Demystifying the State

Wendy McElroy



Mystification is the process by which the commonplace is elevated to the level of the divine by those who have a vested interest in its unassailability. Government is a perfect example of mystification at work. Government is a group of individuals organized for the purpose of extracting wealth and exerting power over people and resources in a given geographic area. Ordinarily people object to and resist thieves and robbers; but in the case of government, they do not because the government has created a mystique of legitimacy about its activities.

“Government is founded on opinion,” wrote William Godwin. “A nation must have learned to respect a king, before a king can exercise any authority over them.” Past governments used the divine right of kings, by which monarchs claimed the divinity of being appointed to rule by God, as a means of instilling this respect; rebellion against the king became rebellion against the will of God. Contemporary governments have replaced this with the legitimacy derived from such concepts as “democracy,” “equality,” the “motherland,” or the “American way of life.” Such patriotic concepts have the ability to rouse feelings of awe and reverence in the population. These reactions are ingeniously channeled to support the government, and in turn help create the mystique of legitimacy which governments need to survive.

In a libertarian context, the issue of State legitimacy reduces to one question: Does any individual or group have the right to initiate force? For the libertarian, it is always illegitimate to initiate force against nonaggressors. Libertarianism is the political philosophy based on the concept of self-ownership; that is, every human being, simply by being a human being, has moral justification over his or her own body. This jurisdiction, which is called individual rights, cannot properly be violated, for this would be tantamount to claiming that human beings are not self-owners.

If individuals cannot properly violate rights, then it cannot be proper for any organization or group of individuals to do so. Certainly the number of people involved in initiating aggression has no bearing on whether or not the violation of rights is legitimate. This was clearly pointed out by a 17th-century libertarian who wrote:

What can be more absurd in nature and contrary to all common sense than to call him Thief and kill him that comes alone with a few to rob me; and to call him Lord Protector and obey him that robs me with regiments and troops? As if to rove with 2 or 3 ships were to be a Pirate, but with 50 an Admiral? But if it be the number of adherents only, not the cause, that makes the difference between a Robber and a Protector: I will that number were defined, that the Prince begins. And be able to distinguish between a Robbery and a Tax.

Although the number of thieves involved with the State is important in terms of legitimizing it, political power does not actually grow out of the barrel of a gun. The power of the State is derived from the willingness of the people to obey. Leo Tolstoy commented: “If the people refuse to render military service, if they decline to pay taxes to support that instrument of violence, an army, the present system of government cannot stand.” But people do not refuse because they have not yet come to view the government as illegitimate.

The French Revolution is commonly considered to be the birthplace of the Secular State, a State with no official ties to religion. Prior to this, the connection between Church and State rendered an invaluable service to the State; It provided an aura of legitimacy, the sense of being sanctioned by God. This gave the State the immense advantage of moral legitimacy. It could demand an obedience from its subjects which would not be possible if they did not accept its proper authority. With the advent of the secular State, it became necessary for the State to maintain this aura of proper authority without official Church alliance.

This was done through methods reminiscent of its former association with an official Church. Some of the various ways that the State now reinforces its own legitimacy are:

  1. It posits itself as a superior and almost supernatural entity. The State is the final end of all moral action. Without the State there is an immoral chaos known as anarchy.
  2. The State defines immorality in terms of disobedience. The ultimate sin, the ultimate crime against the State, is treason which is often punishable by death.
  3. The State claims to be more than the sum total of the individuals who comprise it. Thus the State is more than the clerks and bureaucrats who embody it; it is the vehicle of a tradition and the expression of an ideal.
  4. Representatives of the State distance themselves from their actions. They disown personal responsibility for their actions by claiming to be agents of a superior power.
  5. The laws of the State are not supposed to be open to understanding by the common man. The purpose of judges and courts is to interpret the law, which is literally the will of the State. Through the need for lawyers and the inability of jurors to pass judgement on the-justice of the law, the law is further removed from the common man.
  6. The State relies heavily upon rituals such as saluting the flag, the pledge of allegiance (a prayer to the State), the oath of office, voting, the national anthem, military parades and State holidays.
  7. Uniforms are used to create legitimacy and to minimize individuality. From judges to policemen to postal clerks, uniforms express tho rank and role of government employees.
  8. The State claims to be a carrier, the transmitter of a tradition from which it derives legitimacy. The American State, for example, derives its authority from the American Revolution and the Constitution. It needs the consent of the people to survive and by linking itself to these institutions and historical events, as well as to the results of frequent and popular elections, it claims to have the support of the populace.

