Why the Precautionary Principle Counsels Us to Renounce Statism

Propose that the state be replaced by genuine self-government and immediately people come forth with a litany of objections—your proposal is a pipe dream; it is untried; it would never work; it fails to solve problem R and problem S; and so forth. So the objectors, however much they may concede that the state conducts itself atrociously, always conclude that they prefer it to any proposed alternative.

What none of the objectors ever recognizes, in my experience, is that retention of the state as it now exists and conducts itself is practically a guarantee of humanity’s ultimate destruction. Why? Because state leaders, especially in the so-called “great powers,” are drawn to destructive weapons more instinctively than moths are drawn to a fire. Indeed, not only do they clamor to obtain the currently most destructive weapons, but they invest huge amounts of resources in the search for even more destructive weapons (see, for example, the painstaking study of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal by Stephen I. Schwartz and his collaborators). The leading powers have built up stupendous arsenals of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), far more than enough to destroy civilization on earth. A glance back through history strongly suggests that state leaders who possess the most destructive weapons will, sooner or later, use them. Therefore, as the mad scientists at work in the military-industrial-congressional complex continue to create ever more horrifying weapons, we can be virtually certain that ultimately those weapons will be used. Eventually a weapon with the capacity to destroy human life will be devised and used—indeed, an all-out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR, an event that was averted only by the narrowest of margins on several occasions, might have been sufficient to destroy humanity, owing to its effects on global climate, especially its creation of “nuclear winter.”

So, statists of all stripes (including classical liberals), by all means continue to reject genuine self-government and carry on with support of your blessed state. But know well that you are flirting with the most horrifyingly destructive institution ever devised, one that will almost certainly annihilate everyone in the end. Statist ideologies justify and support the state as a military/bureaucratic apparatus whose leaders are not held to the moral standards to which all other persons are commonly held. By making this wholly unwarranted moral distinction, the adherents of such ideologies place state leaders in a position to prepare for and to carry out actions that, if committed by anyone else, would be recognized immediately as the most egregious crimes against humanity. Statism, which leads people to tolerate the development, deployment, and use of WMDs, poses a grave threat to the survival of the human species.

Given that the state is a vicious institution even in the absence of this danger and that, contrary to statist ideologies, it is neither necessary nor desirable for the maintenance of peaceful and prosperous societies, the risk that the state poses on account of its WMDs is one that decent, rational people should not tolerate.

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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