is the unreality of state-manufactured grievances, in which women are the permanent victims of “systemic sexism,” blacks are the permanent victims of “systemic racism,” and the young (or the old) are the permanent victims of “systemic ageism.” Finally, there is the unreality of state-encouraged narcissistic or otherwise self-destructive phantasmagorias.

It is only at this final level that the potential for generating putative “social problems” that calls for “systemic solutions” is virtually limitless. For instance, state-sponsored “educators” can declare that free speech is not about being able to voice whatever views one wishes but about being protected from “hate speech” that may castigate one’s views as ignorant, evil, or ridiculous. Likewise, state-sponsored “medical professionals” can proclaim that genital mutilation can alter one’s sexual identity and make it conform to one’s supposed “true self” and that disagreeing with this contention is a criminal violation of human dignity. Finally, state-sponsored health bureaucrats can encourage one’s belief that a persistent bad mood indicates that one’s quality of life is so low that assisted suicide is the best option going forward.

In sum, statism, the ideology that begins with flouting the fundamental distinction between “mine” and “thine,” reaches its culmination in denying the even more fundamental distinction between sense and absurdity. Since every alleged problem grounded in absurdity is, by definition, unsolvable, multiplying such problems allows the state to multiply its edicts, committees, taskforces, and appropriations ad infinitum.

However, such multiplication must come to a halt as soon as a critical threshold of dysfunctionality is passed. Just as an economically absurd system with no market prices is bound to collapse—tellingly demonstrated by Ludwig von Mises—the same fate awaits a system shot through with absurdities related to other major areas of social coexistence, such as speech, health, procreation, and identity formation.

Thus, when the threshold in question is reached, the hypertrophic and increasingly farcical “great fiction” has to either voluntarily reduce its size by a substantial margin or—more likely given the current extent of special interest capture and institutional inertia—disintegrate violently under the weight of its accumulated layers of self-destructive insanity. In other words, when the amount of unreality peddled by the state on a routine basis becomes incompatible with the preservation of even a modicum of sane social life, reality is bound to reassert itself mercilessly.

If the latter scenario transpires, free individuals will be able to regain control over their lives, belongings, livelihoods, and life plans. However, if these free individuals are not to cede this control to some would-be earthly messiah who promises to rebuild a better civilization, they must never abandon timeless wisdom for the blandishments of wishful thinking. More specifically, they must not only make consistent use of solid economic theory and cogent social philosophy—which emphasize the indispensable cooperative role of private property, market prices, and sound money—but also pay homage to the organic institutions that nourish the human soul, such as the family, the local community, tradition, and religion.

After all, it is precisely these institutions that the state invariably tries to uproot and replace in its pursuit of political, economic, and cultural hegemony. It is also precisely these institutions that not only allow individuals to prosper in commercial terms but, perhaps even more importantly, to remain firmly grounded in the reality of social life and social cooperation, both intimate and extended.

In conclusion, defeating statism requires recognizing its nature not only as the ideology of permanent conflict but also as the most potent driving force of institutionalized unreality. In other words, accomplishing this task requires realizing that the “great fiction” in its fully developed form is equally fictitious in the realm of solutions that it claims to offer and in the realm of problems that it claims to identify. As soon as this realization becomes sufficiently widespread among liberty-minded people, their efforts will become genuinely robust, meaningfully inclusive, and solidly pragmatic—which is something that we should all welcome given how impactful our action or inaction is likely to be at this late stage of the fight.

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