State Power and How It Might Be Undermined

State power is the most dangerous force in modern life. State rulers, seeking their own aggrandizement and enrichment, employ this power systematically to plunder and abuse their subjects. Of course, they cannot act in this way without the assistance of many others, among whom some assist willingly, some in return for adequate compensation, and many only under duress.

To maintain their grip on power, state rulers (1) bamboozle as many subjects as possible; (2) co-opt those whose cooperation or support is essential by bribing them with various sorts of payoffs; (3) intimidate those who are not essential and not fooled by threatening them with fines, imprisonment, and other punishments; and (4) kill those who are not essential, are not fooled, and will not bend to intimidation.

Anyone who seeks to stymie or overturn state power must block these state actions or render them less effective. Resisters therefore have many options.

First, they may work to reduce the number of people who succumb to the rulers’ bamboozlement by exposing the rulers’ lies, spreading truthful information, and revealing the rulers’ venality and cynical disregard of the people’s natural rights and the general public interest. People may withdraw their children from government schools and teach them at home; they may spread truthful information about the horrors of the state and the glories of freedom by means of the Internet and the World Wide Web. In short, people may use the word processor that is mightier than the Predator drone (formerly the pen that is mightier than the sword) as well as face-to-face communication to reeducate those who have been taught, conditioned, and forced to drink’s the rulers’ Kool-Aid.

Second, resisters may alter the incentives of those who cooperate or support the state in return for various payoffs. For example, companies that seek contracts with the government or privileges gained via regulation, tariff protection, or other anti-social means might be boycotted. If this effort caught on, companies would be put in a position of having to choose between the profits to be gained by serving the state and the profits to be gained by serving consumers in a free market. Just as today many sellers certify that their produce is organic and thereby gain sales at the expense of sellers who cannot make this claim, sellers might certify, via independent third-party certification agencies in the free market, that they are free of government contamination—that is, that they have neither sought nor accepted any contract or privilege from the government.

Those who are currently co-opted by the state might also be subjected to public condemnation, denunciation, and shunning, not only commercially but socially. If a company works with the government’s armed forces or its spy agencies, for example, people might treat its owners, executives, and workers as the untouchables were treated in the classic Indian caste system. No matter how much the government offered in pay and perks, some people might be unwilling to invest in or work for companies if such an association would make them social pariahs.

Third, subjects who are currently intimidated by the state’s threats of fines, imprisonment, and other punishments might be encouraged by the proliferation of black markets and by the establishment of organizations dedicated to assisting them in their efforts to escape such punishment. Of course, many people already use the services of lawyers, tax advisers, investment advisers, and accountants to help them avoid taxes. Such services might be expanded greatly to assist people in their efforts to circumvent punitive regulations and other punitive state actions. In the extreme, people might build a virtual “parallel universe” in which their economic and social life could proceed on the free side of a de facto barrier against state intrusion.

Fourth, in response to the state’s resort to killing those who will not bend to its intimidation, the best course of action is probably emigration. Truly massive emigration takes many exploitable human beings beyond the effective reach of the tyrants. It also sets in motion a virtuous feedback mechanism in which the population losers have an incentive to lighten their oppression and the population gainers have an incentive to maintain a freer economic and social environment in order to attract even more productive people whose activities have wealth-enhancing spillover effects in the destination venue. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this kind of feedback sustained the transfer of more than 30 million productive people from Europe to the United States and played a major role in the USA’s rise to economic predominance in the world. People remain, in Julian Simon’s happy turn of phrase, the ultimate resource.

Much more might be said about efforts to undercut the sources of state power. The foregoing discussion barely scratches the surface. My aim here is only to clarify the main sources of state power and to point toward ways in which these sources can be undermined or eliminated in order to expand the scope of genuine freedom.

Addendum: Please note that I have said nothing about the use of violence against the state. In general, I oppose such violence. The rulers of leviathan states such as the USA love nothing more than violent resistance. They can deal with such forms of resistance readily by bringing their overwhelming advantages in the use to violence to bear by means of police and, if need be, military forces. Moreover, in doing so, they can teach the false lesson that they are the true protectors of the public against those who threaten the social order by resorting to violence. They thereby encourage the public to think of the violent resisters as the crazies and of the state authorities and their police as the sane and peaceful ones, notwithstanding that the state is nothing if not a massive, bureaucratically organized means of threatening or wielding violence against innocent people in order to plunder and bully them.

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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