The Power of the State versus the Power of Love

For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that society must invest great power in the rulers because only great power can hold back the forces of evil—violence, plunder, and disorder. They have often conceded, of course, that this solution does have an unfortunate aspect, namely, that with great power, the rulers themselves may resort to violence and plunder and hence create disorder. This defect of the proposed solution deserves, they have counseled, continuing reflection, but by and large they have dealt with it by whistling and gazing at their sandals.

Meanwhile, all the positive, productive forces of society continued to reside, as they always have, within the people themselves. All the genuine peace, cooperation, production, and order the society enjoyed sprang from them. So the state was not a solution to a problem the people could not solve for themselves, but itself a problem masquerading as the only solution to problems whose real solutions already lay close at hand, if they existed at all. (Some social “problems” have no “solution,” properly speaking; they are merely aspects of unalterable reality—unavoidable risks, trade-offs, and so forth.)

Given that creation has more value than destruction, how did it come to pass that the state—an institution based on violence and plunder—has overridden peaceful cooperation as the dominant factor in social life virtually everywhere on earth? This simple question requires, I think, a complex answer. Yet it seems clear enough that the rulers have used fear—of themselves and of other dangers known and unknown—to terrorize the people and convince them that they were incapable of providing the security that only the state can provide. First through fear alone, then through (complementary) religion, and ultimately through (complementary) ideology, the people’s beliefs were twisted into the forms compatible with the rulers, the priests, and the military elite’s living at the expense of the plundered masses, who were kept in line more by false beliefs than by raw force.

So it remains today. Fear and fear-mongering lead the people to acquiesce in their rulers’ bullying and plundering up to the very margin of the people’s toleration. This margin, however, can be pushed out by new fears and new fear-mongering and kept from receding by a constant drum-beat of reminders that people are at great risk and that they must allow the state to exercise new powers to protect them.

Is any feasible alternative conceivable?

Hardheaded people mock the idea that “love is the answer” to the people’s dire situation. They insist that evil forces and evil men are afoot in the world, men who care nothing for love and seek only vile ends, and that such malevolence can be fended off effectively only by meeting it with adequate force and violence. Thus does the widening “security gap” fuel a race to the bottom in which the ostensible protectors become more and more indistinguishable from the alleged evil men who seek to hurt us. We see, then, that by meeting evil only with the rulers’ upward ratcheting force and violence and their upward ratcheting suppression of our liberties and our means of self-protection, the ultimate goal—a social environment of security and peaceful cooperation—only recedes farther and farther from realization as the state destroys, as it were, one free village after another in order, it claims, to save it.

Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Of course, people, even most Christians, no doubt, will say that this admonition, however lovely it might sound in a sermon, is  utterly impractical, that behaving in accordance with it would leave us entirely at the mercy of those who seek to harm us. Yes, perhaps it would.

Yet, here we are, inhabitants of a world divided in countless ways by mutual hatreds, misunderstandings, and yearnings for vengeance. Because each society is subject to a state whose own interests are served by keeping this vicious pot boiling, we have no prospect whatever of ever breaking out of the endless cycle of evil, violence, and retribution. In the process, the whole world forgoes the immense blessings that would flow from mutual cooperation, peace, and tolerance.

Individuals may rest their personal lives on love and thereby find the peace that seemingly evades all philosophical and sociological understanding in relation to social affairs. Whatever wise men and women may understand and practice in their own lives, however, the Hobbesian analysis, more or less, holds the great thinkers in its iron grip, and those who recommend love are dismissed as muddle-headed and simplistic. Yet, to repeat, here we are, inhabitants of a world made no better by our hanging on the words of the greatest political philosophers, statesmen, and international-relations experts. In their views, the state is a given, and their analyses proceed from its nature and functioning. Perhaps this point of departure is their root error: that they take for granted what most needs to be challenged.

Sophomores sometimes joke, “Yeah, love is the answer, all right, but what is the question?” However unwittingly, they may have stumbled toward the crux of the matter. So long as the state goes along its way—intrinsically a way of violence, plunder, and insolence—and we seek only solutions to our pressing social problems in its context, we are doomed not to second-best or third-best solutions, but to “solutions” that are really nothing of the sort, but only at best momentary rest stops on the highway to our continuing degradation and ultimate demise. Destruction is what states do (or threaten to do); and destruction is what they will continue to do; it is the nature of the beast. As technology bulks up state powers, the only end of this terrible sequence must be our complete destruction.

Love turns us in the opposite direction. It seeks to build up, whereas the state seeks to overawe and kill in the service of the self-interested elites who control it and at the expense of the people at large. Love knows no need for flaunting its powers, for flexing its violent muscles, for taking vengeance time and again. Love intends the good of the other for its own sake, not as a means toward the end of one’s own aggrandizement. Love is patient; power is impatient and easily provoked. Love does not keep score; international rivalries count the score in many, many dimensions. Love leads to inner peace; the nation-state remains always at war, if not against other states, then certainly against its own subjects, on whom it preys ceaselessly in order to gain its own sustenance and to gratify the rulers’ vaulting and grandiose ambitions for personal acclaim and merciless power.

Hardheaded people will say, of course, that in socio-political life, love just doesn’t work. Well, power in the hands of the rulers surely does work. That’s the trouble.

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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