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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Phantom “State”

Here’s something odd: every day, millions of people concern themselves with a non-existent entity. In fact, nearly all political discussions revolve around an apparition known as “the State.”

Libertarians shudder when thinking about it.

Oddly enough, nowhere on planet Earth can you find a “state.” Or a “government.” Or even a “country,” for that matter. You can search the globe; you won’t find one.

Now, a reasonable person might pull out a map, point to France, and say, “But here is France! It is a country, and it’s right there, next to Germany.” But alas, pointing to a map of France is just that—a map of France, not “France” itself. I’ll wager a million dollars that nobody will ever be able to point to the real “France,” because it does not exist.

Take a trip overseas. Find the place that you think is “France,” and point. What could you point at? A piece of ground—that is, dirt and rocks? Individual people? The Eiffel Tower?

Surely, declaring, “There is France!” after pointing to some rocks is mistaken.

“France” is just a convenient abstract term. The word doesn’t actually refer to anything concrete, but rather to a vague bundle of concepts. Geography, culture, cuisine, architecture, heritage—all of these things make up what we mean by “France.” Given that, it becomes clear that no one can point to France.

The same can be said for “the State” or “the government.” You won’t find these things anywhere. We libertarians rail against state intervention every day, but if “the State” is a phantom term, what are we really arguing against?

In my opinion, the abstract terms “State” and “government” really refer to something very concrete: individuals. But not just any individuals—those with a certain kind of authority, a small group of individuals who claim they have special privileges that the rest of us do not have. Cops, for example, are allowed to burst into private residences with their guns drawn in search of drugs. The rest of us are not permitted to do so. State employees are allowed to collect taxes. Regular citizens know this activity as “theft.”

Well, if “the State” does not exist, then “the State” does not collect taxes. Individuals do. Thus, “the State” is really shorthand. It’s a convenient abstraction we use to reference individuals who are allowed to operate within a different set of moral constraints.

We must then ask the question, “Why are some individuals allowed to forcefully regulate the behavior of, say, car manufacturers, but others aren’t?”

I can’t imagine the average Joe walking into a car-manufacturing plant and shouting, “Hey, listen up! If you guys don’t adhere to my specifications for building cars, I’ll fine you! And if you don’t pay the fine, I’ll throw you in jail!” Yet, certain individuals, special individuals, do just that (although their language is translated into lawyer-speak). Does this behavior strike anyone else as odd?

Yet, such behavior is permitted all around the world, all because those individuals are employed by “the government” —in concrete terms, they put on a special uniform and badge. Just as a monarch “knights” people by a touch of his mystical sword, the modern state grows by disseminating mystical uniforms.

I don’t think an individual undergoes a metaphysical transformation when he dons a badge, wears a flag on his arm, or puts a crown on his head. They remain the exact same individual, and the same moral rules apply to them as to anyone else.

When free-marketers argue against state intervention, they are really arguing against busybody individuals forcefully meddling in the affairs of other individuals. When you see the world through this lens, it is no wonder that people are outraged by the deeds of “the State.”

  • Steve Patterson is a philosopher and author working outside of academia. He is also an award-winning video producer and the creator of The Truth About…