What is a state? Is Statelessness a Viable Alternative?

In order to think clearly, I find it useful to think long and hard about the precise definition of words. The word “state” has generated enormous confusion with its various definitions.

A good definition of a word a) precisely describes a distinct, real phenomena and b) matches our intuitive use of the word.

Anarcho-capitalist David Friedman’s definition of a state is “an organization that exercises legitimate coercion.” What is coercion? Anything that a private actor is not allowed to do. This definition is a tad bit circular, although I think I know what he means. A private property owner cannot arrest and jail someone for refusing to pay rent. A government is unique because it can jail someone for refusing to pay rent (taxes). Two things bother me about this definition. Imagine the U.S. government changed its laws so that the worst punishment for failing to pay taxes or taking unapproved prescription meds was to be exiled (evicted). Would this mean the U.S. was a stateless society? No, there would be no practical change, everyone would still have to obey the laws out of fear of exile (which would be a punishment worse than short term jail). My second problem with the definition is that it defines based on the symptoms, not the underlying phenomena.

The other common definition of a ‘state’ is the “the organization that holds a monopoly of force within a territory.” This definition is better than Friedman’s, but it’s not precise enough for my tastes. By common, intuitive use of the word “state”, nineteenth century England certainly had a state. But the Victorian state did not have a monopoly of force. There was no “Her Majesty’s” army because the central government was not allowed to have an army. Gentlemen were still allowed to carry arms and exercise police powers themselves. The modern U.S. government is certainly a state, but there is a hodge podge of organizations that use force, such as local police, mall security, private arms holders, etc, that all use force.

Here is my better definition of a state:

“A state is the alloidial property owner of a territory. It is an organization that charges rent/taxes and exercises police power over a territory. There is no higher organization that charges taxes or exercises police power over it. It is the final word within a territory.”

By this narrow definition, an American state government or a city government is not the state. The federal government is a separate and higher authority that exercises authority over the city government. But excluding city governments from the definition of the state seems a bit counter-intuitive. When police bust down a door we see that action as demonstrating the reach and power of the state. The defining aspect of a state seems to be that it can lock a person up and deal punishment. In other words, a state exercises full police powers.

Also, the above definition still defines small sedentary tribes and feudal lords as states, which is a bit counter-intuitive. We’ll need to fix the definition to exclude organizations that are related or in contact witht he majority of the subjects.

So our final definition of a state is:

“A state is a large scale, impersonal leviathan, consisting of the organization that holds an alloidial title to a territory, plus the interlocking network of organizations that the alloidial holder allows to exercise full police powers.”

Associations of States And Pseudo-States

States sometimes form associations with other states. These associations fall into three basic types:

a) A confederation (or league) b) A federation c) A unitary system with semi-autonomous provinces

In the confederation, the common government remains under the full control of fully sovereign member states. The common confederate government has little or no power to enforce its decisions, other than to proclaim trade sanctions or exclusion from the confederacy. The confederate government does not operate a police force that could remove a local state governor. Member states can secede at will. Examples of confederation: the League of Nations, American Articles of the Confederation, the Hanseatic League, the European Economic Community.

In a unitary system, the member “states” are really non-sovereign pseudo-states (better referred to as provinces). The province is under full control of the central government and is completely subject to the police powers of the central government. The central government is free to remove a provincial governor for failing to obey its laws. Examples: most modern governments, such as the British government, Chinese government, etc. Despite what your civics textbook said, the post-Civil War U.S. government is really a unitary state. If a governor defies the mandates of the central legislature and/or supreme court, the governor is subject to police action.

In a federal system it is ambiguous who exercises ultimate power - the local state or the central government.

The United States from 1789 to 1865 is the classic example of a federation. The feudal order is best understood as a federation in miniature. Local lords exercised police powers and power of taxation over their dominions. A central king exercised some powers of taxing and enforcement over the land as a whole. But it was always quite ambiguous as to what extent a king could exercise police and taxing power over the lords.

The ambiguous nature of federalism inevitably leads to conflict. The U.S. suffered a civil war that resulted in an unambiguous unitary state. In England there was recurring violence between the king and the lords, until the Tudors decisively forged England into a unitary state.

What is statelessness (anarchism)?

Based on our definition of a state, there only three possible types of state-less societies:

  • Non-sedentary populations are stateless, because there is no permanent ownership of territory.
  • Really small authorities - small tribal villages - are sub states, since the political structure is based on families and blood ties.
  • Two or more separate military organizations are competing to control a territory, with neither neither organization exercising police powers over the other. This is known by the term “anarchy”. “Anarcho-capitalists” believe that the ideal form of society would involve overlapping, for-profit, “protection” agencies. Other anarchists believe that the ideal form would be no military forces greater than the individual, or believe in overlapping mutual aid security forces.

