Power & Market

The State Is Not Us

This definition is used by many historians of the state, and by many within the field of political science. Rothbard, however, employees this definition to delve deeply into a better understanding of how the state affects human freedom.

In doing so, Rothbard opens with an equally important concept: what the state is not. People everywhere have many misconceptions of the state as a charitable organization. Rothbard takes painstaking steps to disabuse the reader of this perception. One of his most important points is addressing that the state is not a representative organization, or as he puts it,

We must, therefore, emphasize that “we” are not the government; the government is not “us.” The government does not in any accurate sense “represent” the majority of the people. But, even if it did, even if 70 percent of the people decided to murder the remaining 30 percent, this would still be murder and would not be voluntary suicide on the part of the slaughtered minority. No organicist metaphor, no irrelevant bromide that “we are all part of one another,” must be permitted to obscure this basic fact.

Especially throughout the twentieth century, when prodemocracy sentiments were at an all time high and the belief that the government was in fact representing us, most importantly, needed to be dismantled. Unfortunately, one step of this is removed and that is in the scenario we’ve seen so present this last year. While many still believe that the government does represent us and has our best interest at heart and this needs to be discredited, it is also true that the average person seems not to simply view the government as “us” but rather as a truly separate entity that is not “us” but rather somehow greater than us and knows better than we. As a result we see the worst of both worlds, where the person takes just enough of Rothbard’s lesson to believe that the state is not directly us, but not enough to recognize that these people who are not us are no better than we are and in many ways are worse. This is most glaringly apparent through the coronavirus activity of the last year. We went from two weeks to slow the spread, to people claiming it was just being hyped up for the election, to we just need the vaccine, to we just need herd immunity, to who knows what. But to ensure I don’t specifically target one group of people taking the government at their word, I’ll also state that in the other biggest issue of this past year it has been just as prevalent on the other side, as we’ve seen members of the Right defend police brutality under claims that victims should have just obeyed better, as an unwitting defense of a belief that the government is in fact an entity that knows what is best for us somehow better than we do. This belief that they know better, whether about covid, security, or any number of other issues, seems to view them as a separate entity than us, but in so believing, people believe that this separate entity has more understanding and knowledge than we do—this needs to be disillusioned just as much as the fact that they are not us.

Author, crypto expert, and instructor Vin Armani describes this willingness to believe just about anything as long as it comes from someone perceived to know better as “the dim age.” He explains it referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “The dim age” refers to many things, but one of the large points Armani references is that because the technology we see in day-to-day life has reached such a level that the average person can’t understand it, people have to turn to the experts to know what is science and what is fictional magic.

This sounds quite plausible as one reads it or listens to Vin Armani explain it, however it runs contrary to the Austrian understanding of the division of labor and leads us to wonder how we can square that circle. Leonard E. Read’s “I, Pencil“ demonstrates the beauty of division of labor at its absolute best. Read claims that “I’ll bet there isn’t a person on earth who knows how to make even so simple a thing as a pencil.” Read explains that for even a pencil to be made, a tree must be grown and harvested. To make the tools to grow and harvest the tree, ore must be mined, steel must be made, and then steel must be refined. Hemp must be grown. The wood must be shipped. The wood then must be shaped. As well it must be painted. The paint must be made. Capital accumulation must occur to create the pencil factory where the wood will arrive. The so-called lead must be created, as it is not just lead but rather graphite, which must be mined, manipulated, and shipped. A piece of metal must be formed and attached to attach the eraser, which in and of itself is a whole product to be made. Then, when all is said and done, a simple pencil is made. This division of labor is what allows our society to be possible. Without it we wouldn’t be able to manage technology as simple as a pencil, let alone something as incredibly advanced as a smartphone. So how do we receive the benefits of the mass division of labor we see in society without having to rely on the word of an expert—or worse yet, the word of the state?

The answer to this is also found in “I, Pencil.” It is here that Read explains the vital point that is missing

There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a mastermind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead we find the Invisible Hand at work.

When we as individuals see the division of labor perform the beautiful task demonstrated in “I, Pencil,” we must recognize that we are in fact not experts. As a result, we must lean on the experts for some understanding in almost all things. However, it is equally important to remember that no expert is a mastermind and thus is only looking at a tiny percentage of the picture. So while we must remind the world that we are not the government, we must also remind the world that they are not masterminds; even their best experts only understand part of the picture. So keep pushing Rothbard’s message, but don’t ever forget his other message “Libertarians make no exceptions, no double standard, for government.” They are not masterminds, just one piece of a massive machine of division of labor.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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