Archive | April 17, 2009

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.

Guide for Statists: How to Argue Against Libertarians

If they advocate the abolition of some government program from which they personally benefit, call them hypocrites.

If they advocate the abolition of some government program from which they don’t personally benefit, call them selfish.

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