Mises Wire

Thinking outside the State

It’s difficult to go very far these days without tripping over the state with its voluminous laws, regulations, departments, and agencies. The last few decades, and indeed the last few centuries, have seen the continual expansion of states into more and more aspects of our lives with both the left and right of politics having their own grand visions for its development. But is the state really the institution we ought to be banking on for our future, or is it time to consider how we can organize and solve problems without it?

When we talk about the state, most people conceive of a sovereign organization that exercises control over a defined territory without interference and on behalf of its citizens. Through its sovereignty it sets its own agendas, and through its control it is free to marshal the people and resources within its territory to carry out these agendas. The important step, however, is to understand that implied in this or any concept of a state is its need to be the only entity using aggression within its territory. By aggression I mean the unprovoked use of force, or the threat thereof, upon anyone who resists its activities. This monopoly is critical for as soon as opposing aggressors exist, some aspect of sovereignty and control, and therefore statehood, is lost.

Whether a state is large or small does not change the questionable moral validity of its being inherently an aggressing entity. However, for most the lack of a feasible alternative is where the intellectual investigation ends and a resignation to the seeming inevitability of state power begins. But are states really inevitable? Is there really no alternative?

We tend to forget that states as we now know them were not always the norm. In Western Europe, prior to the interruption of the reformation and counterreformation movements and the subsequent rise of absolutism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, medieval kings and princes were not considered to be above the law but rather were charged with duties to protect the realm while always operating subject to the divine laws and ancient traditions that they did not get to create. Both their control and their sovereignty were actually quite limited. Indeed, it was as late as 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia that something more recognizable as a modern sovereign state came into being. From this treaty onward each state could achieve its validity by being recognized by the other states that exist around it, thus reducing the need for rulers to primarily look to the support of their own constituents and lesser authorities in order to maintain and enhance their authority.

This is not to say that the pre-Westphalian monarchs of medieval Europe did not have more or less state-like features from time to time, or that some of them did not toil to solidify their rule and remove competing institutional structures. Rather, I am simply pointing out that during long periods of history many rulers either did not pursue these goals or were relatively unsuccessful at achieving them.

So, what happened during this time of no or at best protostates? Well, to list a few things, Western Europe emerged from the Dark Ages; saw the growth of towns and trade networks; invented double-entry bookkeeping, the modern calendar, mechanical clocks, and musical notation; established the university system, hospitals, and hospices; experienced an agricultural revolution enabling rapid population growth; and had multiple artistic and architectural triumphs associated with Romanesque, Gothic, and early Renaissance movements. Our modern presumption that civilized societies must sit beneath the absolute control of centralized state governments is clearly mistaken.

But if states have waxed and waned over time yet civilization has carried on, what is this other tradition, this other way of organizing society that sometimes is gaining ground and sometimes receding in counter position to state power? This other way is the libertarian way, based on the idea of cutting out the centralized rulership of the state and maximizing political freedom.

Many in today’s state-dominated societies will instantly recoil at the thought of taking such a decentralized political path too far and think that it must at some point lead to chaotic outcomes with people trampling over each other and injustice being the norm. But here’s the thing: our lives are already suffused and surrounded by many working examples of decentralized systems, and they do just fine. In fact, they do very well, so well that we don’t have to think twice about them even though we regularly rely on them for crucial aspects of our lives.

Take English, the language you are using to read this right now, for example. No one ruling authority pronounces the language, regulates it, or controls it. The English language therefore has all the features of decentralization. Influential centers of authority do exist in the English-speaking world, such as the publishers of dictionaries, academic specialists in English grammar and literature, creators of widely consumed English language content, and organizations that prescribe English as their official language. These are the leaders in English language formation, dissemination, and regulation. Yet none of these groups can claim to control or rule the language in any meaningful sense.

Many other wonderful examples of functioning and beneficial decentralized systems permeate our lives. Think of the various sciences, music traditions, open-sourced software platforms, and the multitude of free market supply chains that result in supermarket shelves being stocked full of useful items every single day. These examples, and many more that could be given both in contemporary and historical settings, show that decentralized voluntary systems work—they work at scale, they can work with complexity, and they can be highly adaptive to changing circumstances.

In taking the libertarian option we are not rejecting the possibility for authority, coordination, government, regulation, or justice. We are simply asking that these things be delivered by means other than at the hands of an aggression monopolist. So, what does it look like when we pursue the libertarian option far enough and think outside the state? If we briefly look at a few areas people tend to consider to be most in need of state intervention, we can quickly see that solutions are not only possible but are in many cases quite familiar to us.

Let us begin with districts of landowners and residents that need common infrastructure such as road networks, security and policing, utilities, building regulations, and nature reserves. In this case, private corporate governing bodies could be contracted in much the same way that the governing bodies of residential towers already provide common services, facilities, and regulations for their owners and residents.

Similarly, justice could be provided through a series of private contracts. Specialist organizations could provide justice for customers via contracts structured much like the insurance contracts with which we are already familiar, with fees paid for a period of coverage and some combination of compensation or enforcement action against offending parties being contractually owed by the justice provider to the customer if an insured event were sufficiently proven to have taken place.

Proving insured events may require judgements from externally contracted experts, just as already happens in the private arbitration sector. Justice providers could also contract out any enforcement action that may be required against a proven offender to specialist enforcement agencies operating something like private debt collectors but with enhanced capabilities.

Next, combating foreign invasion could be achieved via the various private governments, justice providers, and large landowners of a libertarian society contracting the services of private defense firms such as already exist and are even used by many state governments today.

Finally, society’s poor and downtrodden could be looked after via networks of voluntary charity that expand into the vacuum left once state taxation and welfare are removed.

While much more could be said on these and many other aspects of a stateless society, it is important to note that it is not possible to guarantee that all libertarian societies, no matter how small or poor, would always be able to provide perfect infrastructure solutions, eliminate all injustice, repulse all manner of foreign invasion, and end all poverty. However, modern states are certainly not held to these standards and indeed often fall far short of them. What we can say is that libertarian societies will be on the right path to increasing civility, peace, and prosperity.

Across the entire history of humanity, we spent much of our time hacking our way out of the wilderness. We succeeded in that struggle and advanced accordingly. Going forward, maybe we should learn how to stop hacking at each other. Using the state, whether by the left or the right, with its inherent aggression-based rulership, is surely not the ideal we should be aiming for especially when we have a far better option at hand.

Image Source: Adobe Stock
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute