Column by Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski.
Exclusive to STR
It seems scarcely an exaggeration to say that today’s inhabited world is almost universally statist. Thus, the task facing libertarians remains comprehensive and formidable. Since the shape of social reality is ultimately determined by the ideas people hold, undermining the influence of any given doctrine requires prior understanding of the reasons for both its active espousal and its passive acceptance. Consequently, in order to oppose statism effectively, it is necessary to get a grasp of the factors that make the societies of the world endorse or at least consent to the existence of centralized monopolies of aggression, violence and coercion. What follows is my attempt at compiling a succinct list of what appear to me to be the main driving forces behind the phenomenon just described:
1. Intellectual propaganda. The statized education system managed to accomplish a formidable task of creating a number of very potent mental viruses – the theory of social contract, the theory of public and collective goods, the theory of political obligation, various theories of monopoly and other “market failures,” various theories of “positive legislation,” the doctrine of the divine right of kings, etc. The examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. To non-intellectuals, these propagandist concoctions oftentimes seem to be serious, rational justifications for obeying the dictates of monopolies of force. To intellectuals, on the other hand, even if they see the (quite flagrant) logical inadequacies of these sophistical constructions, their adoption and propagation usually appears to be one of the safest ways to secure permanent, lucrative and influential job positions.
2. Emotional propaganda. People whose life is by their own admission bland and uninteresting often turn their attention to the antics of various celebrities. Statism never fails to jump on this opportunity to make people emotionally attached to public figures by trying to confer as much notability as possible on politicians, bureaucrats and other high-ranking representatives of the apparatus of institutionalized violence. As a result, the majority of the state’s subjects fall prey to the large-scale version of the Stockholm Syndrome, feeling genuine sympathy for their oppressors even if they do not belong to their immediate electoral clientele.
3. Self-deception. It would seem quite natural to suppose that for the majority of right-minded, decent people the realization that one is being systematically robbed and threatened with severe violence in case of non-subordination is abhorrent to the point of being psychologically unbearable. And yet, since this is precisely what happens under statism, a natural psychological self-defense mechanism for such people is to engage in self-deception and attempt to justify the systematic depravities inflicted upon them. Thus, they are browbeaten into accepting the double “morality” that every rationalization for the ethical distinction between the rulers and the ruled has to rely on.
4. Simple ignorance. It is a sad testimony to the quality of intellectual perspicacity of the majority of the human race that in principle statism can flourish even in the absence of any additional intellectual propaganda on the part of its adherents. As was acutely observed by Bastiat (and reiterated by Hazlitt), it is enough for people to look only at the short-term consequences of a given action, or only at its consequences for a given group, to accept the notion that the apparatus of institutional coercion can create prosperity for some without destroying the prosperity of others. It is of course imperative for the statists to exploit these widespread cognitive deficiencies to the utmost extent.
5. Fear. This element could be understood in a twofold manner. On the one hand, it is fear of responsibility for one’s own life and its shape, which culminates in the conviction that it is desirable to be able to have recourse to an institution capable of forcibly shifting this responsibility onto others. On the other hand, it is a more general horror vacui – fear of independent thinking and acting, fear of living in a world devoid of any ultimate temporal disciplinarian, whose final, indisputable argument is the authoritative argumentum ad baculum, the ability to subordinate a recalcitrant reality by means of legalized (or even sanctified) coercion. After all, it might be quite dispiriting to realize how difficult it would be to accomplish one’s wishes were they not aligned with those of the unquestionable institution just mentioned.
6. Laziness. Drawing on Oppenheimer’s distinction between the economic means and the political means, it can immediately be noticed that using the former to earn one’s bread is time- and effort-consuming, whereas the latter – as soon as the apparatus of institutionalized violence is already in place – can be utilized relatively quickly and effortlessly. Modern-day social democracy epitomizes the redistributive function of the political means. If one can regularly “vote himself” the property of others rather than obtain it through voluntary exchange of independently produced, valuable goods, why shouldn’t he – in the absence of any inhibiting scruples – opt for the former alternative and support the system that enshrines it?
7. Envy. The egalitarian ideology of modern statism, based on the coercive demand that the stream of politically redistributed goods and valuables flow specifically into the hands of those who did nothing to deserve their acquisition, is exceptionally useful in channeling envy and dog-in-the-manger resentment into support for the system that institutionalizes these low and base instincts. Unlike meritocracy, whose results come about through the medium of the totality of voluntary interpersonal interactions, egalitarianism needs to marry statism in order to achieve its envy-driven aims. And since envy is unfortunately a very widespread characteristic, we should not be surprised by the level of backing for the monopolization and centralization of force that it generates.
8. Lust for power. There might be good evolutionary reasons for the contention that human beings are naturally prone to trying to dominate their fellow brothers and sisters. Perhaps noticing that others enjoy a higher standard of living, and consequently higher chances of passing their genes into the future, creates in many an instinctive eagerness to gain similar opportunities in the most convenient manner, even if that means forcibly appropriating someone else’s resources. Be that as it may, we should not forget that a rational morality can be argued to be precisely the tool for disposing of some of the more questionable elements of our putative evolutionary inheritance.
9. Habituation. Statism and its destructive offspring – war, slavery, expropriation and intellectual corruption – have proven themselves to be very resilient and long-lived social plagues. Consequently, it is relatively easy for statists to describe these phenomena as historical, civilizational or even metaphysical necessities. Furthermore, the apparent robustness of monopolies of force allows its rulers and employees to depict non-statist social arrangements as, at best, a radical an precarious unknown, and, at worst, a system prone to endless conflict of everyone against all. Under such conditions, becoming aware and convinced of the viability of voluntarist alternatives, as well as working towards their implementation, is all the more difficult.
10. Resignation. The ultimate goal of statism is to throw every single individual into the state of passivity and lethargic inaction as regards the efforts to shake the parasitic classes off one’s back. This goal is exemplified by fostering the all too known “taxes and death” attitude. Thus, even those unconvinced of the moral or economic necessity of the existence of monopolistic apparatuses of coercion, or even those actively opposed to their existence on intellectual grounds, are supposed to reconcile themselves to the fact that their doubts and objections have absolutely no influence on the shape of binding social arrangements, neither today nor at any time in the future.
Having clearly identified the above factors, libertarians should be able to pursue their fundamental aims with much greater efficiency. As I emphasized at the outset, social reality is ultimately shaped by the ideas held by its inhabitants. Pinpointing the most prevailingly pernicious among them should make it far easier for the supporters of freedom to counter their symptoms and fight their root causes successfully.