Montreal, July 6, 2002  /  No 106  
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Pierre Lemieux is an economist and an author.
by Pierre Lemieux
          It can be shown that the state is fundamentally flawed: it is based on coercion, and cannot but favour some individuals and groups at the expense of others.(1) Can we get rid of the beast – the Minotaur,(2) as Bertrand de Jouvenel called it? We really have two different questions here: First, should we get rid of the beast? Second, would we be able to? 
          The answer to the question of whether we should get rid of the state is yes if, and only if, the state is not indispensable to efficient social cooperation; if, and only if, other non-state, voluntary institutions could control hobbesian violence.  
An accident of history 
          There are many theoretical reasons to believe that the state could be dispensed with, that it is an accident of history or, perhaps, an inevitable stage, but only a stage, in the development of mankind. One strand of argument, illustrated by David Friedman's work, points out to the feasibility of private protection arrangements and the private production of justice.(3) We have partial historical examples of that, like the prosecution of felons by private prosecution associations in 18th-century England.(4) A second strand of argument invokes the more general idea of spontaneously evolved social order – I am tempted to say, à la Hayek, even if Hayek himself and his followers do not go as far as anarcho-capitalism.(5) A related strand of argument based on game theory shows how social rules and institutions spontaneously develop to solve complex problems of social cooperation of the prisoner-dilemma type.(6) Of course, a stateless society could only be anarcho-capitalist, not anarchist in the old, collectivist sense, which assumed that peace and equality would miraculously obtain.  
          The problem is that we really don't know whether the state is indispensable or not, because we have no experience of anarcho-capitalist societies – or at least no experience of a modern, complex, anarcho-capitalist society – and no way to test the theory against reality. Until anarcho-capitalism has been tried, we cannot be sure that a stateless society is consistent with efficient social order. A few examples of unsolved problems: Would private protection agencies be able to deter aggressions from foreign gangs of thugs called states? Is private property useable without some public spaces? Are we sure that, as Rothbard argues, the worst that could happen if we tried anarchy would be a return to the state we now have?(7) Perhaps yes, perhaps no.  
          This empirical uncertainty – the fact that we cannot talk about anarcho-capitalism without a lot of "should"s – has led me to be more prudent than I once was about the anarchist solution. The only way to know whether anarchy is efficient is to experiment it, but it is not obvious how this can be done in a world infested by organized gangs of thugs called states: it is far from certain that an isolated anarcho-capitalist society could resist invasion. Moreover, it is far from certain that any given state would accept to be dissolved. So, even if we should abolish the state, it is not clear that we can. This answers our second question: it will be difficult to get rid of the state because the states will probably not let the experiment proceed without a good fight. And when states fight, they often don't do it with exhortations and roses.  
     « It will be difficult to get rid of the state because the states will probably not let the experiment proceed without a good fight. And when states fight, they often don't do it with exhortations and roses. »
          Besides our lack of experimental knowledge of modern stateless societies, there is another problem that casts some doubt on our capacity to abolish the state, at least in the near future. This problem is that the state generates the conditions for its own indispensability. The habit of living under the state diminishes the individuals' capacity to fend for themselves, in the sense that private rules and institutions that help to solve social problems have been destroyed, or prevented from developing. For example, private solutions to health care production are unknown in many countries; in fact, in no Western country is there a completely free health care sector. Or think about how private education and the family have been strangled by state intervention. Constant state interventions and propaganda may even shift individual preferences in favour of statist solutions. Individuals end up being incapable of conceiving non-coercive solutions to the problems of social life.  
          An interesting example of how regulation creates the conditions of its perpetuation is car driving in Albania. "Before the fall of communism," explained a Wall Street Journal reporter, "being a driver was a well-regarded profession. If an applicant had a good biografi, or official record, his name was forwarded to the military for approval. Training lasted a year and a half." Private ownership of cars was prohibited and, in 1990, there were only 5,300 cars and trucks in a country of 3.3 million inhabitants. With the fall of the regime, cars flowed into the country, and repressed people hit the roads. The number of deaths per vehicle climbed to at least six times the U.S. figure. Of course, people clamoured for state intervention to solve the problem.(8)  
          If it is difficult to see how the state could be abolished, it is even more difficult to see how civilization could survive the monstrous states that are being built since the first third of the 20th century. Benito Mussolini hoped that the 20th century would be "the century of the State,"(9) and unfortunately his hopes were realized. It is also difficult to see how a minimal state can remain minimal, as the experience of the last hundred years shows so vividly. And how can we imagine the future of mankind with the crude, coercive, brute institution called the state? We thus have the following conundrum. On the one hand, we don't really know if the state can be dispensed with, and we cannot conduct the experiments that would settle the question. On the other hand, we know how the state is dangerous, and it is difficult to imagine the future of mankind under the yoke of Leviathan.  
          The only solution seems to lie in creating conditions under which the state can be diminished until, hopefully, it will eventually wither away (as Marx hoped). Whatever we think of the size of the ideal state – say, from 0% to 10% of national production, as opposed to the actual 50% – we should work towards diminishing state power. And, of course, no measure should be approved, under any circumstance, that would give any new power to our kindler and gentler police states.  
1. See my conference at the Youth for Liberty Summer Camp, May 25, 2002, reproduced as "Explaining the State," Laissez-Faire Electronic Times, Vol. 1, No. 17 (June 10, 2002), at>>
2. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993; first French edition: 1945), p. 3. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a monster shaped half like a man and half like a bull who, in the labyrinth built by Daedalus, was fed a periodical tribute of youths and maidens.  >>
3.David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (2nd Edition, La Salle, Il.: Open Court, 1982).  >>
4. David Friedman, Law's Order: What Economics Has to Do with Law and Why It Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 267-274.  >>
5. Friedrich Hayek's major work is Law, Legislation and Liberty, 3 Vol. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973-1979).  >>
6. See Robert Sugden, The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); Michael Taylor, Anarchy and Cooperation (London: John Wiley & Sons, 1976); Michael Taylor, "Cooperation and Rationality. Notes on the collective actions problem and its solutions," in Karen S. Cook and Margaret Levi (Ed.), The limits of rationality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Michael Taylor, The Possibility of Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).  >>
7. Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 247.  >>
8. Stefan Fatsis, "Albanian Motorists Take a Crash Course called Driver's Ed. After Decades Without Cars, A Big Question Lingers: Which Pedal is the Brake," Wall Street Journal, July 29, 1996.  >>
9. Benito Mussolini, "Fascism," Italian Encyclopaedia, 1932, reproduced at (visited May 22, 2002).  >>
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