Demystifying the State (Wendy McElroy)
Monday July 2nd, 2012
Mystification is the process by which the commonplace is elevated to the level of the divine by those who have a vested interest in its unassailability. Government is a perfect example of mystification at work. Government is a group of individuals organized for the purpose of extracting wealth and exerting power over people and resources in a given geographic area. Ordinarily people object to and resist thieves and robbers; but in the case of government, they do not because the government has created a mystique of legitimacy about its activities.
“Government is founded on opinion,” wrote William Godwin. “A nation must have learned to respect a king, before a king can exercise any authority over them.” Past governments used the divine right of kings, by which monarchs claimed the divinity of being appointed to rule by God, as a means of instilling this respect; rebellion against the king became rebellion against the will of God. Contemporary governments have replaced this with the legitimacy derived from such concepts as “democracy,” “equality,” the “motherland,” or the “American way of life.” Such patriotic concepts have the ability to rouse feelings of awe and reverence in the population. These reactions are ingeniously channeled to support the government, and in turn help create the mystique of legitimacy which governments need to survive.
In a libertarian context, the issue of state legitimacy reduces to one question: Does any individual or group have the right to initiate force? For the libertarian, it is always illegitimate to initiate force against nonaggressors. Libertarianism is the political philosophy based on the concept of self-ownership; that is, every human being, simply by being a human being, has moral justification over his or her own body. This jurisdiction, which is called individual rights, cannot properly be violated, for this would be tantamount to claiming that human beings are not self-owners.
If individuals cannot properly violate rights, then it cannot be proper for any organization or group of individuals to do so. Certainly the number of people involved in initiating aggression has no bearing on whether or not the violation of rights is legitimate. This was clearly pointed out by a 17th-century libertarian who wrote:
What can be more absurd in nature and contrary to all common sense than to call him Thief and kill him that comes alone with a few to rob me; and to call him Lord Protector and obey him that robs me with regiments and troops? As if to rove with 2 or 3 ships were to be a Pirate, but with 50 an Admiral? But if it be the number of adherents only, not the cause, that makes the difference between a Robber and a Protector: I will that number were defined, that the Prince begins. And be able to distinguish between a Robbery and a Tax. Without a doubt, the most effective method by which the state creates a mystique is through control of education. The evolution of compulsory state-controlled schooling reads like a history of political maneuvering, in which the goal of teaching children literacy skills plays a minor role. Public education is by no means inept or disordered as it is made out to be. It is an ice- cold, superb machine designed to perform one very important job. The problem is not that public schools do not work well, but rather that they do. The first goal and primary function of schools is not to educate good people, but good citizens. It is the function which we normally label state indoctrination.
The early supporters of state education understood this. Horace Mann, for example, a 19th-century supporter of public education, saw it as a means of assimilating foreign elements into an otherwise established Protestant, puritan culture. With regard to the Irish Catholics, Mann maintained:
With the old not much can be done; but with their children, the great remedy is education. The rising generation must be taught as our children are taught. We say must be, because in many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. . . . Children must be gathered up and forced into schools and those who resist and impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished. From their inception, public schools were a form of social control. One Irish newspaper, which represented those children being unwillingly assimilated, observed:
The general principle upon which these compulsory schooling laws are based is radically unsound, untrue, and A-theistical. . . . It is that the education of children is not the work of the Church, or of the Family, but that it is the work of the State. In contrast to the xenophobic fever with which many native Americans rushed to impose their cultural preferences upon immigrants, libertarians condemned state schools. Josiah Warren compared them to “paying the fox to take care of the chickens.” He realized that state control of education, like state control of religion, would create an orthodoxy which would suppress dissenting views. It would become a bureaucracy to serve the interest of the bureaucrats and those who ultimately controlled the state apparatus. When the statists insisted that compulsory, regulated education was necessary because people could not distinguish truth from falsehood and might be led astray, Herbert Spencer countered: “There is hardly a single department of life over which, for similar reasons, legislative supervision has not been, nor may be, established.”
Today, the ideal of social control through education has been realized. Like Pavlovian dogs, children enter and exit schools to the sound of bells. They begin each day by pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and by singing the national anthem. Through political science and history classes, which present severely slanted history, they are taught to revere democracy and the Constitution. School is “the twelve-year sentence” during which children are molded into good citizens. Indeed, as we have seen, the chief function of education is to train obedient citizens. “It is inevitable that compulsory, state-regulated schooling will reflect the philosophy of the status quo,” commented historian Joel Spring. “It is after all those who have political and social power who gain the most benefit from the existing political climate and depend on its continuation.” In practical terms, the public school system has assumed the role of an official church by imbuing its subjects with a genuflecting respect for the state.
The state projects an image of massive strength, the image of a self-perpetuating, self-contained institution upon whose goodwill the people depend. In fact, the reverse is true. Government rests upon the goodwill of the people. Without their support, it becomes fragile and will eventually disintegrate. A government is no more powerful than the human resources, the skills, the knowledge, and attitudes of obedience it commands. Every dollar the state spends has been taken from an individual. It has no resources of its own. Every law it maintains is enforced by an individual. As Etienne de la Boetie observed of the state: “He who abuses you so has only two eyes, has but two hands, one body, and has naught but what the least man . . . except for the advantage you give him to destroy.” That advantage is what we call the sanction of the victim or the consent which the oppressed must give to their oppressors.
Libertarianism is a direct attack upon the mystique of the state. It recognizes that the state is only an abstraction and reduces it to the actions of individuals. It applies the same standard of morality to the state as it would to a next-door neighbor. If it is not proper for a neighbor to tax or pass laws regulating your private life, then it cannot be proper for the state to do so. Only by elevating itself above the standards of personal morality can the state make these claims on your life. . . .
Conservatives and liberals demand different varieties of law and order without regard to the fact that the ultimate in order may be found in a concentration camp. On the surface, it might seem that conservatives and liberals are engaged in deadly combat, but they are actually in fundamental agreement on one crucial methodological point: namely, that the state is a proper means of achieving social change–that the use of force legitimized by the state is a proper way of controlling other people’s peaceful activities. This is their fundamental disagreement with libertarianism.
William Godwin formulated the libertarian rejection of force in epistemological terms:
Force is an expedient, the use of which must be deplored. It is contrary to the intellect, which cannot be improved but by conviction and persuasion. Violence corrupts the man who employs it and the man upon whom it is employed. The battle against statism today is not a battle against any particular politician. The issue is deeper. It is a battle against a way of thinking, a way of viewing the state. The main victory of the state has been within the minds of the people who obey. In commenting on the British rule over India, Leo Tolstoy wrote:
A commercial company enslaves a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what those words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men . . . have subdued two hundred million? Do the figures make clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves? People today enslave themselves when all that freedom requires is the word “No.
Wendy McElroy is Author, lecturer, and freelance writer, and a senior associate of the Laissez Faire Club.