Social Justice, Libertarianism

Poverty and the State

Apologists for the state often suggest that the state is essential if people are to be protected against deprivation resulting from accident, disaster, or injustice. I’m not persuaded that they’re right that state anti-poverty programs are needed to deal with the problem of poverty. The problem of poverty is systemic; but eliminating the systemic injustice of the state (rather than tweaking this or that inequity while leaving others in place) could make the problem of poverty quite manageable in the state’s absence.

For one thing, states don’t treat recipients of the anti-poverty aid they disburse especially well. It’s important to avoid comparing idealized state practice with imaginary worst-case practice in a stateless society. If we focus on actual state practice, we find that poor people are not served particularly well by the state, and that states routinely intrude into the lives of recipients of state assistance, violating people’s privacy and seeking to regulate their behavior. People pay a high price for aid from the state.

In addition, states actively make and keep people poor. Licensing laws, zoning regulations, and similar restrictions make it hard for poor people to enter particular job markets and to operate businesses out of their homes. Without the state to put these kinds of restrictions in place, people would be less likely to be poor.

States also raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes. Some people are forced to live without permanent housing at all, while others must spend much larger fractions of their incomes on housing than they otherwise would. Agricultural tariffs raise the cost of food, the most significant portion of anyone’s budget. Without the state to make meeting their basic needs unnecessarily expensive, poor people would have more disposable income and would be more economically secure.

States increase the number of poor people in part precisely through some anti-poverty programs, which can create perverse incentives both for people to remain poor enough to qualify for government funds and for bureaucrats to keep people poor in order to retain their own jobs.

And states actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state’s rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state’s demand for tax money. In addition, many people are poor, or poorer, today because the state has actively stolen land and other resources from them or their ancestors or has sanctioned such thefts committed by the wealthy and well connected. The existence of a peasant class and of a class of displaced urban workers willing to accept employment on dismal terms is inexcplicable without reference to state violence or state tolerance for or endorsement of violence by the wealthy and well connected.

Further, support for poverty relief doesn’t just come from tax funds now, and there’s no reason to think no one would support poverty relief efforts absent the state. People give money to charitable causes over and above their tax bills today, despite the huge sums the state claims. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do so in a stateless society. It is naïve to suppose that the wealthy and powerful are opposed to state funding for services to the poor at present; the poor have far less clout than do the wealthy and powerful, and yet the state provides minimal services for poor people. There is no reason to suppose that wealthy and well connected people willing to see the state spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services without the state. (Why do people give money to good causes, including voluntary programs that help the poor? Why do wealthy and well connected people endorse state spending on programs that provide services to poor people. Presumably for a combination of reasons, including [in no particular order] compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder. All of these reasons would be operative in a stateless society.)

In a stateless society, less money would be spent obtaining key services. Without the state, there wouldn’t be taxes, and what are now state-provided services would be available on the market and thus in most cases less expensively. The state does a range of things (notably requiring professional licenses, hospital accreditation, and prescriptions and enforcing drug and medical device patents, and other restraints on trade) to make particular services, like health care services, especially expensive. Without state interference, basic services would be less expensive and more available. In addition, some services (think a bloated military) wouldn’t be part of the picture at all. So people would have more disposable income than at present. This means both that people with limited incomes would be better off and that people with more money would have bigger disposable incomes from which to give to support good causes (recall, again, that lots of people do this today even while paying taxes).

Statists sometimes worry that the absence of the state would mean a return to the misery and squalor typical of many people’s lives in the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century; they too often attribute these condtiions to the absence of state regulation and anti-poverty programs. But it’s important to emphasize that these conditions reflected the much lower overall levels of societal wealth. People weren’t poor because of the absence of state regulations and anti-poverty programs; they were poor in part because there was very little wealth overall and thus less for those who wanted to help the poor to use to do so. (Thanks to Tom Woods for this observation.) And of course the misery and squalor weren’t natural or inevitable: they resulted from persistent—remediable—injustice on the part of elites and their political cronies.

It’s also worth emphasizing that the absence of the state would make almost everyone (apart from the state’s corporate cronies) richer. The state’s subsidies and regulations drive down the overall productivity of the economy. So, again, there’s good reason to believe that, in its absence, people, including members of the working poor, would be wealthier on average than they are today. Again, this means both that poor people would have more money and that those in a position to help them would, too.

State-administered programs are less viable, less able to help the poor, precisely because those programs feature high administrative costs. (Thanks to Tom again on this score.) Programs supported freely by people in a stateless society would not feature such high administrative costs: because donors could support multiple programs, there would be persistent pressure for administrative costs to be reduced.

Mutual aid networks could provide many of the services well intentioned statists want the state to offer. Societies in which people pooled risk and provided pensions, health care, and other services functioned effectively before the rise of state social services, and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t again without the state—and, indeed, wouldn’t function much better given that people would have access to more resources and that the state wasn’t on-hand to regulate them out of existence.

In a stateless society, rectification for state-committed and state-sanctioned wrong-doing would significantly decrease poverty. Politically privileged elites have stolen land and resources from poor, working class, and middle class people. To the extent that land and other resources were made available for homesteading or returned to those from whom they were taken, there would be a significant shift of income to people currently limited in resources.

