Most people are afraid to embrace the goal of a truly voluntary society because they worry that awful things will happen. “Sure,” they will agree, “it would be nice if we could live in a world without systematic taxation, but without a State to provide police and military defense, we’d all be sitting ducks!” Thus, the average person defends the existence of the State not for principled reasons but instead as the lesser of two evils.
I submit that this common position is utterly misguided. In the first place, there is a rich philosophical tradition that says people retain their rights even when respecting those rights would be onerous. For example, consider the horrible scenarios—which are always fun fodder for college dorm room discussions at 2am—of people, say, being stuck in a sinking ship, without enough life rafts to go around. Is it morally acceptable for someone to push somebody else off the raft to save his own skin, even though he thereby condemns the weaker fellow to death?
Regardless of how one answers this question, most people at least agree that such an avenue is an extremely slippery slope, and one that should be pursued only with the utmost caution. Yes, perhaps a person is justified in causing another to drown, in order to prevent himself from suffering a similar fate, but under no circumstances is it acceptable to drown another person in order, say, to get that guy’s job.
With this in mind, then, at best the standard defense of the State—and its involuntary taxation—should be limited to truly essential matters of life and death. But to threaten people with being thrown in a cage (i.e. federal prison) for failure to contribute to, say, a federally-financed $100,000 outhouse in Alaska, is a bit absurd.
However, even on its own, narrow terms, the standard defense of the State is empirically false. It is simply not true that the existence of a large institution that centralizes the provision of military defense, keeps society safer. Elsewhere I have published a long essay walking through the economic details of why privately-provided defense would be superior to the State’s provision, but for this post let me focus on just one of my points. To motivate the discussion, first recall this clip from Superman II:
In the clip above, notice that a small group of human beings, after a brief consultation, thinks they have the ability to cede control over planet Earth itself to General Zod. That’s really extraordinary when you think about it.
Three individuals, even with Kryptonian abilities, could not hope to subjugate a huge spheroid filled with several billions of people, if those people had not been already organized into top-down hierarchical structures of authority. To see the problem, imagine you and two of your friends trying to “conquer,” say, all the squirrels on the planet. Even though no group of squirrels could possibly stand up to your physical and technological might—and even though your ability to move around the world and threaten different groups of squirrels far surpassed their own mobility—it would be impossible for three humans to conquer a whole planet of squirrels. No matter what you did to one group of them, they would lack the ability to “surrender” on behalf of other squirrels.
Things would be comparable for General Zod and his two accomplices, if they encountered a planet full of free humans who were organized into voluntary webs of association. Rather than threatening a few hundreds heads of State, Zod and his cronies would have to start from scratch, subjugating communities one at a time.
Yes, over the course of decades the villains in black could build up an infrastructure of oppression, hand-picking toadies from among the humans to act as their enforcers while Zod and the other two Kryptonians were not physically present. But the crucial point is, the existence of States littering the globe solves that problem for them. We humans have already created the infrastructure of mass oppression, through which a very small group of humans rules over the rest.
Note that this analysis isn’t limited to fanciful Superman scenarios of alien invaders. It was also very real for the French people during World War II. The German invaders didn’t need to subjugate every town, but instead merely needed to defeat the French army and force the French government to surrender. Similar tactics explained how the Roman emperors of old were able to dominate so much of the world; they struck deals with the regional potentates who had already won the ideological allegiance of their respective subjects.
As we’ve seen, the existence of the modern nation-State is dubious on principled, philosophical grounds. But even on purely pragmatic grounds, it fails to deliver. Far from keeping people safe from outside conquerors, the modern State does most of the dirty work for them.