Feudal societies have occasionally been called stateless. But as noted above, a feudal society is perhaps more properly seen as a miniature version of a federation of states. Each feudal lord runs his own mini-state, and the king acts as leader of the federation.

The concept of “extra-territoriality” and/or private law has often been confused with anarchism or statelessness, but in reality has little to do with it. Extra-territoriality and private law are common even in societies with strong states. In the U.S., examples of private law include Amish law, the special treatment of diplomats, and how universities discipline their own students for drug offenses. Allowing extra-territoriality is a policy decision of an existing state. It may be quite a good policy, too. But seeing as the federal government has spent the last 200 years crushing independent state and local law, it is quite unlikely that there will be any expansion of extra-territoriality until there is regime change at the national level.

Another concept sometimes confused with statelessness is the old princple of Robert Peel’s England that, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” In other words, the police have no more powers than that of an ordinary citizen. I think this is a noble-minded principle, but it disappeared in practice because ordinary people did not want the burden of enforcing the law, and a power unused eventually disappears. Furthermore, I do not think that such a society is stateless because you still have a network of organizations that engage in police work and prosecuting work. It could be a very democratic state, but the system of rules and organization is itself a state. (1)

The central problem of the state

States are infamous for behaving badly by the standards of non-state actors. No business would last a nano-second if it had the balance sheet and cash flow of the U.S. government. No individual could stay out of prison if it behaved as a state. States lie, cheat, and kill.

The reason states act so badly is that, by definition, there is no higher power that holds them accountable. This has two implications a) opportunistic, predator states will behave badly because if they are strong, they are rewarded for behaving badly b) responsible states will have to make hard decisions about defending against and pre-empting enemy states. Unlike the like individuals who live under a state, the state itself is completely responsible for protecting itself. And of course, the boundary between a predator state and defender state is never clear. Most empire builders claim they built their empires purely through defensive wars.

Against Anarchism

Since states behave so badly, some think that state-less societies may behave better. But this is a total misreading of the situation. As we noted above there are three types of stateless society. Two of them - the roving tribe, and the tribal village - are by definition unavailable to us because of the scale of our society. That means the only possible stateless society is a society where there are multiple competing militaries with none exercising police powers over the other.

The mistake the anarchist makes is that he thinks states are bad because they have a monopoly over force in a territory. In reality states are bad because they have no one higher holding them accountable. By adding two or three or more militaries together in a territory, you have made the problem much worse. Now you have three militaries that are not accountable to any higher power.

States often behave badly, but there are two factors moderating their behavior. One, if you have a selection process selecting responsible men and women to lead the state, the state may behave reasonably well. Two, even if you have selfish people running the state, if the state has secure ownership of a territory it will try and grow the economy like a master grows a garden, not exploit it like a roving bandit. The state will invest in infrastructure and education, provide rule of law, and tax at a rate low enough to encourage economic growth.

If you have multiple militaries contending over a territory, both moderating influences are lost. First, with no secure title there will be underinvestment in city infrastructure, and over taxation of the peasants. Furthermore, the competing militaries will be in a Darwinian situation in which the one emerging most dominant will be the most ruthless and violent.

But the real nail in the coffin for anarchism is that it is not a militarily stable equilibrium. A situation is stable if no aggressor can profit via aggression. Anything that is protected by an armed force, whether that force be a “protection agency”, a militia, or a state military, is defenisble if the pain the military can inflict on an agressor exceeds the benefit of conquest. Defending a territory requires fortifications, trip wire zones that trigger defensive escalation based on enemy proximity, securing choke points, securing critical infrastructure, surveilance, border control, access control, etc, etc. It is completely ludicrous to think that a situation in which there are other independent, armed forces roaming freely in your territory is military defensible. The first “protection agency” to go Godfather and carry out a pre-mediated, coordinated strike of every other agency, takes over and becomes the new state. Or a protection agency could take control of a bridge or adequaduct and hold the city ransom. The situation is not stable - it rewards the aggressive first mover - which means that any attempt to setup anarchy will create an equilibrium that rewards war and conflict.

Some argue that such aggression will not happen due to culture and morality. But if we invoke culture and morality, any system will work! The multiple security forces scenario is awful because it rewards immoral aggression. Even if most security agencies act morally, the one bad apple will come along some day and take over.

Others argue that the protection agencies will develop some sort of code of cooperation and non-agression. To be stable, and to avoid conflict, this code would need to be formalized and there would need to be consequences for breech, trials, enforcement, and punishment. This would require laws, coordination, and organization. This is - by definition - a state.