And structural changes would make poverty less likely in a stateless society, too. Rules that made it harder for absentee landlords to sit on undeveloped, uncultivated land could open up this land for homesteading by people with limited resources and thus provide them an avenue to greater economic security. Eliminating subsidies and legal privileges for hierarchical corporations would increase the likelihood that people could enjoy the job security associated with working for themselves (with less risk than accompanies being an independent contractor in a less healthy economy) or in partnerships or cooperatives and that, when they did work for others, they could bargain successfully for better compensation.

In addition, social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation. General acceptance of a social norm entailing regular contributions to a community income support fund, or leaving the edges of fields available (as in Leviticus) for gleaning, could ensure that poor people who needed it could rely on community assistance.

State-managed anti-poverty programs draw on tax resources taken unwillingly from people. People work less energetically and enthusiastically when they know that some of what they produce will, in effect, be taken from them at gun-point. Thus, taking resources from people through taxation to fund anti-poverty programs can function as a drag on the economy. By contrast, when people give willingly to support anti-poverty efforts, their own objectives are not being thwarted; if they wish to support these efforts, then they will be willing to work hard to do so. Thus, the existence of even quite substantial anti-poverty efforts in a stateless society need not conflict with people’s working enthusiastically to earn wealth and thus with overall economic productivity.

In short, the state often makes the problem of poverty worse, and the state is not needed to remedy deprivation and economic insecurity. Provided the full range of statist privilege for the wealthy and well connected is eliminated, people could deal effectively with the challenge of poverty absent the state.

NOTE: This post reflects my reworking of some earlier comments in partial response to Art Carden’s observations here.

  • Dan Kervick

    You list several government-administers programs and governing activities that, in your view, do more harm than good. Rather than get into the weeds with you on the pros and cons of these various programs, I will just point out that there is nothing at all in this diatribe that would give a rational person a reason to believe that these deficiencies of governance, if indeed deficiencies they are, are inherent in the nature of government itself. One could make an even longer list of the various things individuals and sub-governmental organizations of individuals have done poorly, incompetently, maliciously or malevolently. Yet no one calls for an “individual-free” society, or an “organization-free society”. Human beings, you may have noticed, are imperfectly rational, imperfectly intelligent and limited in their foresight, constancy and conscientiousness. They produce a large number of evils along with the good they do.

    If governments are screwing things up, we just need to figure out how to govern ourselves better; just as when individual people and organizations of individuals do bad, we endeavor to improve them and get them to do better.

    You anarchists are banging your head ridiculously against against human nature. People form cooperative societies and establish rule-based orders to promote a prosperous life and civil peace, and to foster all of the arts and intellectual improvements that can only thrive in an environment of peace, security and order. They always have. They always will. It’s just part of the way we’re put together. If you eliminate some organized structures of civil power and rule-enforcement, others will just rise up to take their place, because the 95 out of a hundred human beings who are not socially retarded and paranoid anarchists want these structures and understand the clear need for them. You can’t make political animals like human beings into non-political animals. And there is no sharp dividing line between the simplest of human organizations and the “states” that terrify anarchists so much.

  • JakeCollins

    This post misframes the debate between liberals and libertarians. Of course the state does lots of bad things, many of which hurt poor people.

    75% of this post is a strong argument for dealing away with bad policies… which is no way answers the central question of whether or not the poor will starve without food stamps.

    To put it simply, bad lisencing requirements aren’t an argument against Medicaid.

    My pet theory for this silliness is that libertarians think of all of human history as an epic battle between “statists” and “freedom lovers”… in a weird way it just the Marxist theory of history turned upside down.

    That explains the recent post on the VC about how Passover was just a proto-version of the NH Free State Project.
    http://volokh.com/2011/04/15/passover-and-voting-with-your-feet-for-freedom/

    Stop debating about the “state” and start thinking of less intrusive ways to implement safety nets… or else rename this blog “Cold-Hearted Bastard Libertarians”; the OP is the same old dreck we can find on Reason.com.

  • James

    “It’s important to avoid comparing idealized state practice with imaginary worst-case practice in a stateless society…”

    Though not necessarily as wrong as often, it’s also important to avoid comparing current, observed state societies with hypothetical stateless societies. I agree with your conclusion, don’t get me wrong, but this isn’t a great way to show that a stateless or smaller-state society will be better than most statist ones existing now, just that it’s conceivable, which isn’t a very powerful statement.

    This would be a better post if it had more linked evidence that most people in our culture and age want to help the poor voluntarily, and that states generally work against those goals.

  • John

    Dan K – “If governments are screwing things up, we just need to figure out how to govern ourselves better;”

    I do think that’s what Gary is getting at. Too often, it seems to me, that those advocating government see monopoly government and the State as the governing authority as the only form of governance.

    I’m with Gary, other solutions and institutional arrangement exists and can be relied on. Oddly enough, rather than “banging” our heads against human nature I think we embrace it. We embrace the the tendency of people to find peaceful ways for living and cooperating with one another as individuals. The whole question is why we need to establish over arching structures to mediate our tendencies to peacefully self-organize our relationships.