Without a doubt, however, the most effective method by which the State creates a mystique is through control of education. The evolution of compulsory State-controlled schooling reads like a history of political maneuvering, in which the goal of teaching children literacy skills plays a minor role. Public education is by no means inept or disordered as it is made out to be. It is an ice-cold, superb machine designed to perform one very important job. The problem is not that public schools do not work well, but rather that they do. The first goal and primary function of schools is not to educate good people, but good citizens. It is the function which we normally label State indoctrination.

The early supporters of State education understood this. Horace Mann, for example, a 19th-century supporter of public education, saw it as a means of assimilating foreign elements into an otherwise established Protestant, puritan culture. With regard to the Irish Catholics, Mann maintained:

With the old not much can be done; but with their children, the great remedy is education. The rising generation must be taught as our children are taught. We say must be, because in many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. . . . Children must be gathered up and forced into schools and those who resist and impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.

From their inception, public schools were a form of social control. One Irish newspaper, which represented those children being unwillingly assimilated, observed:

The general principle upon which these compulsory schooling laws are based is radically unsound, untrue, and Atheistical. . . . It is that the education of children is not the work of the Church, or of the Family, but that it is the work of the State.

In contrast to the xenophobic fever with which many native Americans rushed to impose their cultural preferences upon immigrants, libertarians condemned State schools. Josiah Warren compared them to “paying the fox to take care of the chickens.” He realized that State control of education, like State control of religion, would create an orthodoxy which would suppress dissenting views. It would become a bureaucracy to serve the interest of the bureaucrats and those who ultimately controlled the State apparatus. When the statists insisted that compulsory, regulated education was necessary because people could not distinguish truth from falsehood and might be led astray, Herbert Spencer countered: “There is hardly a single department of life over which, for similar reasons, legislative supervision has not been, nor may be, established.”

Today, the ideal of social control through education has been realized. Like Pavlovian dogs, children enter and exit schools to the sound of bells. They begin each day by pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and by singing the national anthem. Through political science and history classes, which present severely slanted history, they are taught to revere democracy and the Constitution. School is “the twelve-year sentence” during which children are molded into good citizens. Indeed, as we have seen, the chief function of education is to train obedient citizens. “It is inevitable that compulsory, State-regulated schooling will reflect the philosophy of the status quo,” commented historian Joel Spring. “It is after all those who have political and social power who gain the most benefit from the existing political climate and depend on its continuation.” In practical terms, the public school system has assumed the role of an official church by imbuing its subjects with a genuflecting respect for the State.

The State projects an image of massive strength, the image of a self-perpetuating, self-contained institution upon whose goodwill the people depend. In fact, the reverse is true. Government rests upon the goodwill of the people. Without their support, it becomes fragile and will eventually disintegrate. A government is no more powerful than the human resources, the skills, the knowledge, and attitudes of obedience it commands. Every dollar the State spends has been taken from an individual. It has no resources of its own. Every law it maintains is enforced by an individual. As Étienne de la Boétie, observed of the State: “He who abuses you so has only two eyes, has but two hands, one body, and has naught but what the least man . . . except for the advantage you give him to destroy.” That advantage is what we call the sanction of the victim or the consent which the oppressed must give to their oppressors.

Libertarianism is a direct attack upon the mystique of the State. It recognizes that the State is only an abstraction and reduces it to the actions of individuals. It applies the same standard of morality to the State as it would to a next-door neighbor. If it is not proper for a neighbor to tax or pass laws regulating your private life, then it cannot be proper for the State to do so. Only by elevating itself above the standards of personal morality can the State make these claims on your life.

Libertarianism commits treason in the most profound sense of that word. Not treason as it is commonly understood, for conventional treason is the act of disloyalty to a particular State, usually undertaken to benefit another State. The treason of libertarianism goes much deeper. It is a spiritual rebellion directed not at a particular State, but at the idea of any State whatsoever. Libertarians refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the State, whatever its geographical proximity. They commit treason on a conceptual level.

An important tool of this treason is the ability to speak clearly – what Thomas Szasz has labelled the “second sin“. The State uses language to obscure issues; it wraps a confusion of words around itself. Thus, the largest offensive military in the world is controlled by the Department of Defense. State tax agents are from the Board of’ Equalization. Politicians do not lie; they give “misinformation”. Naming a thing for what it is gives you the inestimable benefit of knowing what you are talking about. Instead of taxation, libertarians speak of theft. Instead of war in the national interest, libertarians speak of mass murder in the interests of the few. This rare ability to identify and judge things for what they are distinguishes libertarians from others who wish to change society.

Conservatives and liberals demand different varieties of law and order without regard to the fact that the ultimate in order may be found in a concentration camp. On the surface, it might seem that conservatives and liberals are engaged in deadly combat, but they are actually in fundamental agreement on one crucial methodological point: namely, that the State is a proper means of achieving social change–that the use of force legitimized by the State is a proper way of controlling other people’s peaceful activities. This is their fundamental disagreement with libertarianism.

