Why People Tolerate a Total State

by Wendy McElroy
Jun. 25, 2013

“Why do so many people not realize America has become a total state?”

Anyone who points out the politically obvious and is accused of panic-mongering has considered this question. The NSA's massive spying, the TSA frisking their children, the IRS targeting people politically, the longest war in American history, the militarization of law enforcement, the indefinite detention of prisoners at Gitmo...nothing, nothing seems to budge some people from the belief that the US is the freest, grandest nation on earth. It is an article of faith as deeply held as any belief in God.

But why?

Libertarian Class Analysis

There is no one answer but a good place to start is with a libertarian theory of class analysis. Karl Marx is usually credited with originating class analysis and the Marxist version is the one that most commonly comes to mind. Namely, people are classified based on their relationship to the means of production. Are you a worker or a capitalist?

But class analysis as an analytic tool did not originate with Marx. It was produced by 19th century radical liberal (that is, libertarian) historians who wrote in post-Napoleonic France: Charles Comte, Augustin Thierry and Charles Dunoyer. Their mentor was the great classical liberal economist J.B. Say. Perhaps the best presentation of this version of class analysis occurs in Franz Oppenheimer's book The State. Here he presents the two antagonistic principles upon which most societies operate: the economic and the political means. Or Society and the State.

Oppenheimer wrote, “I mean by Society, the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man.” It consists collectively of all voluntary exchanges of labor and goods, including intangible 'goods' like culture. It is a productive and peaceful means that brings mutual benefit to all involved or no exchange would occur.

Oppenheimer wrote, “I mean by it [the State] that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power.” It consists of the systematic appropriation of labor and goods, including intangible ones like freedom of speech. It is a non-productive and violent means that benefits the thieves and harms the productive.

This one insight is the basis of libertarian class analysis: Society and the State were in basic and constant conflict with each other. The analysis classifies people based on their relationship to productivity. Are you part of an industrious Society or do you belong to the parasitic State?

Oppenheimer explained the social dynamics set in motion by the political means. Parasites naturally multiply and drain ever more resources. As the political means comes to dominate, however those who produce means see an ever diminishing return from their productivity and, so, they have little incentive to labor beyond subsistence. Society stagnates, which means there is less for the parasite to drain. And, yet, the State is now bloated and it needs an increasing amount of resources. Since it no longer has the consent and cooperation of the productive section, it must use conquest. The American State is at the stage of attempting to conquer American Society.

The Political Means Dominates America

The State is not merely the politicians and officials who run the visible structure of government. It includes every civil servant and bureaucrat. The largest employer in America is the federal government. According to the Office of Personnel Management, there were approximately 2.79 million civil servants as of December 2011. But this number is for “civilian” personnel only and does not include uniformed civil servants, such as law enforcement. Of course, every state, county and city ratchets up the civil servant count with their own employees.

The State also includes the people whose political support is purchased by the stolen labor and goods, such as disability recipients. The ranks of these recipients is swelling as the individual states aggressively encourage the unemployed to pursue disability (a federal expense). For example, in New Mexico, the number of disability recipients jumped 58.7% in nine years. NPR recently (03/22/13) ran an in-depth analysis that estimated the total number of people on disability to be “about 14 million Americans who don't have jobs and who don't show up in any of the unemployment measures we use.” Disability is only one 'welfare' program among dozens and dozens.

The State includes people ostensibly in the private sector whose job is to facilitate the theft of labor and goods – for example, lawyers who hit productive businesses with dubious suits based on Nanny State laws. Employees in the military-industrial complex, suppliers to the military, subsidized banks and corporations, the list of those who survive on tax money goes on and on.

This is the first reason why so many people will never recognize that America is deteriorating; it is not deteriorating for them because they are the beneficiaries of the political means, and the police state works to their advantage. They benefit through money and pensions but many also benefit through acquiring status or power over others. A vast number of government employees could never earn these advantages based on merit in the private sector. They have a deep vested interest in not seeing themselves as the enemies of Society. Nor are their families likely to turn against the source of food on their tables.

The Tipping Point Theory

But why are people who are not tax consumers seemingly blind to the danger of the present State? Among the many explanations, I think three are commonplace.

They may not be blind but merely silent.

Or they may not be discontented. The Austrian economist Murray Rothbard once told me how his parents lived far better during the Great Depression than they had before it. They both held onto decent jobs and prices were very low. Such people are not fertile for a discussion about the economic calamity being inflicted by a State under which they prospered.

Equally, people who have never experienced the direct violence of the state are inclined to dismiss disturbing reports from those who have. As long as they live in relative comfort, these people allow the State to process their lives. They go about the business of living instead of focusing on matters they do not control. For many, it will take a tipping within their own lives or within society at large for the business of living to include a recognition of how dangerous the State can be.

A tipping point is the critical point at which an accumulation of minor changes triggers a major and often irreversible one. The build up to a social tipping point occurs on an individual basis. The Arab Spring is an example. Enough people became individually dissatisfied to form a mass protest movement. And it happened with sudden ease. The key is “enough individuals” need to become dissatisfied for a tipping point to occur. Before it happens, however, the people who simply want to live will tend to ignore political problems out of a feeling of isolation or helplessness. Afterward, some will awaken. Perhaps they will be appalled at the brutality the State heaps upon those who challenge it, perhaps a family member will become involved in a protest, perhaps they will simply cease to feel helpless..


I suspect America is close to a social tipping point. If so, it will be caused by a bloated State consuming more and more from a Society that is already half on its knees.

How many individuals need to feel the tipping point within themselves for it occur in a general manner? The nineteenth century libertarian Benjamin Tucker estimated the figure at 10%. If 10% of society said “no” to a law, then the law would become unenforceable. The number or percentage is impossible to measure, of course, but it is almost certain to be far, far less than 50%. Fortunately, history has rarely required a majority for social change to occur.

Whether or not the outcome of such a tip would be Society or more of the State depends as much upon how many people become reluctant to say “yes” as much as it does upon the 10% who say “no.”
Wendy McElroy is a frequent Dollar Vigilante contributor and renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is "The Art of Being Free". Follow her work at http://www.wendymcelroy.com.

All original InformationLiberation articles CC 4.0

About Us - Disclaimer - Privacy Policy