    I do agree that Gary’s post offers little more that reference to such alternatives. I guess the question is whether or not this post’s comment section is where such discussion should be offered or if Gary’s planning on some follow up’s to explore specific alternatives for various issues.

  • People work less energetically and enthusiastically when they know that some of what they produce will, in effect, be taken from them at gun-point.

    No, “in effect” people are not working under the threat of gun violence. Even libertarians by and large go to work like everybody else, as if nobody is putting a gun to their head demanding they fork over their paycheck, except that in their case they will say that’s exactly what’s happening when prompted. There is a profound psychological difference between working at the point of a gun and being taxed, and that matters for the whole libertarian notion of incentives.

    Here is a paper that sheds light on how people respond to taxes. In short, the extremely wealthy respond to income tax changes but for most others tweaking the tax code has no significant effect: http://web.williams.edu/Economics/bakija/BakijaHeimJobsIncomeGrowthTopEarners.pdf

  • Emma

    It would be silly to think that it is human tendency to “find peaceful ways for living and cooperating with one another.” As centuries have shown this is rarely the case, and should not underlie institutional theorizing.

  • Dan Kervick

    We embrace the the tendency of people to find peaceful ways for living and cooperating with one another as individuals. The whole question is why we need to establish over arching structures to mediate our tendencies to peacefully self-organize our relationships.

    Well this is what it all comes down to in the anarchist tradition, isn’t it John? A lot of anarchists and others in the romantic tradition stemming from Rousseau tend to believe that people are naturally peaceable and easy-going, and that the high degrees of violence and horror observed throughout human history are some kind of dysfunctional perversion or deformation introduced by the terrible invention of “states”. It seems to me that a less starry-eyed and more realistic assessment of human history tells us that many human beings are perfectly capable of using violence to achieve their ends and satisfy their lusts, and so that people who seek a tolerably well-ordered, secure, stable and prosperous life need to cooperate in a very disciplined way to establish that order. Doing so requires adherence to an organized and rule-governed mobilization of violence or the threat of violence to subdue rogues and establish and maintain peace within settled human habitats.

    So by all means, we can consider different kinds of institutions for governing our lives. But it seems to me that these alternative institutions, to the extent they are plausible, are going to look a lot more like standard governments than some libertarians and all anarchists like to believe. We can destroy the sophisticated and large governments that currently exist in an attempt to usher in the anarchist millennium; but I suspect all that means is that we will be ruled by systems such as the Corleones and the Five Families, by upstart “princes” or by similar systems of warlords, gangs and and the like. Whenever we see a collapse in governing state power in human society leading to vacuums of order and organization, we always see new upstart statelets sprouting up to take their place. That’s the organic nature of things among political animals.

    Rather than dreaming of eliminating state power altogether, it seems to me a more practical approach is to seek to foster both horizontal and vertical institutional balances of power within the state, so that the sovereign power of the state is not concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, but is distributed among different agencies, departments and branches; among sub-governments representing larger and smaller regions; and with significant deposits among the whole population, each of whom is granted a share of governing rights.

  • jorod

    Socialism is the root cause of all poverty.

  • Jeff

    Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes.

    Yes, because the largely unregulated slums of, for example, India are an example to which we should all aspire.

    States increase the number of poor people in part precisely through some anti-poverty programs, which can create perverse incentives both for people to remain poor enough to qualify for government funds

    Yes. We call those badly designed programs. The answer is generally to structure things such that the rate of benefits declines less rapidly than their income grows. Does the decline in benefits still impact them? Some. Do they still have an incentive to earn more money? Absolutely.

    states actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state’s rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state’s demand for tax money.

    I think it’s cute that you assume a functional currency system in the absence of a state. That aside, this is once again a symptom of poor policy making, not something that is definitionally unfixable.

    the absence of the state would make almost everyone (apart from the state’s corporate cronies) richer.

    There are ample counter examples to this claim – Somalia being the most obvious – but I would be interested for you to cite one or more historical instances where this has been the case, since I can’t think of any off hand.

    State-administered programs are less viable, less able to help the poor, precisely because those programs feature high administrative costs. (Thanks to Tom again on this score.) Programs supported freely by people in a stateless society would not feature such high administrative costs: because donors could support multiple programs, there would be persistent pressure for administrative costs to be reduced.

    Given the massive and persistent inefficiency of many of our nation’s largest nonprofits (Feed the Children for example) and the high level of efficiency of SNAP, I’m afraid your optimism in this area may be somewhat misplaced. Also, who is going to watchdog the charities in the absence of a state?

    And structural changes would make poverty less likely in a stateless society, too. Rules that made it harder for absentee landlords to sit on undeveloped, uncultivated land could open up this land for homesteading by people with limited resources and thus provide them an avenue to greater economic security.

    In the absence of a state, who exactly is enforcing said rules?

    social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation. General acceptance of a social norm entailing regular contributions to a community income support fund, or leaving the edges of fields available (as in Leviticus) for gleaning, could ensure that poor people who needed it could rely on community assistance.

