Society and the State: Partners and Competitors in Evolution

Society is the mode of living by which human beings divide up labor amongst themselves for mutual benefit; it is rooted in the ownership of property, and its fruits are material prosperity, mutual dependence, and feelings of goodwill and even brotherhood between diverse strangers. Society is the human answer to the problem of scarcity of resources in nature, and like any good technology, it has come to serve many purposes that the initial contributors to its invention could never have imagined possible.

The State is an organization, that is, a group of people within a society, who join together in the pursuit of a particular end. What that end happens to be has long been the subject of myth; the ancients believed States to be the hands and voices of the gods on earth. This view has evolved in many directions over the course of thousands of years, but most modern views are descended from what may be broadly termed the Social Contract theory, which has tentative roots in the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. What is clear to any observer, regardless of ideology, is that the establishment of a State has a profound effect on the evolution of a social organism.

Society itself is not an organization but an organism; it is not the joint effort of humans in the pursuit of any common goal, but rather, it is the result of diffuse wants, talents, skills, and ideas. Human beings begin to form proto-societies, or tribes, when populations are dense enough to support a division of labor. A society is a group of people too populous for all members to truly be members of the same tribe, whether or not the members of society are descended from multiple tribes or a single common tribe; it is a group populous enough that no-one knows most everyone else whom they will encounter in daily life, who live, work, and trade with each other in close quarters. A State is usually defined as that organization which retains a monopoly on the use of force within a given geographical area. To avoid confusion, this should be amended to say that a State rules over a population larger than a 'tribe'; that is, a single extended family in which everyone knows everyone else at least by name. In other words, a State rules over either a society or over a part of a society.

To understand the roots of the State we must understand the praxeological implications of a division of labor. The denser populated a society, the greater the trend towards specialization by individuals. Individuals at first begin to specialize in broad fields, such as farming crops and crafting useful tools, and then as more hands and minds become available for the division of labor, they begin to specialize in ever narrowing tasks. The work of the general craftsman becomes divided between the mason and the carpenter, and the work of the carpenter divides into the specialized production of specific woodcrafts, and so forth. The reason that this happens is that the fundamentally ordinal nature of human wants and, thus, action, rewards the division of labor between subtasks more than it rewards the division of labor between whole, complex tasks.

Humans are not born with the knowledge of how best to apply their abilities. In a tribal or family setting one may simply adopt certain tasks that one finds enjoyable, and negotiate the division of less pleasant tasks with others in his group. However in a society, general prices which evolve from people's wants for goods and services will be what most people look to in order to gauge the most profitable activities for them to undertake. (see endnotes, #1) In a sufficiently complex group, there will be some individuals who, because of deficiencies in skills and traits in relatively high demand, or because of particular personality traits, or due to a combination of these, can profit best by the application of violence, fraud, or theft. These people, like any other actors, must weigh cost and risk against the chance of gain in their activities, and because of the nature of their activities the loss can be especially dear even where gain can not be expected to be either great or likely.

It is logical for specialists in the predation of other humans to pool their resources with each other, and with skilled organizers, to improve their returns and minimize their losses, and because of the nature of violence, competition between firms, which we call gangs, inevitably results in territorial monopolies, which we call States when they become large enough. For their part, the people at large will submit to a State if the costs of resistance are higher than the benefits. In primitive societies the benefit is rarely great (see endnotes, #2), because of short individual lifespans, a low quality of life enjoyed even in a state of 'freedom', and the overwhelming likelihood of being assaulted in a moment of weakness by some new enemy even if the current one is successfully dispersed or repelled. No less, the members of the rising state often have familial ties to prominent citizens and if they do not, they almost always make some kind of alliance with the wealthiest segment of society, and in most societies, from antiquity to our own time, 'the rich' and 'the State' are joined together if not synonymous.

While it might be more conducive to prosperity for a society to have a State that is stable in the long term, rather than a constant series of coups or successive conquerors, it is praxeologically clear that the success of a society is not dependant upon the benevolence or wisdom of the State which rules it, but upon its own evolution of institutions, technologies, and cultural values which help the society strike a balance between appeasing its State's appetites and resisting its control, which in general provides room for the society to innovate and expand.

The vaunted benevolence of liberal States – that is, States which rule over liberal societies – is not empirically clear. Western liberal States resort to the same brutal violence and heavy handed intervention when pacifying and ruling the 'less civilized' peoples of the world that their own indigenous dictators utilize. Furthermore the wisdom of a State is not important to the thriving of society except to the extent that that wisdom informs the State to interfere in social interactions as little as possible; a central dictator or a congress or a committee can not replace the dispersed knowledge of wants and needs reflected in the price system generated by voluntary market interactions, and in the culture generated by the broader range of social interactions. The wisest statesman is no more truly capable of running a society than a dribbling fool, but he may be more or less inclined to try, and his attempts may be more or less distorting, depending on the specifics of his ideology and personality. (see endnotes, #3)

