Originally published via Armageddon Prose:
A tree should be judged ideally by its fruits. If its bounty is rotten, it is of no utility. If it produces plentiful, delicious fruit, on the other hand, most people welcome it.
Perhaps a better analogy might be the mighty mushroom. Some are deadly and others are treasure troves of selenium, copper, and magnesium. They have the capacity to either enhance life or snuff it out – as the state does, arguably, with liberty.
In public school, at the age of thirteen or so, my social studies teacher had us perform a project: a river meandered through several pieces of property. We in the class were each assigned one all our own and told we could do with it what we wanted.
The teacher, whom I now recognize as an ultra-lib, then instructed us to draw our ideal use of the riverside property – for example, a factory or an amusement park, etc. Afterward, we were then made to discuss how each of the uses to which we put our properties would affect the others downstream of the river.
Call it statist propaganda, as I know libertarians and anarchists of the peculiar North American variety reading this likely will. It probably was, but regardless it left an indelible impact on how I think about politics.
Smear me as a communist environmentalist tree hugger radical if you will; I believe in not destroying water sources that sustain life, and in constraining other actors from doing so. I don’t approve when the government dumps fluoride into the water supply for dubious purposes (almost certainly not for any Public Health™ purposes as they claim). I similarly disapprove when corporations, or any actor public or private, dump into them atrazine – a chemical sterilizer that turns animals into eunuchs.
In my estimation, the objective of any ideology worth its salt should be maximum individual sovereignty — but true, meaningful sovereignty. Nominal sovereignty doesn’t matter if you’re forced by the laws of physics to drink water laced with a chemical that sterilizes your whole family into eunuchs.
Until the technological capacity exists to truly separate oneself from the environmental interconnectivity to which we are all subject, what is put into the water supply affects everyone and everything that uses it.
It would be nice, of course, to live in a world where cause and effect were confined to the individual – in which good, wholesome, wise decisions are rewarded with health and wealth. What you get is what you give, as the adage goes.
Such is an admirable ideal, embraced by many libertarians and anarchists as the moral case to dispense with the state, that would be hard to argue with if it were true.
But it’s not true. If you believe it, no matter how noble the reason, you are living in something besides the real world. Malevolent actors have an enormous capacity to poison and degrade and ruin quality of life for everyone. Some mechanism must constrain them, lest we are left to the destructive whims of socoiopaths.
“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
― Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The logic of the state, though, extends to disturbing conclusions. For that, I feel an unshakable sense of shame in offering its defense – as if I have assumed the role of Judas to my previously anarchist convictions.
If we accept that the mandate to dispense justice and prevent abuse of persons and property exists – the entire moral justification for the state – then it is not clear why the collection of nation-states that currently exist in international anarchy are the ideal:
“Anarchy in the context of the international system implies there are no higher authorities, and because nation states are considered by many as primary actors in international relations, an anarchical world would be one where there is no higher authority than that of the state.”
In the brand of particularly violent anarchy that currently characterizes the international system, states compete for finite resources in the pursuit of self-preservation, often leading to war – not the sort of peace and prosperity that most people, libertarian or otherwise, believe we should be striving for.
It is not clear, therefore, why the logic of the state should be limited to the national level. Abuses of persons and property still happen in this environment. However, they are committed by collective groupings of individuals that constitute nation-states against other groups formed along the same lines, rather on an individual basis that occurs in a true state of nature with no state whatsoever.
The same dilemma recurs: who or what will enforce justice at the international level?
This, as anarchists point out, is the flawed logic of statism from the start, in that there is no limiting principle to its expansion and consolidation into a Borg-like singularity that’s certainly not friendly to the individual.
The logic I have previously laid out leads seemingly to the justification for a singular world state of the United Nations variety, but with real teeth in the form of a globalized military. Of course, despising the United Nations myself, this is a conclusion I hypocritically will never embrace, despite my own apologism for the state in some form that I previously laid out.
So where does that leave us? With more questions than answers, it would seem.
Join the conversation. What do you think about the arguments for and against the existence of a state, in whatever form? Can illegitimate transgressions against persona and property be prevented or remedied in a state of anarchy?
Ben Bartee is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.
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