    Please name one instance in all of human history where this has been done successfully in an urban setting – more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, after all.

    State-managed anti-poverty programs draw on tax resources taken unwillingly from people. People work less energetically and enthusiastically when they know that some of what they produce will, in effect, be taken from them at gun-point.

    So you’re saying that we should optimize the ability of people to free ride on public goods created by others? Lovely.

  • “States also raise the cost of being poor.”

    Speaking as an economist (and an anarchist), they don’t. They add to the burden of being a human being, rich or poor, and that burden is relatively greater for the poor.

  • John

    Dan, Emma — I agree that some people will rely on violence to accomplish their goals with no regard for the other person or people. One their own they have limited ability to push this so far. This was Hobbes’ point about us all being largely equal in the state of nature.

    Institutionalizing the power to apply violence provides a very powerful lever for those who have such tendencies. I think history has proven that we don’t do a great job of filtering such people out of the formal positions of power within these social institutions.

    Moreover, even in the case where we might say government officials themselves are not all the violence prone the larger to institutions and the populations the more distanced the decision-makers are from the consequences of a decision making a violent solution more likely. Consider, if there were no federal government, only 50 states in a trading block, would we be in either Iraq or Afghanistan? Or if congressional representatives voting for war had to actually fight the war, would we be there?

    I do think it’s a fair question to ask is such an arrangement can emerge or survive as a long-term arrangement given we only see monopoly power government in western history. I certainly agree that a relatively smaller society with a monopoly government taxing its citizens and production, having the power to draft to populate an armed force (and probably buy mercenaries) may have an advantage over a larger but decentrally organized society. I suspect that will depend on several factors and it’s not certain that monopoly government has an advantage in all cases.

    Let’s run a simple counter-factual. What happens to the european conquest of the americas if the native population has the muskets and canon while europeans only have medieval knights and foot soldiers?

    I’m not too knowledgeable about the native american political structures but know they did have some very large agreements but seem to have a much less centralized process. I don’t think their history was a violent as that of europe with it’s kingdoms and emerging nation-states. Still, I think it was the Five Tribes, that was a union of tribes that pretty much controlled a large portion the eastern US, and extended into Canada and westward to, perhaps, the Dakotas. That’s a pretty big area and a rather large population.

    Dan, I agree with your last paragraph to some extent. We need to focus on institutional arrangement that don’t require state power but do deliver social solutions. In the end state power has either been reduces to some “necessary evil” or shown to be unneeded entirely. I’m hoping Gary’s post was the opening of that discussion and not the final words he wanted to say on it.

  • There’s one real deficiency with this essay – it relies on an understanding that it never actually states (and one that’s been pointed out already), that the problems with state-administered anti-poverty programs only exist because they are administered by the state. This assumption persists, even when statements in the essay actively contradict it.

    Consider: “States increase the number of poor people in part precisely through some anti-poverty programs, which can create perverse incentives both for people to remain poor enough to qualify for government funds and for bureaucrats to keep people poor in order to retain their own jobs.”

    (I’m suddenly nostalgic for the long-forgotten art of sentence diagramming.) This isn’t an argument solely against the state. It’s the anti-poverty programs that increase the number of poor people. From the construction of this sentence, it shouldn’t matter who runs the anti-poverty program. The perverse incentives are a function of the programs, not the fact that the state is involved.

    This is problematic in that if a) I’m not a true believer in the inherent deficiency of the state, and b) I don’t think that Mr. Chartier Fails English Forever, then I can quite easily become convinced that I’m actually looking at a scheme to simply destroy anti-poverty programs under the guise of removing the state. In other words, poorly-constructed sermons to the choir (who can be expected to always cheer) can raise the suspicions of those who are not congregants.

    And when it doesn’t flat out assume that the state is the problem, the essay fails to deal with, or even acknowledge, the risks it raises. For instance: “In addition, social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation.” When you consider that there have been social norms in part of the world in living memory (within the past twenty years) that have resulted in mass murder, that “could” suddenly becomes very important. It’s nice to assume that bloodshed (let alone simple neglect) on a massive scale simply couldn’t happen here. But when you’re betting people’s lives on it, nice doesn’t cut it.

    BUT – and this is a rather significant caveat, you really can’t expect anything else in a piece of this size. Even at over 1600 words, there simply isn’t enough space to actually back up each of the points that’s being made here. I suspect that the second paragraph alone could be 1600-plus words, and not be long enough to be convincing.

    This is one of the pitfalls of the short form, even the long end of the short form. The fastest way to get a lot of points out there quickly is to simply make a few assumptions and attack the enemy position with them.

    But even given that A = Bad, and B ≠ A, it does not then follow that B = Good (or, for that matter, even simply better than A). B = Good is its own argument, and one that really deserves to be made, rather than assumed from the sidelines.

  • “Let’s run a simple counter-factual. What happens to the european conquest of the americas if the native population has the muskets and canon while europeans only have medieval knights and foot soldiers?”

