I often hear people make casual remarks like, “Well, the State has a right to collect taxes,” “the State has a right to punish criminals,” or “the State has a right to controls its borders.” Inside, I am always somewhat horrified at how very easily these kinds of assumptions are made, at how obvious the truth of such claims seems to others. Such assumptions are simply a given for most people, not even on the table for debate, no one really speculating about where the State acquired all of these special rights over everyone and seemingly everything.
The only “right” the State could possibly have is the right of conquest, the barbaric notion that might makes right. It could never own what is possesses in any legitimate sense, either acquiring a chattel through peaceful and consensual trade, or land through actual occupancy and use, standards recognized in theory by all libertarians. Defenders of the State give us a glaring example of question begging when they take for granted that their favored institution originated out of contract or agreement as a way to institute law and preserve order. In so assuming, they take as their central premise a hugely controversial factual claim that, when confronted with the historical record, cannot withstand scrutiny. Ostensible utilitarian justifications for the State are no less specious. Statists often claim, for example, that in the absence of government, society would collapse into a brutal, chaotic war of all against all — a condition which we are apparently meant to compare to the sublime order and peace offered us by governments. As Albert Jay Nock once noted,
It seems to be a fond notion with the legalists and authoritarians that the vast majority of mankind would at once begin to thieve and murder and generally misconduct itself if the restraints of law and authority were removed. The anarchist, whose opportunities to view mankind in its natural state are perhaps as good as the legalist’s, regards this belief as devoid of foundation.Presented with statism’s ridiculous and backward narrative, we must wonder who the starry-eyed utopians really are. After all, the violence and chaos that putatively accompany anarchist societies are purely speculative and hypothetical, whereas the vicious, bloody chaos of the State is well documented in countless volumes of world history for thousands of years. Even if we do not doubt the sincerity of the State’s faithful, we must certainly doubt the faith itself, the credulous trust in the idea that force and compulsion are the best ways to organize human beings.
Statists, moreover, seem always to forget that ultimately governments too are quite necessarily market actors; in forcing us into their coercive, authoritarian schemes, they do not thereby magically suspend the laws of supply and demand, which are as real and immutable as the laws of physics. And since all statists disagree with one another as to which goods and services we ought to regard as being “outside of the market,” best overseen and provided by the bureaucratic, centralized State, we are left to wonder how any statist sets about drawing the line. Today’s authoritarians speak with one voice in their earnest denunciations of the 20th centuries authoritarian regimes, all while never quite enlightening us as to just how much government is too much; divine revelation notwithstanding, we must puzzle over what it is that furnishes them the secrets of how much coercive power a special elite ought to wield over otherwise peaceful, productive society. Whether it’s telling us how many ounces of a soft drink we’re allowed to consume or forbidding us from whitening people’s teeth without special permission, all statists have their pet tyrannies. For the rest of us, it’s largely rather impossible to tell the difference between the sincere but misguided do-gooder authoritarian and the opportunistic, rent-seeking, pressure group authoritarian, for whom public policy is a way to private gain. The intentions behind coercive, rights-violating laws therefore end up being relatively unimportant, especially when compared to the results of such laws. Statists bank on the completely far-fetched and historically untenable belief that when we give a small elite power to make rules for everyone, they will use that power for the welfare of the whole public. Suddenly, human beings are not the violent, selfish brutes they were when we were talking about anarchist societies; no, human beings under the rule of the State are instead almost perfectly righteous and altruistic, free from all the assumptions we ordinarily make about the antisocial flaws of human nature.
Once we begin to see the State as it is — a predatory criminal organization, violently and arbitrarily arrogating to itself the power to make laws for everyone within a given geographical space — we begin also to see the strictly practical problems with such a system. Without any check or restraint on the monopoly power that defines the State, any other social institution competing with that power, the threat of mayhem and bellicosity among human beings is at its most menacing. As a result, contrary to the hollow assertion that we need government to protect us from each other, government itself turns out to be the foremost danger to the prospect of peace and goodwill among men. We anarchists do not comprehend or expect any fundamental change in human nature. We do, however, believe that we can continue to change our social institutions, shaping them to be more closely aligned with the principles of individual dignity, autonomy, and agency. We do not accept that, presented with the historical facts of war, conquest, and destitution, we must simply throw up our hands and concede that these ought to be the dominant, governing forces of all social life. We have modified both our theories and our institutions in the past and have concluded that some are indeed better than others. No longer do we regard women as unequal to men, or human enslavement as a natural and legitimate detail of economic relations (well, most of us anyway). Likewise, anarchists look forward to and work to create changes in the social environment which will bring us closer to the ideal of individual sovereignty and total freedom — even while acknowledging that the absolute, perfect realization of that ideal is not possible.
The fact that we cannot construct a perfect skyscraper, completely without any infinitesimal imperfection or engineering mistake, has never made us think that we ought to halt all progress in the direction of a better skyscraper; the perfect skyscraper, though hypothetical and nonexistent, remains our template. Scientific principles apply no less to questions of politics, society and civilization. The difference seems to repose on the fact that poorly engineered, inferior skyscrapers do not enjoy the self-serving propaganda of courtiers and free riders with something to gain from the status quo. Furthermore, controversies in the engineering sciences do not seem to animate in human beings the same passion as do questions of a political kind. Politics is rather bound up with our feelings about community, right and wrong, war and peace; the truths of these do not seem to be as definite or well-settled as those in the “hard sciences.” But even if political and social truths do not lend themselves as readily to our discovery, this is no reason to think that they don’t in fact exist. We find in nature truths more general and more specific, more conspicuous and more hidden, different types and orders of phenomena, all reflecting truth in their own ways. All the more reason to allow the pluralism and experimentation inherent in anarchism, which free us to discover the truest and the best in social relations organically and without artificial constraints, through a decentralized process of trial and error. Under the concentrated, hierarchical schemes produced by the State, errors are costly and far-reaching, predisposed to creating systemic crises that threaten huge groups of people. Errors under anarchism are not so easily foisted on millions because they do not rely on compelled hierarchical relationships, cannot command lockstep obedience with arbitrary orders. Anarchism is evolutionary more than it is revolutionary, expanding like frozen water in the crack of a rock until that rock, the crumbling old system, finally cracks. As a practice and as a theory, anarchism questions easy assumptions about what it means to be human and how we are supposed to live together as coequal free agents. The State doesn’t have a right to tell you what you can and can’t do — no one does, and no one could. Only individuals have rights, and none of us has the right to rule anyone else.