Peace Through Statism?

Ken MacLeod has expressed sympathy for anarchism in his novels; but on his blog today he writes this:

We already know how to have peace over large areas of the Earth, and that is by having large states covering those areas. … The combat death rate for men of military age in typical stateless societies far exceeds that in inter-state wars, including world wars.

So I posted the following comment there:

Congratulations on winning the BSFA!

On states and violence, though, I’ve got to disagree – I think it’s confusing cause and effect.

States are a luxury good (well, a luxury bad from my point of view – but a luxury commodity in any case); they fund themselves out of the social surplus. So a society needs to achieve a certain level of prosperity before it can have much in the way of a state; and it can’t achieve that level of prosperity if it’s racked by constant tribal warfare. So it’s no surprise that the societies that are racked by tribal warfare tend to be the stateless ones – but it’s the violence that explains the statelessness, not vice versa. As Thomas Paine noted, states piggyback on autonomously arising social order and then claim to have created it.

I think this is because states are essentially parasitic and don’t contribute to social order at all – rather the contrary, when they arise they hinder the further advance of cooperation and economic development more than they help it. (Certainly when states are imposed, or attempted to be imposed, on violent tribal societies it tends to exacerbate the violence, since there’s now a big gun in the room – the state apparatus – that each tribe needs to seize lest some other tribe seize it first.) But even if one thinks states are a good thing, they’re still an expensive thing, and so require a pre-existing attainment of a fair degree of peaceful commerce and productivity before they can get going.

Moreover, when large states consolidate their power and displace a previous more decentralised and more peaceful state situation, the result is often genocide (as the history of the 20th century demonstrates). That’s another reason for thinking that states are the effect rather than the cause of peace.

If some degree of peace and prosperity is needed to make states possible, then we’re going to get misleading data when we compare economically undeveloped, culturally tribal, relatively stateless societies with economically advanced state-ridden societies; the latter will often be more peaceful, and so we’ll be tempted to think that the state is what’s making the difference, but that inference just doesn’t follow.

Thus a more interesting comparison is to compare relatively stateless and relatively state-ridden society that are otherwise at comparable levels of economic development and cultural mores.

When we do that, I think we get a very different picture. Ben Powell’s research, for example, shows that stateless Somalia, while undoubtedly a crappy place to live, has been both more peaceful and more prosperous than either its earlier state-ridden self [argh, I actually wrote “earlier stateless self” but then corrected in a subsequent post] or its economically and culturally comparable neighbours. I would also point to the research of Bruce Benson and David Friedman on how relatively stateless medieval Iceland and the relatively stateless American frontier were far less violent than comparable state-ridden societies of the time.

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22 Responses to Peace Through Statism?

  1. Bob Kaercher April 17, 2009 at 11:30 am #

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    Well argued, good sir.

  2. Anon73 April 17, 2009 at 11:43 am #

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    I never really understood the whole “states = peace” thing. I read Bertrand Russell one time and he said something to the effect of “to really have peace in the world we need to get a world government right away”. I like your analysis that states are just parasites so to speak on cooperation and prosperity.

    Would you agree with the analysis that societies like Somalia or tribal ones wracked by constant warfare experience the conflict they do, not from a Hobbesian war of all against all, but rather because of state-like behavior from small time thugs and gangs that want to be the state? Whenever there is conflict in Somalia people tend to attribute it to the fact that Somalia has no central government than to the fact that violent thugs are trying to be the new government or to impose one.

  3. Bob Kaercher April 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

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    BTW—and this is somewhat off topic, but at least it pertains to statism—has anyone caught Justin Raimondo’s editorial today? In it he writes (speaking of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s recent mention of secession):

    “Regardless of whether one endorses or disdains the Governor’s particular complaints against the federal government, the point is that bigness – in the world of nation-states, as well as finance – is out, and smallness is in.

    “It’s no accident that the world’s biggest financial combines, along with the giant producers like GM, are in trouble: like the dinosaurs, their bigness – once an advantage – evolved into a fatal gigantism. In the economic realm, this condition distanced management from the market it was supposedly serving and set up these companies for the big crash. They are now claiming that they’re ‘too big to fail,’ and therefore deserve government bailouts — yet their very size (and the hubris that went with it) is what caused them to fail in the first place.”

    Uh-oh. What’s all this pooh-poohing of “bigness” and “gigantism”??? Has Raimondo been reading Kevin Carson? What is he turning into, some kind of “Marxoid vandanarchguardanarchist” or something?

    • Roderick April 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

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      Heh. The analogy with dinosaurs is misleading, though, since dinosaurs didn’t get so big as a result of any external interference with the evolutionary process; on the contrary, by most theories it was the nearest thing nature has to an external interference — an asteroid hitting the earth — that killed them off.

      • Bob Kaercher April 17, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

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        Does that then make Raimondo not merely “Marxoid” but “Marxist”? At least Carson attributes the evolution of bigness in big business to statist interference, but Raimondo seems to imply in his editorial that it just naturally evolved all on its own. (Just a note: I’m well aware that Justin Raimondo is no Marxist.)

        • Stephan Kinsella April 19, 2009 at 1:09 am #

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          Bob, there’s nothing Marxian about Justin’s comments. As for bigness, this has been a refrain of Austrians and libertarians for a while–one of my favorites is Austro-libertarian-anarchist Peter Klein’s essay, “Economic Calculation and the Limits of Organization,” Review of Austrian Economics 9, no. 2 (1996): 51-77. Obviously, you don’t have to be “left,” or even buy into the notion that the ideas of leftism, left-libertarianism vs. right-, is coherent at all.