    If NOTHING else changes? The natives still loose. It might take longer, but they do. The crowd diseases that the Europeans bring with them still ravage the native population, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the natives prevents them from constantly keeping an army of professional soldiers in the field. (It also results in a lower population density, even when you discount diseases.) It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Welsh longbow has a longer range, better accuracy and higher rate of fire than a musket. Heavy crossbows have a low rate of fire, but retain the range and accuracy advantage. It was the relative ease of training people to use muskets that first made them viable battlefield weapons. Once the Europeans get a foothold, the natives are baked, gunpowder weapons or none.

    • Damien RS

      The hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, and newly discovered Amazonian cities?  Of the eastern North American Indians who farmed corn, beans, and squash?  Of the Hopis?  Of the Moundbuilders?

      Hunter-gatherer seems to apply mostly to the Plains, West coast, and arctic… and to the post-collapse Amazon.  Some agricultural civilizations collapsed to foraging after 95% death rates; in other cases, it may be that the hunter-gatherers survived the plagues more, by being dispersed.

      Charles Mann, in _1491_, is skeptical that the Americas could have been conquered without disease, even with the existing tech disparity.  1500s European tech just wasn’t that impressive, vs. 1800s tech.  European colonialism in Africa and Asia was mostly 1700 and 1800s. 

  • Dan:

    “People form cooperative societies and establish rule-based orders to promote a prosperous life and civil peace, and to foster all of the arts and intellectual improvements that can only thrive in an environment of peace, security and order.”

    Of course. The question is whether or not this particular form of it, based on assumptions of top-down authority and a legitimacy to force, is the best form of cooperative society. Gary would obviously argue it isn’t.

  • John:

    “Too often, it seems to me, that those advocating government see monopoly government and the State as the governing authority as the only form of governance. I’m with Gary, other solutions and institutional arrangement exists and can be relied on.”

    But who are the advocates of government who don’t agree that “other solutions and institutional arrangements exist and can be relied on”? The most liberal Democrat in Washington (or hard-line Labour MP in Westminster, etc.) would not deny the importance of the societal roles played by charitable organizations, labor unions, parent-teacher associations, religious groups, etc. play, nor argue that they should also be subsumed into the state. And since this accounts for pretty much the entire range of viewpoints on the political left in the Anglosphere, I’m not sure who’s left (so to speak) to dispute your/Gary’s assertion.

    Or were you talking just about unreformed Marxist academics?

    Also: what Jeff, James, Aaron, Dan, and Jake have said.

  • Missed this when first reading through the thread. Emma:

    “It would be silly to think that it is human tendency to “find peaceful ways for living and cooperating with one another.” As centuries have shown this is rarely the case…”

    Over the past few centuries, the length of peacetime has far outpaced the length of wartime. Non-thieves exceed thieves by a great margin. The last sixty-five years have seen more peace at the global level (and arguably, at the level of each continent) than any equal stretch of time before. I think history is very kind to the proposition that human tendencies run toward peaceful cooperation.

    But the best argument for this human drive to cooperate might be the mere fact that most of us in rich countries manage to get meals into our stomachs each day without having to hunt/gather it myself nor having to find someone with food and fight him for it.

  • B-psycho:

    “The question is whether or not this particular form of it, based on assumptions of top-down authority and a legitimacy to force, is the best form of cooperative society. Gary would obviously argue it isn’t.”

    First, I don’t think that, say, the U.S. or Canadian federal government (or even state or provincial governments) would qualify as a “top-down authority”, given the extent to which they are accountable in composition and function to democratic processes and the level at which they allow the private sector to operate independently. McDonald’s is more top-down in function.

    Also, if you look at recent instances (in U.S. and world history) when a government has actually used force against its own people, the rule as opposed to the exception has been that this government will face a strong blowback as a result, wearing down its legitimacy, sometimes to the point of downfall. (Sometimes this blowback is a popular outcry, sometimes it can come in forms like wars and invasions that are themselves of debatable legitimacy. But the point is that the initiator of force tends to suffer.)

    Bottom line is, if sufficient masses of people in a state want to collectively act for a change in the shared/social aspects of their lives, the state should be an instrument that facilitates their ability to effect that change more than an impediment. I think that most western liberal democracies today fit that condition.

  • A piece like this illustrates some of the very deep cognitive divisions between different ideologies. As noted above, this essay only presents the idea that there are alternatives to the state — by no means does it make a convincing (or even direct) case that the existence of a state is a major problem.

    One of the big issues here is where we place the burden of proof in these arguments. I can think of two approaches for this issue.

    1) Conservative: By default, we continue with our current institutions and only change then if a strong case is made for an alternative.
    2) Anarchist: By default, we let others do as they wish unless a strong case is made for intervention.

    To often, the burden of proof is assigned relative to our own current beliefs… we demand an airtight case that an alternative is better than our own current preferences. There is some reason is such a position; but of course, it is nearly impossible to make an airtight case, so this approach typically turns into an excuse for being obstinate.

  • Re poverty in the nineteenth century, not only was overall wealth less but the working class poor were in their wretched condition to a large extent because of state actions like the Enclosures and other peasant land expropriations, the Laws of Settlement, the Combination Act, etc.