William Godwin formulated the libertarian rejection of force in epistemological terms:

Force is an expedient, the use of which must be deplored. It is contrary to the intellect, which cannot be improved but by conviction and persuasion. Violence corrupts the man who employs it and the man upon whom it is employed.

It is this very idea of legitimized force (that it is proper for the State to initiate violence while it is improper for all others to do so,) that libertarians must challenge. The State claims to have this right because we have consented to it. One of the main props of governmental legitimacy is this claim that governments rest on the consent of the governed. Even in totalitarian systems, the government goes through the farce of having elections. This façade of consent is necessary to its existence. Although it is clear that individuals do not consent to the State in the same manner in which they consent to contracts with individuals- that is, by negotiation and explicit consent- their agreement is said to be implied from s a number of actions. The primary one is voting. By voting people are said to render implicit consent. Even overlooking the fact that only those who vote could be bound by this supposed consent, there are problems with this argument. For one thing, people could not commit themselves to the government for any period longer than the vote specified. If a politician wars elected for one term, those who voted could not be bound for longer than that term. Those who did not vote and those who voted against the successful politician would not be bound at all. The libertarian legal theorist Lysander Spooner denied any connection between voting and consent in NO TREASON VI:

In truth even in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if°~he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own.

The difficulty with this “self-defense” theory of voting was pointed out by Spooner himself when he observed that one man’s ballot subjects innocent third parties to the result of the political process.

No man can delegate or give to another, any right of arbitrary dominion over a third person; for that would imply a right in the first person, not only to make the third person his slave, but also a right to dispose of him as a slave still to other persons.

Individuals are also said to consent to government through the use of government facilities, like roads or post offices. People who use these facilities are said to render implied consent to the taxation which provides them. This argument, however, begs the question. It assumes that the government is the rightful owner of the services it offers. It assumes that the government is an entity capable of ownership on the same level as an individual. This is a false assumption. Since government property was originally expropriated or confiscated from individuals, the government cannot be considered the owner in any rightful sense. Only the rightful owner of goods and services can negotiate their sale and use. The State has no more right to demand taxes for roads than a thief has to demand payment for stolen property. Moreover, even if the government could own such facilities, this would not justify the coercive monopoly it has established which leaves the individual virtually no choice.

The issue of consent is intimately connected to peoples’ attitudes towards the State. This attitude is much more than a conceptual matter, a matter of intellectual disagreement. Many people who claim to oppose the State obey laws to which they object. Some obey out of fear, self-interest, or a sense of helplessness. Others obey because they believe it is their moral obligation to do so. Still others are indiffer­ent. Rousseau commented: “Slaves lose every­thing in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them.” Slaves develop the habit of voluntary servitude or obeying their masters without offering any resistance.

In examining this habit, it is useful to investigate the paradox of individuals who sincerely question authority and yet, seem unable to disobey the law. During the last census, there was only a scant chance of being prosecuted for failure to file. Nevertheless, many people who oppose census laws returned the form; they could not break the psychological hold of authority. This habit of obedience is often rationalized. People claim: even if a law is wrong, it must be obeyed or people will lose respect for all law; or, the actions of one person do not mean anything; or, even though I don’t see the point of Vietnam, this is a crisis and we should stand together. Many rationalizations reduce to “my country right or wrong” which in practice means “my country is always right.”

The underlying message is that the individual should not judge. The individual is not competent to evaluate the situation and act accordingly. When this message is internalized, it becomes the psychological cornerstone of voluntary servitude and submission to the State.

When a man is mugged in a dark alley, he screams that his rights are being violated. If, however, the same man is robbed in daylight by the I.R.S., he considers it his obligation to hand over the money. Indeed, he fills out a form to facilitate the process. The problem is that the man does not view taxation as robbery because the government has clouded its actions in an aura of legitimacy. Why? What is it about his view of the mugger that differs from his view of the government? In a word, authority. The government is viewed as a proper authority, while the mugger is not. The government is acting legally and there is a mystique covering the law.

The battle against statism today is not a battle against any particular politician. The issue is deeper. It is a battle against a way of thinking, a way of viewing the State. The main victory of the State has been within the minds of the people who obey. In commenting on the British rule over India, Leo Tolstoy wrote:

A commercial company enslaves a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what those words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men . . . have subdued two hundred million? Do the figures make clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?

People today enslave themselves when all that freedom requires is the word “No.”

[This piece originally appeared in NEITHER BULLETS NOR BALLOTS (First Printing, December, 1983).]


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