Are States Irrational?

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October 11, 2007

In a recent essay here I suggested that the state (government, nation) is "an entity utterly irrational at its very root," and that raised a few eyebrows--so I thought to explain. The concerns were of this kind:

- Yes, the state is immoral at its root, because even when it seems benevolent (delivering welfare or medical care, for example), it uses force against innocents (having no money of its own to fund those services, it steals it). But does that also make it irrational?

- Yes, the state is entirely incompetent, usually producing the opposite of its stated objective and always necessarily operating at low cost-efficiency. But does that also make it irrational?

- Yes, the state is notoriously wasteful, often diverting resources into projects that no free market would choose to undertake. But does that also make it irrational? and

- Yes, states are historically lethal, having (according to R.J. Rummel) slaughtered 160 million civilians supposedly under their "protection," during the 20th Century alone--as well as tens of millions more in uniform. But does that also make them irrational?

One might well call to mind other gross failures and wicked attributes of the state and reason that when combined together, these do all form a pattern that is, indeed, irrational. Even so, I see a better way to make the case; even if, mirabile dictu, some state at some time on some distant planet were to conduct its affairs morally and efficiently and prudently and harmlessly, it would still be utterly irrational at its very root. Here's why.

The state--government--is sometimes defined as "that which has a legitimate monopoly on the use of force within a specific geographic area," but no government can ever be "legitimate" because (absent the god-hypothesis; see below) that would require an unanimous granting of such a status, and if members of society are unanimous, there can be no occasion to use force against them. Accordingly and like the Mafia, the state is something which imposes force on human beings regardless of their wishes, period.

Human beings, meanwhile, are entities with an absolute, axiomatic right to own and operate their own lives, i.e., not to be subject to outside coercion or force. Put the two together, and what we have is a logical contradiction: an entity that claims the right to enforce its will, over human beings who have an absolute right to submit to no will other than their own. This is the "garbage in" that pollutes each and every activity of government everywhere in every age, producing the kind of "garbage out" that we noted in the first few paragraphs above. This is the fundamental reason why the state is always and necessarily irrational.

There's no escape from this logical trap except to challenge the self-ownership axiom (which fails, because if you don't own you, who does or possibly can?) or to propose that the state does not need legitimizing by its subjects! And that is the option normally chosen. America 's founders tried to avoid a clear assertion of either kind, to weasel out of the obligation and fudge the question. In the Declaration of Independence, they wrote "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"--a deliberately vague, noncommittal phrase. Are governments so instituted because they are needful for that purpose, or was this merely an observation of historical fact--ahem, we notice that all societies have had governments, fancy that. And what are "just powers"? What can possibly be meant by the pure oxymoron "consent of the governed"? It looked grand, sounded sonorous, but meant nothing. It was a complete cop-out.

Then later in the preamble to the Constitution, they alleged that "We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America" along with the government it described; and as I noted here, in doing so they told one gigantic whopper. The American supra-state was not ordained and established by the people at all, but by a tiny subset of the people, carefully selected from among our political subspecies; every man Jack of them already believed in the myth of government and was debating only what particular form it should take.

So the abomination of an irrational state was thrust upon Americans by vacuous political slogans, then as now--and the slight suggestion that it had been put in place by Us Ourselves was complete nonsense. No human being in his right mind would ask to be ruled by someone else, even if such surrender of sovereignty were logically possible.

A fiction just as dishonest was used by governments preceding 1776: they said (though only if pushed; they seldom volunteered it lest their words should be rationally examined and found wanting) that their legitimacy came from a higher authority, and so didn't need any from the people. This too is irrational nonsense, for if a higher authority exists or existed, it would have been the government and not the King or other gang of thugs who claimed the right to rule. The neatest such deception (and the most popular, with plenty of echoes around to this day) was to hypothesize a God, Who in His wisdom had appointed said thug to his throne. Hey, God is the supreme being, and He has tapped Jones to be the ruler, so who are we the ruled to question the authority of the creator of the universe? Nice work, if you can get it.

That trick is really malodorous. A common version of it is that since Jones got the job (perhaps by murdering all his rivals), he must have been the one God selected! This reasoning is about as close to a perfect circle as one can get; whatever is, is right! It's the one employed by the Apostle Paul, in his infamous letter to Christians in Rome , who were having a real tough time of it under the savages of the Caesar: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1.) It's worth reading that verse in its context, to confirm that it does mean just what it says. So much for the Divine Right of Kings, and its sordid origin.

From that same passage, in context, comes the very widespread fiction that government is needed to suppress and punish wrongdoing--to provide justice. The underlying doctrine is that mankind is born in sin, with an inherent bias towards evil, and that wise, just, merciful rulers are appointed by the creator to correct the matter. Hogwash! The rulers are necessarily taken from the same allegedly tainted human stock as the ruled, and are therefore incapable (on that premise) of being any more wise or just or merciful than their victims. As a justification for a state, this is a logical non-starter, and in any case its premise is false. Man is obviously capable of evil, but the trait shows up only when he tries to rule someone else--in fact, such imposition of will is about the best definition of "evil" I have seen. The very act of acquiring power over others is what inclines a person towards evil, and the more he supposes the power to be legitimate, the more evil and mayhem he performs--as today's newspaper headlines will confirm.

Whichever way the statist wriggles, therefore, there is no escape: the state is utterly irrational in its very nature and essence, and the human race will never progress (or possibly, given the proliferation of government WMDs, even survive) until it is abolished outright, something I believe can be achieved quite soon and without violence. Any pro-freedom activity that aims for less than that is at least a distraction and waste of effort, and at worst tends to legitimize the very monstrosity that so urgently needs to disappear.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"