    Oppenheimer pointed out that economic exploitation is impossible so long as wage employers have to compete for labor with the option of self-employment. The political appropriation of the land through feudal tenures, large-scale engrossment and distribution to the privileged, etc., was what set the background conditions against which the Industrial Revolution as we knew it occurred.

  • The post is very intellectually written, with lots of valuable information.

  • Kevin, the British laws you mention were state actions that denied individuals freedom of personal movement and freedom to organize or change their labor. They have long been done away with in Britain, because accomplishing such ends through state power is widely recognized today as inimical to well-governed liberal societies. So they’re not of much relevance to any present debate about the merits of liberal government.

    Thanks for sharing Oppenheimer’s view, I agree with it completely. I don’t think self-employment was ever a real option for many of those affected by the cited laws (partly because literacy has generally been a prerequisite for true self-employment in modern times). Government initiatives like public education, the Internet, and (in Canada and the U.K.) job-independent single-payer health care have all contributed to making self-employment even more viable.

  • jsnodgers

    Overall, your essay smacks of trying to do exactly what you accuse Statists of doing: Comparing the best possible non-State world against the worst possible world with a State.

    For example:

    “Licensing laws, zoning regulations, and similar restrictions make it hard for poor people to enter particular job markets and to operate businesses out of their homes.”

    “States also raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes…”

    States also provide protection from both fraud and abuse. While it might raise the price on some things, partly this because it weeds out things that cost less, but are also fundamentally defective. It’s hard to argue that poor people in Haiti are substantially better off than those in Japan, because of their low cost housing with little in the way of building codes. Being able to afford a home doesn’t do a lot of good when it falls down and kills you. Similarly, we raise the prices of food by taking the time and money to inspect it. While making rat poison and lead paint hot dogs may not be a good long term business strategy, there’s no lack of evidence from less regulated times that people were willing to cut corners and potentially hurt customers for a short term profit. These are the same sort of regulations and licensing laws that you cite as being responsible for poor people not being able to get into the market. This is a trade off, and one which we need to balance. Simply stating the negatives of one side of it though is unhelpful.

  • jsnodgers

    Also:

    “There is no reason to suppose that wealthy and well connected people willing to see the state spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services without the state.”

    The fallacy of this statement is that it assumes that since there are some rich people willing to pay to charities and pay taxes for services that help the poor, in the absence of the state, all rich people will pay just as much as they do now. Some does not equal All. There are also persistent injustices that people are willing to ignore, and there is no evidence that in the absence of a State as a center of the debate of what must be done that these would be addressed.

    Secondarily, this also seems to assume that everyone doing things in an uncoordinated fashion will achieve better results than a centralized effort. While this works for efficient markets, we have little reason to assume that charities working off the same model. In fact, there’s substantial evidence of the exact opposite of this. For a long time in the US, our biggest charities were those that spent the most on advertising, so that people knew they existed to give to. This led to the perverse incentive for a charity that spend the more on advertising, and less on it’s cause. This has been somewhat alleviated by online charity evaluators, but in the absence of a central regulatory body to make sure all parties were being honest, then this would pretty rapidly break down in the same manner that I know not to blindly trust reviews that pop up on Google.

    A third point is that your charities here have the exact same incentive to keep people poor that you cite bureaucracies as having. The more people that are poor, the more necessary the charity will seem, and the more money that will potentially flow through it. Solving the problem on the other hand is a sure fire way to lose your job.

  • jsnodgers

    In the category of “Assertions that don’t have much backing there’s:

    “In a stateless society, less money would be spent obtaining key services. Without the state, there wouldn’t be taxes, and what are now state-provided services would be available on the market and thus in most cases less expensively.”

    At this point you’re not even arguing things, you are just stating Libertarian beliefs as facts. There’s a reason that I send every package I can through the USPS, and that’s because it provides me with better service at lower costs.

    “And structural changes would make poverty less likely in a stateless society, too. Rules that made it harder for absentee landlords to sit on undeveloped, uncultivated land could open up this land for homesteading by people with limited resources and thus provide them an avenue to greater economic security.”

    In a stateless society, why would you assume that the rules would make it harder for a landlord to do this?

    “In addition, social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation. General acceptance of a social norm entailing regular contributions to a community income support fund, or leaving the edges of fields available (as in Leviticus) for gleaning, could ensure that poor people who needed it could rely on community assistance.”

    This is precisely why I’m not an Anarchist, despite seeing the appeal. It’d be lovely if the social norm was to help your fellow man, and if they were, then you could live in a truly free society. However, this is not the social norm we have, and getting there would not be easy.

    I guess I’ll cut off here. I have more things I want to argue with, but another two posts to fit within the character limit of comments seems excessive.

  • Andrew: I’m fine with collective action, and even prefer it in many cases. I just find the idea that an entity claiming a “right” to use force against people that disagree (I’m not just referring to the obvious cases of people being murdered by their government for just speaking, though that is related to the overall view on the part of political authority that acts and speech which don’t harm anyone else can be punishable. The difference is degree) is beyond question as a form worth using for it to be inaccurate. The point of a state, in this light, isn’t mere organizing, but those in control of said state preventing ways of doing so that conflict with their own interests.