Empirically, no society with multiple, competing militaries in a given territory exhibits a quality of governance that is anywhere close to bad Western governments. And in 99% of the cases there has been a horrific level of violence. Recently anarchists have held up the examples of medieval Iceland, Ireland, or Somalia as “positive” examples of anarchy. This is unfathomably ludicrous. We know little about Norse Iceland, but from our knowledge it was not a paragon of peace or economic growth. Twelfth century Ireland was embroiled in non-stop warfare and showed no signs of any sort of economic progress. They could not even stop fighting long enough to clear the forests and build farms. And Somalia - where to begin. I was listening to some libertarian lecture about Somalia. In the middle of saying how great it was under anarchy, the lecturer admitted that he had not actually been there because it was too dangerous. The argument seems to be, “Well compare it now to how it was pre-anarchy”. It is true that the post-colonial rulers ruined the country, but under the colonial state Somalia was prety nice. Mogadishu was a lovely, peaceful, modern city with a high reputable police force. If we were trying to be empirical, and drawing conclusions from the data observed from Somalia’s history, we would conclude that left-wing, revolutionary tyranny is very, very, very, very bad, that anarchy is very, very bad, and that colonialism moderated by modern ethical standards and the watchful eye of the global community was pretty decent. If the history of Somalia is the best example for anarchy, well, I rest my case.

Mogadishu in 1936, full of splendid new buildings and hope for the future

“Public” and “private” two evil, Orwellian words

There are two words relating to states and government that I absolutely despise. Those words are “public” and “private”. These words are Orwellian, inaccurate, deceptive, nonsense. When I’m czar of the language a special microchip will be implanted in all writers and speakers and they will get zapped when they use the words. I beseech all those writing about political theory to pretend said microchip has already been implanted.

Usually the word “public” is used to refer to the state or government. “Private” refers to non-state. But why these words? Is a state actually more “public”? Here is an experiment: try walking into the offices of the NSA and taking pictures of the people walking through. Then go to a “privately” owned shopping mall and do the same. Which is really more public?

Or try enrolling your kid in the school of the richest neighboring suburb. Then try enrolling in the nearby catholic school. Which is more public? Note that the “public” school is actually way, way more expensive, since you need to pay for residency in the town to access the school.

The fiction is that since the government is responsible to the voters, it is public and anything it does is “public”. The reality is that the government is no more responsive to your votes, than any “private” actor is responsive to your dollars as a consumer or your votes as a shareholder. In fact, the “public” government is actually much less responsive to the general public than say, Microsoft, is, because the public government has a dysfunctional management structure. If the “public” vote with their wallets for Apple, Bill Gates throws a fit and the Windows product improves. When the “public” votes with their ballots for Obama, you get a continuation of the bailouts, a continuation of the Middle East wars, a continuation of the entire civil service, and a continuation of the gazillion things government does that no one pays attention to.

The word “public” is therefore Orwellian, because it is a) untrue and b) is self-serving to the existing ruling elite. Defining the government as “public” gives the government (and the rulers) a much higher level of legitimacy. It skews the entire debate. For instance, if I ask, “should schools be public or private?”, of course it sounds nicer for them to be public!. If I say, “should schools be unaccountable to the public, or accountable to the public”, of course I want the latter. But in truth, the “private” schools are the one’s accountable to the public, and the “public” schools are unaccountable since teachers unions and civil service rules prevent it. Thus by changing language, progressives have turned black into white, public private, and private public.

Unfortunately, libertarians fall into the same trap, for their own reasons. The libertarian wishes to maintain the idea that the government is categorically different from “private” individuals, and therefore cannot own property like a private person. The libertarian accepts that a private person can charge taxes/rent, or can control who opens a store in a mall. But by maintaining the distinction, the libertarian tries to delegitimize the government doing the same thing.

Yet the libertarian buys into the language of the ruling class, and therefore the battle is already tilted against him. Worse, it is quite confusing what the libertarian thinks is the problem with public ownership. When a libertarian says, “schools should be privatized” presumably he means that the organization that operates the schools should be separated from the organization that exercises police power. But then what does it mean to privatize the police? Or to privatize a city? The word “privatize” becomes confusing and meaningless.

(1) Albert J. Nock (author of “Our Enemy, The State”), described this sort of community in his memoirs. His home town was a small, isolated midwestern township. It had something like a population of 15,000 and only two policemen. So you have two officers who are pretty much like regular people, nothing like the quasi-military, impersonal police force we know now. Crimes are tried by a jury of citizens. There is virtually no bureaucracy of any sort. The town remains far from the reach of any federal control. It is very easy to see how this could be described as “statelessness”, especially when compared to the New Deal State of vast bureaucracies, Blue Eagle posters, and mass conscription. I would describe this town as having a “tiny, democratic, state.” The state is the minascule organization around holding town meetings, creating laws, establishing jury duty, trying crimes, carrying out punishment, and hiring the police officers. I also agree that this “tiny, democratic state” was an excellent state, far superior to what came after it. However, I don’t think such a tiny state would be feasible in dense, heterogenous cities with far less cultural capital (such as modern Philadelphia).