It is sometimes said that a State is doomed if it does not have the support of the army; that the duty of the army is to support the State. This saying rests on a misconception of what the State is; the State is not the bureaucracy that guides the army about, but the army itself. (see endnotes, #4) It would be more correct to say that a bureaucracy that opposes the State can not stand. It was not the Nazi (see endnotes, #5) bureaucrats pushing Jews into gas chambers, but armed soldiers and guards. Without armed enforcers the Nazi politicians would have been no more than blowhards; without the Nazi blowhards, individuals capable of such vile acts as committed by concentration camp guards and Nazi policemen would have found some other similarly destructive channel for their perversities, and in aggregate could have caused a great deal of harm even if they were not formally organized. A State is the melding of humanity's social predators into a formal organization, and the bureaucracy is only a small part of the human machinery of such an organization; one which is often composed of relatively non-violent members of society's wealthy classes, that is, individuals used to the finer things in life who are easily intimidated or replaced if they become an obstacle. The Roman Senate, often held hostage by the armies of cunning and charismatic generals, was not truly the Roman State but was an interest group – a powerful one but nonetheless only one among several – that lobbied for its favor.

The fundamental tools of the military organization are deceit, terror, and massacre. These are the tools which define States, as these are both the primary tools of any State, insofar as it acts, as well as the tools it forbids to individuals and groups in its host society. It may be said that terror, deceit, and massacre have just and pro-social uses and this is theoretically true; certainly no-one could argue that a deterrent to murder theoretically provided by the execution of murderers would be antisocial, whether or not one thinks it true that execution of murderers actually deters people from murder, or if true, that it would be sufficient to justify such a policy. Nonetheless, it is also true that, just as a certain kind of person is predisposed to be an artist, and the life and work of the artist thrives best when cultivated among certain values, so a certain kind of person is predisposed to be a deceiver, or a terrorist, or massacrer, and specialization in the use of these tools is sowed best in a mind possessed of certain values, namely, the contempt for fellow humans and that which most inspires human beings to regard their lives: freedom.

Additionally, regardless of their initial mores, territorial monopolists on violence, terror, and deceit will, since these tools are 'social' in the sense that they are forms of interaction with other individuals, find themselves sacrificing their ability to interact with humans in non-violent and truthful ways, at least in their capacity as agents of the State. This is not to say that State agents or bureaucrats can not show common courtesy or even kindness, or that they can not speak the truth, only that their focus on the professional development of certain skills, and their participation in the profitable uses of those skills over long periods of time, necessarily stunts the development of, and more importantly inclination to use, skills more useful in the voluntary society, where people must practice cooperative rather than coercive interactions to profit. In particular, one's social awareness, and the ability to form practical personal boundaries with strangers without the imposition of brute authority from 'above', will suffer.

These are psychological observations but they are not without praxeological backing. War rewards brutality on an individual level and deceitfulness on an institutional level; policing rewards meddlesomeness and dishonesty on all levels. One who hopes to succeed in these endeavors must have or acquire these traits, or else be outdone by the more brutal, more deceitful, and more meddlesome. It is often true that a State that rules over a more technologically advanced society has a technological advantage in war; it is also true that liberalism is conducive to innovation and the development of technology. It does not follow from this, however, that the State that rules a liberal society must also be liberal; for, for that State to effectively retain its statehood in a highly evolved society it must also be a very highly evolved parasite. Every innovation in the technology of daily life and the production of goods and services and every new social connection that strengthens the human bonds of society requires the State to innovate new tactics and technologies, and to make fresh burrows into the fabric of society in order to maintain the profitability of its wealth transferences and its control over the politics of the society.

The particular form a State's wars, by which is meant aggressive wars, takes is also a product of its evolutionary status relative to its host society. A State that is not highly evolved relative to its host society may fight a genocidal war with the hope of encouraging its own society to colonize the newly uninhabited land, hoping to solidify its authority over the homeland using fresh taxes and slaves levied from the frontier settlers. Likewise it may fight a war of plunder, impoverishing a neighboring society and then integrating it into its host society with the aim of inflicting civil strife. Alternately, States that are highly evolved relative to the host society are often the primary vehicle by which the social elite can accumulate wealth; it is these States which craft empires, in the traditional sense of that term. States that do not fight aggressive wars are usually weak, not necessarily relative to their own societies, but relative to their neighboring States; however, one special instance in which States do not fight wars with one another is where a society spans the territory of many states. In Europe, for example, each State rules over a culturally or linguistically defined nation, but each nation is only a part of a larger interconnected society. For the states of Europe to go to war with another would be for each one to participate in the killing of a part of its own host. This is not an inconceivable turn of events, but it is unlikely. This is even more the case in America, where the various States rule only a part of a geographically vast and ethnically and economically complex society, and whose own political interdependence is so pronounced that they themselves are mere provincial bureaucracies in the service of a larger meta-State.