  • B-psycho: But is a claimed right to use force actually worth much at all, if using it greatly diminishes the claimant’s legitimacy?

    “The point of a state, in this light, isn’t mere organizing, but those in control of said state preventing ways of doing so that conflict with their own interests.”

    Well, then states shouldn’t prevent forms of organizing that conflict with their own interests. Fortunately, in places like the U.S., Canada, and Europe, they don’t.

    Also, I’ve read over your second sentence a couple times, but I’m not sure I understand the meaning of “is beyond question as a form worth using for it to be inaccurate” or what it refers to. (Lord knows I made some embarrassing typing mistakes of my own above.)

  • As pointed out by some comments above, it is not enough to demonstrate that some state policies are harmful — libertarians need to demonstrate that state activities are harmful overall, and that there is no way to change this short of abolishing the state.

    This actually shouldn’t be too hard, since many progressives already believe that the state (as it exists today) is systematically biased towards serving the interests of the wealthy, often at the expense of everyone else. Progressives and left-libertarians differ on two points:
    1) Does the bias towards the wealthy outweigh the general welfare generated by the state
    2) Can the state be reformed to eliminate (or just reduce) this bias.

    Progressives often appeal to campaign finance regulations as a way to reduce the bias towards the wealthy. I think that this reform movement is an easy target for libertarians, on both empirical and theoretical grounds.

    Of course, a progressive who gives up on campaign finance reform will not necessarily reject the state — they could decide that it is good enough even without reform, or they could push a broader agenda to reduce the influence of wealth in society (i.e. full socialism).

    On this point, you all may appreciate a recent article from the Economist called “Glitzkrieg” — or “how a kleptocrat can buy respectability”

    http://www.economist.com/node/18330435

  • Andrew: What I was trying to say is this: If collective organizing is good — a sentiment I share — then why whenever someone questions the state as a concept is it interpreted as “organizing is bad”, instead of “THIS form of organizing is more harm than it is worth”?

  • b-psycho: Beats me. I’m sure I’ve never heard anyone suggest that anarchism is against all forms of organizing, though.

  • Re-reading the thread, it looks like you were initially responding to Dan Kervick saying that anarchism is contrary to human nature because we need “organized structures of civil power and rule-enforcement.” But as he went on to point out, it is unclear where to draw the line separating such organizations from plain old states, or why this distinction is meaningful at all.

    Whatever name they go by, such social arrangements are all meant to help achieve worthwhile collective goals rather than hinder them. If they ever pose more of a hindrance than a help, then either the arrangements are fixable or the goals are socially unfeasible.

  • John

    Andrew L – who here has taken Gary’s post or my comments and engaged a discussion on alternative institutional forms. Two or three of the people who’ve commented? Most seem to attack the idea or ignore it entirely.

    Not picking on Dan, he has made good comments to, but how did he describe Gary: “socially retarded and paranoid”. That was not a discussion about alternative forms of organization and institutions but an ad hominem meant to dissuade readers from considering any arrangements but the state.

    Aaron – regarding the counter-factual, everything else cannot be the same.

  • Jeff Wermer

    John,
    I think the problem with engaging the discussion of different institutional forms is that Gary’s article doesn’t really express the need to do so.
    All of his complaints about the state seem to be about badly enacted policy, but not the nature of policy itself.
    I’m trying to figure out why an anarchist advocates anarchy beyond a general feeling that the state is bad, but I haven’t found any satisfying arguments for it.
    Any thoughts?
    Jeff

  • Andrew: I cited the Combination laws &c. in regard to the level of poverty in the 19th century and the resulting smaller pool of resources for working class mutual aid. I do think they’re relevant, though, to the extent that there are legacy effects of the concentration of wealth and structure of employment during industrialization. If you start out with an uneven distribution of wealth from robbery and concentrate it further through unjust laws, all you need after that is to leave in place the artificial scarcities/property rights that enable compounded rents of various sorts, and the wealth will tend to flow disproportionately into the hands of those who already have it.

  • Jeff: I think there are at least two levels on which you can address the desirability of the state as such.

    First is the basic philosophical ground: self-ownership and the nonaggression principle.

    Second, even if you stipulate to the legitimacy of an institution that claims a territorial monopoly on the right to initiate force or define legitimate force, you have problems clustered around Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy and the nature of government — as such — as something amenable mainly to control by a minority ruling class of one kind or another.

  • Re Sheldon Richman’s excellent point — which apparently hasn’t shown up yet — that’s correct: the legacy effects are also organizational.

    For one thing, once you have the kinds of large firms serving extended market areas that Chandler described, you get managerial bureaucracies choosing a particular technological path that tends to lock them into control.

    For example, electrical power is uniquely suited to an economy of small-scale local production. The main technological reason for the large-scale factory system was the need to economize on power from prime movers in the steam age, with a whole factory full of machines running off belts from a single drive shaft. The electric motor meant that a prime mover could be built into each machine, the machine scaled to production flow, production flow scaled to demand, and the point of production sited as closely as possible to the point of consumption. So the logical outcome would have been an “industrial district” model like contemporary Emilia-Romagna, with small-scale, general-purpose electrical machinery integrated into craft production for the local market — what Mumford called the neotechnic model.

