The State—Crown Jewel of Human Social Organization

Since the earliest stage of human history (say, the time of Cain and Abel), human beings have been homicidal maniacs. Yet, for untold ages, something was missing, something with the capacity to raise their murderous mania to truly magnificent heights. Only very late in human history—perhaps 10,000 years ago or thereabouts—did the long-awaited breakthrough take place: men finally devised the state. By employing its powers of organization, command, violence, and plunder, rulers could finally bask in the glories of heretofore undreamed-of atrocities. No longer did men have to rest content with workaday violence and manslaughter. Now they could achieve vastly more monstrous enormities than the evilest village bully had been able to achieve or even to conceive of previously.

Now human beings could attain real glory for the first time. Now the rise of empires lay within the realm of realistic ambition. Killing by the ones, tens, or hundreds no longer defined the limits of human wrath, because now killing by the thousands and tens of thousands became possible, along with enough rape and pillage to satisfy all but the most twisted psychopath. No longer did a man have to settle for murdering his brother, his wife, or his fellows in the nearby village. Now even huge numbers of remote strangers became fair game. Indeed, thanks to the state’s amazing capabilities, a ruler might now conceive of utterly annihilating an entire society.

No wonder people have looked on the state with such reverence and lavished on it their highest adoration and deepest loyalty. Every thinking man must perceive that without the state, the constricting limits of a man’s malevolence put almost unbearable pressure on his natural desire to slaughter his fellow man and to destroy every speck of his enemy’s property that he cannot loot or hold hostage for the payment of tribute.

With the rise of the state, statesmen became possible—men whose vision embraced truly grand adventures and enterprises in exploitation, oppression, plunder, and mass mayhem. And from the greatest statesmen the greatest empires might spring. What sorrow we must feel as we contemplate the bleak counter-factual of history without the great Roman Empire: we cannot begin to imagine any stateless society able to put even a tenth as many severed heads on pikes along the roads or to nail even a tenth as many men on crosses to endure prolonged suffering before they gratefully expire. Likewise for the great Chinese, Persian, Mongol, Aztec, Inca, and other empires that fill the pages of history, giving vivid color to what otherwise would have been a humdrum human experience of little more than economic, artistic, and literary creativity and peaceful cooperation, spiced with meaningless and petty acts of kindness and compassion toward one another. No individual, no family, and no gang could have wreaked such havoc as the great states and, a fortiori, the great empires. Only man’s ultimate achievement in social organization—the state—could have done the job.

So, the next time you happen across a neocon, a red-white-and-blue jingo, a military Keynesian, or a rock-solid supporter of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, stop and shake his hand. Give him proper appreciation for his service as the living embodiment of the ideology and the institution that finally allowed the human species to break the bonds that had constrained it from time immemorial and hence finally to achieve the greatest heights of atrocity, death, and spoliation. Credit where credit is due, my friends.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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