        • sarah April 19, 2009 at 10:41 am #

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          I don’t know much about this, but if we believe a state can have a knowledge problem (no authority knows enough to control production optimally) isn’t it also possible that big corporations have a knowledge problem too? (The executive might not know enough about the details on the ground to manage them optimally from above.) If there’s any truth to that, it’s not necessarily a Marxist point — it doesn’t argue for getting rid of capitalism — it would just say that large organizations have internal drawbacks.

        • Roderick April 19, 2009 at 12:29 pm #

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          Yes! If you want to read more about that, see Kevin Carson’s “Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth.” (And if you want to read a LOT more about it, see his Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, plus various stuff at

        • sarah April 19, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

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          Thanks! Very informative.

        • Stephan Kinsella April 19, 2009 at 10:43 am #

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          I should have said, “you don’t have to be “left,” or even buy into the notion that the ideas of leftism, left-libertarianism vs. right-, is coherent at all, to understand that bigness has its costs (as does smallness).”

        • Roderick April 19, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

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          Although this isn’t especially relevant to anything — it always bugs me when Mises talks about “big-scale” this and that, instead of “large-scale.” I guess because “big” is a relatively informal word (compared to “large”) while “scale” is relatively formal, so it feels unnatural in English to combine them in a single word.

          But then he was some kinda furriner, wasn’t he?

  4. Anon73 April 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

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    Too bad there’s no reptilian Kevin Carson around to hypothesize that if “Big Galaxies” hadn’t interfered with the evolutionary process then humans wouldn’t be overpopulating and hurting the environment, but on the contrary small, locally owned and managed saurian villages would exist. :)

  5. Jesse Walker April 17, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

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    The analogy with dinosaurs is misleading, though, since dinosaurs didn’t get so big as a result of any external interference with the evolutionary process

    You’re quite right. Nonetheless, I’m fond of this old William Burroughs routine on the subject:

    “Fellow reptiles I do not hesitate to tell you that we face grave problems. I do not hesitate to tell you that we have the answer. Size is the answer! Increase size! There are those who say that size is not the answer, there are those even propose that we pollute our reptilian strain with mammalian amalgamations and cross breading. And I say to you, if the only way I could survive was by mating with egg-eating rats then I would choose not to survive. But we will survive. We will increase both in size and in numbers and we will continue to dominate this planet as we have done for 300 MILLION YEARS! Bigger is better and biggest is best!”

    Armored models thump their tails in earth shaking applause. Herbiferous dins wallow and splash in swamp bog. Carnivores bare their huge fangs dripping streamers of saliva in uproar. But a wise old din turns sadly from the TV and addresses his offspring:

    “Son, it’s the end of the line. We are ugly, idiot, bellowing beasts. Some of us are sixty feet long with a brain the size of a walnut. Where can this end? In a natural history museum our bones gawked at by pimply adolescents–‘Say, I wonder how big his prick was?'”

    • Roderick April 19, 2009 at 1:58 am #

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      Yah, that’s a good quote.

  6. Ouranosaurus April 18, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    Safari MacIntosh

    I don’t think Ken McLeod was entirely endorsing the super state in his comments; he mentioned it as a trope of SF immediately afterwards. I also think that, historically, he’s right.

    This is the state’s other killer app. From the point of view of a peasant farmer, ie 95 per cent of the world population prior to the Industrial Revolution, you were always going to have some asshole boss. Priest-king, or seigneur, or landlord, or whatever, somebody was going to come and take a good portion of your harvest and kick you in the teeth if you didn’t give it up. So would you rather live in a small polity, often invaded, or a large and successful polity with internal peace? Obviously the latter is preferable. So the masses give more tacit support to a boss who can at least keep the bandits under control and doesn’t let them get over run with barbarians every other year. If you don’t have an ideology that suggests anarchism is possible, it’s the only obvious choice.

    I’d also note that delivering internal peace is, of course, not done out of the goodness of the state’s heart, but rather because it benefits the state to run competitors for the violence business out of the game. I read a good history of violence once (can’t remember the name of it now) that talked about how the nascent European state slowly removed the right to personal violence from its members. The first thing to go was private baronial armies; the last thing to go was duelling.

    This whole thing is neatly summarized in a scene in a fantasy novel by Martha Wells, The Element of Fire. One plot point is that a rebellious but favoured courtier is maintaining his own private castle, with military-level fortifications. He tries to defer having it demolished. Finally the king asks “Don’t you think We can protect you?” Removing a threat to the boss, disguised as a plea for internal peace and the protection of the central government.

  7. Clyde Adams III April 18, 2009 at 11:03 am #

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    “Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth.” That’s reportedly a quote from Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory by Randall Collins, glowingly reviewed by Tyler Cowen here:

  8. Francois Tremblay April 18, 2009 at 1:16 pm #

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    So… where is the evidence that stateless societies are more violent? Where are MacLeod’s examples?

  9. Anon73 April 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

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    I think the Yanomamo are commonly given as an example of a violent stateless society that still exists today:

    Violent stateless societies from ages past are harder to come by since writing and the state arose at about the same time I think.

  10. Sergio Méndez April 19, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

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    Intesting discusion. As a colombian citizen, I can testify how true is Profesor´s Long point of view. Here in my country, one who has suffered more than 50 years of continous internal conflict, there is this thesis, shared by the left and the right, that violence is the product of the “lack of state”. And no matter how much one shows them the state presence has not only not avoided any of that violence, but that it actually has helped to increase it (for example, the state supporting and allying with paramilitary groups; massacres comitted by paramilitaries with the complicity of the state etc…), nothing seems to move people from that false premise.


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