    Unfortunately, the paleotechnic plutocratic and managerial classes shaped the conditions under which electrical power was integrated into manufacturing, and they chose to put new wine in old bottles.

  • Jeff Wermer

    Kevin,
    Thanks for the response.
    If I understand you correctly, there are philosophical underpinnings that make the state unjust and so there is a need to either minimize it or abolish it. Since this blog is concerned with meshing social justice with the minimal or non-existent state, I think one needs to argue that the stateless society can be just as just or more just, than the state-driven society. I’ve read on other posts here about how the free market could provide social justice, but there don’t seem to be any guarantees to it. I guess the argument, at least to convince someone like me, needs to go from “could” to “would.” How does one know that an anarchy would provide a sustainable system of social justice rather than the opposite? If the answer is that it really can’t guarantee one and that’s just the risk one takes with anarchy, then I think I’d rather stick to making government as just as possible, since it provides a way to enforce a system.
    As to your second point, what would an anarchy really look like, especially one that would employ a system of social justice. It seems like there would have to be some organization to it. Since Michels seems to equate organization with oligarchy, would it just dissolve into one or many oligarchies? Am I missing something?

  • Following up on Kevin’s remarks: The rigged start to industrialization (which Adam Smith acknowledged and decried) shaped the economic culture by making the small employer class and large employed class appear to be an unalterable part of the natural order. Unfortunately, too many pro-market economists reinforced that impression. This legacy is only beginning to erode with the computer/information revolution.

  • John: Like Dan, I still am unable to see a meaningful distinction between the modern liberal state and “alternative institutional forms.” What exactly are we talking about, and how exactly does it differ from the states we know?

  • Kevin:

    Most of your examples are very instructive and useful in guiding policymakers. But from the present-day perspective, “legacy effects” from centuries-dead laws are pretty much indistinguishable from social norms, which any formal social arrangement must find its own ways to navigate and utilize. There is no shortage of dead laws, and I feel that the general tendency over decades/centuries in the democratic tradition runs towards the empowerment of individuals and away from central managers. (Sheldon notes the IT revolution as a recent example, and I will add since 1800 the expansion of suffrage, the increased role of public consultations in policymaking, mass literacy, the rise and discrediting of communism and fascism, the women’s movement and civil rights movements in general, the flourishing of the independent press, etc.) In other words, the government gets more accountable over time if the governed will it so.

    Perhaps the only places the opposite movement has occurred over the past 200 years are wherever alien managerialist cultures imposed themselves from outside on top of the existing cultures, rather than arising from within (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, Native Americans, Australia).

    “First is the basic philosophical ground: self-ownership and the nonaggression principle.”

    And if a state, by its mechanisms, encourages self-ownership and nonaggression more than a stateless arrangement would, what then?

    “Second… you have problems clustered around Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy and the nature of government — as such — as something amenable mainly to control by a minority ruling class of one kind or another.”

    But doesn’t the Iron Law apply to all forms of organizations, even totally voluntary ones, and ones which anarchists would insist are distinct from a state? I am actually asking because I have only a passing familiarity with it.

  • Bob

    Andrew: “I feel that the general tendency over decades/centuries in the democratic tradition runs towards the empowerment of individuals and away from central managers.”

    I bet it’s nice to have feelings like that.

    As for your thoughts, you do cite some good examples to illustrate your point: expansion of suffrage, civil rights, the women’s movement, mass literacy, etc. I’m not sure how anybody could seriously maintain that individuals have not been “empowered” in any significant way over the last 200 years. It’s worth noticing, though, how little difference this might make to what the general trends have been and what the current situation is. While it’s true that more people can vote now than before, the gradual shift of control and activity from local to federal governments have ensured that each of our votes matters less and less when it comes to determining what kinds of laws and policies we will live under. The increased role of “public consultations” in policy making — if you really believe that such “consultations” play an important role in shaping actual policy — bears only a tenuous relationship to individual “empowerment,” if any at all: when lawmakers discuss policy openly before they make it, you might be better able to decide which oligarchic faction you will vote for next time around; but this hardly empowers you as an individual in any real way. With the “IT” revolution, you’re on to something, but it’s still important to remember that most of the computers we use are produced by a handful of companies and most of the profits horded by a very small group of individuals — so that now, when our government wants to think about education policy, it makes Bill Gates and Steve Jobs its advisers. Furthermore, there are many things to lament about the “IT revolution”: if you have not at least once had the sense that you were now controlled by your technology rather than “empowered” by it, then you are either a remarkably disciplined human being or remarkably obtuse.

    Note that I’m not defending anarchism or even libertarianism; I’m also not denying that there have been real gains in individual “empowerment” and freedom in the last 200 years. But if you think that History (er, I mean, “the democratic tradition”) is simply increasing the power of individuals and taking it away from “central managers,” then your attention is very selective.

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