It is true, advanced States are less likely to use large scale violence against their own host society. An advanced State must be attached to a relatively advanced society, and the people in an advanced society have necessarily developed social tools for doing as they please without threatening the State or its profits directly and thus provoking violence, or else modes of action that would otherwise impose disproportionate costs on the State were it to attempt to oppress the population. Free speech in a society, in and of itself, is a disutility for any ruler and so any government in the world would thus prefer to censor, for example, the internet; but for those States ruling the most advanced societies any serious attempt at this would be politically more costly than it is worth; the truth of the State's activities, however depraved, or the spread of counter-cultural ideas is not likely to incite the population of an advanced society to any respectable level of violence, and the decentralized technological nature of the internet would require unprecedented manpower to effectively police. An advanced state is no more or less violent than a primitive State; it is merely a State that has developed means of deceit and terror to enable it to feast on an advanced society's production, without destroying its host's capacity for future production. A State with advanced enough technology will tend towards the use of an optimum level of brutality necessary to cow any given population, though depending on conflicting cultural values, and the conquering State's familiarity with native social networks, the level of brutality necessary may be much greater than that for an equivalent native State.

A State without the level of technology relative to a society necessary for this optimal pacification may use more violence in the long term than would be necessary otherwise, though over short periods this violence will be of lower intensity. It may also be forced to use less violence, at the price of a less secure conquest or statehood afterwards or a failure to conquer —or attain statehood, as the case may be— at all. This is dependent on what particular area in which the technology of society is superior to the technology of the State. For a society with a heavily armed population but without social institutions or cultural practices evolved to lessen the damage caused by statist violence and meddling, failure to expel or repel a State will be horrifically costly in life and capital, and success may be nearly as costly. A society with developed institutions may similarly fail to repel the State, and if not well armed it may not even make the attempt, but the conquest by the State will not be as damaging. Of course this does not hold true if the aim of a State is genocide or plunder rather than conquest and taxation, but in this case, while no idea can substitute for arms, well developed social institutions in and of themselves will be conducive to the desperate population's struggle for survival. A society may also, for any number of a variety of reasons, welcome a State; in this case it is still true that the society's armaments, institutions, and culture will determine precisely how damaging the State's establishment will be.

In our time we often hear the call for liberal States to free the peoples held captive by primitive States. But these calls are misguided or outright cynical, for a liberal State will engage in brutality similar to that which the old State used to gain power in the first place, and will, over time, use a similar level of brutality as that State used to maintain power. What is worse is that the liberal State is not familiar with the social networks of the society it seeks to establish rule over in the name of liberation, and so its violence is doomed to be clumsy and inefficient; this may well lead them to use of greater violence in the cause of pacifying the 'ungrateful' beneficiaries of their deeds than the supposedly oppressive regime. If they do not, they will be outbid for rule either by those more violent, or by those who can more efficiently use violence, that is, those who can cause more effective terror, whether or not they are actually more violent. A society evolves to offset the meddling and plundering of its State, and the longer it has had it the more the institutions and culture of that society has evolved to combat the specific predations of that State; for the most part, forceful regime change can only make a people worse off. It does not follow from this, however, that aggressive war is necessarily undesirable. Indeed, a misguided war which is a net cost for a State – by which is understood, the violent element organized into a coherent enterprise association, not merely the bureaucracy – is a gain to that State's host society, as long as the State does not resort to policies which wildly externalize its costs to its society, such as conscription or the nationalization of production.


No 1. It is important to remember the subjectivity of value. Not all people prefer the same ratio of time spent in income earning activities and time spent in leisure, not all people have the same level of ability in every skill, and different people suffer differing levels of disutility from different productive tasks. Market prices, including wages for labor, will come to reflect this over time, just as they come to reflect other relevant preferences of buyers and sellers.

No 2. This involves empirical assumptions about people's actual values which should not be considered authoritative. Nonetheless, I am confident in their general accuracy.

No 3. Rulers disinclined to poke into the intricate fabric of the social networks that host them with the unaccountable clumsiness of prisons, laws, police, and deadly arms are a rare historical treasure, and often are the fragile pinnacle of a period of social evolution that renders the very State itself almost a glorified obsolescence. In any case these rulers are either deposed by more vigorous and brutish social parasites, or else society, for a variety of reasons, loses its evolutionary edge over the State with the ascendance of the benevolent ruler's heir, who finds he must tighten the reigns or 'lose control'. An example of such a course of events is the modern history of Afghanistan, whose liberal monarch abdicated the throne to a long exile in Europe when confronted with a communist revolution; the country has since been plagued by a string of some of the most brutal States – both indigenous ideological movements and attempted conquests by foreign powers – of our time. This case in particular raises a question I find most disturbing: Does a truly benevolent ruler discourage a society from evolving defenses against the murderous kleptocratic terror that is the general policy of the typical State?

No 4. It may be complained that I am merely playing with semantics here, and I can sympathize with such an objection. However, I would say that it is important to define the State as that institution which actually has a territorial monopoly on actionable force (over a very large region) and in this sense, I am correct that that institution is one and the same as the army. This includes police forces, regardless of whether they are officially part of a country's 'military' or not.

No 5. Anyone who invokes Godwin's Law here is a total loser.