Monday, March 2, 2015

Stupid Quote of the Day (March 1, 2015)

Today's quote comes from someone with whom it is pretty obvious I would disagree, VI Lenin. And, as his quote is about the much mentioned, yet never seen, "withering away of the state", it should come as no surprise that I find plenty with which to disagree. So, without additional introduction, allow me to present our quote:

While the State exists there can be no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no State.
That I find this absurd should come as no surprise for regular readers. I have written endlessly on the problems with the neo-anarchist movement, and this quote shares all those errors, with even more implied (that is, if we include the communist doctrine it implies).  Which means the only question I have is exactly where to begin disputing it.

The first problem that comes to mind is found in the initial statement, that being that where there is a state there is no freedom. In many ways, this nothing more than a more extreme version of the common description of the state as a necessary evil, against which I have often argued*, though in this more extreme formulation it is even more absurd.

The justification given, both by communists and various flavors of anarchists, rests upon the premise that any limit upon one's absolute liberty of action is an infringement upon freedom, a theory which, if one is of a very literal mindset, may be somewhat plausible. However, it ignores several pertinent facts. For example, the case I made in "The State of Nature and Man's Rights", that, while one may have rights in a state of nature, the defense of those rights depends entirely upon one's own strength and willingness to fight**. On the other hand, by surrendering the "freedom" to violate the rights of others, that is joining a society, one's rights gain real protection, real meaning, and all for nothing more than forsaking one's ability to take from others. Thus, while one may in an overly literal sense lose some small amount of "freedom", one gains the ability to stop worrying about protecting himself and his possessions every waking moment, and one's rights gain true meaning and worth, rather than being simply the abstract entities they are in a state of nature***.

Perhaps this would make more sense put another way. Granted, in a world without government, one may have absolutely unlimited choices as far as government restraints are concerned, but his choices are instead limited by what protections he can provide for himself, as well as what limits are imposed by those who are stronger or more numerous. On the other hand, within a framework of a very limited government, the government does prevent him from violating the rights of others, but in turn provides him freedom to act in all other ways without fear of those who are stronger or more numerous. Thus, the tiny loss of freedom to the state provides a tremendous gain in the liberty to act unimpeded by his fellow man. Which is why I disagree with both this anarchist argument that all states are slavery, and the absurd claim that all government is a necessary evil. Government, properly formed and administered, is not an evil, it is a positive boon to mankind. We only fail to recognize that because (1) government has so often been misused both in our lives and throughout history and (2) we lack much firsthand experience with the horrors of life without government.

Having argued that point, I suppose there is little point in refuting the second half of the statement, that somehow there could be liberty without government. I know many neo-anarchists argue that it is possible, that without government there could still be recognition of rights and mutual protection, either through a voluntary agreement to respect rights, or through some sort of collective organization, but such concepts fall into one of two categories. Either they are simply absurd , unrealistic daydreams that all of mankind could agree at once to set aside any desire to harm one another in any way -- a system which would fall apart the moment a single individual decided to behave otherwise -- or else they are simply government disguised under another name, as a "mutual agreement for defense" or "collective protection society" or the like is a state, whether it calls itself one or not. Thus, any argument which imagines man would be somehow both free and protected without a state relies upon either fantasy or deceit.

Which brings me to my final point, and one not explicitly included in the quote, but certainly implied by it, and that is the Marxist belief in the "withering away of the state". Much like the Marxist fantasies about the degree of liberty under a communist rule (see "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)"), this is simply a fantasy, and one which has little support in the evidence of nearly a century of communist rule around the world. In case after case, the dictatorship of the proletariat (or at least those claiming to represent them) has been established just fine, but once those dictators have their hands on the reins of the state, it certainly seems they have little interest in seeing that state wither away.

Even if history, and common sense, did not tell us those holding absolute power -- and often enjoying many benefits because of it -- were unlikely to give up their control, the fact remains that one wonders how the communist state could ever wither away as a practical matter. The entire premise of communism is predicated upon state control of production. If we were to allow individuals to control production and distribution we would end up with a market system once again. It is only with the state directing all of the resources that communism works to the extent it does. I know Marx imagined a state in which individuals could pick their jobs, switch between them at will and so on, but that too is clearly fantasy, not reality. Just imagine this scenario: I am a worker in a lumber mill, I make planks of wood. Daily dozens of workers come to me and say they need wood for various tasks. How am I to decide who should get wood? And how much? And how can I be certain I have enough workers to produce the wood I decide to send? And even if I could answer these questions, what gives me the authority to make other workers obey? Or, if we collectively decide, who gets to vote? Anyone who ever worked there? After all, if workers can change jobs at will, how do we even know who works in a given mill to allow them a hand in decision making?

No, without a strong central government controlling production and distribution, communism would become even more of a shambles than it has historically been. There simply is no way one can run an economy without external direction, unless one is willing to allow market forces to work. So, unless communism is destined to revert to a free market once more, the withering away of the state would be simply impossible.


* See "Caution, Not Fear" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 27, 2012)".

** See "The State of Nature and Man's Rights" , "The Benefit of Society", "A Beast's Life", "Learning From Crows", "Knights and Bandits", "The All or Nothing Mistake", "Of Ants and Men" and "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 24, 2012)".

*** This is why I have problems with another famous quote, but we will be discussing that in the March 2 post.


  1. “…by surrendering the "freedom" to violate the rights of others, that is joining a society, one's rights gain real protection, real meaning, and all for nothing more than forsaking one's ability to take from others.’

    Very well put, Andrew. At least that’s how it works in theory in this country. And this was another comment that his the mark:

    “…within a framework of a very limited government, the government does prevent him from violating the rights of others, but in turn provides him freedom to act in all other ways without fear of those who are stronger or more numerous.’

    At the risk of igniting one of our past disagreements, though, I have issues with this statement:

    “Government, properly formed and administered, is not an evil,…”

    The debate about the nature of gov’t can’t be strictly limited to how things work in theory, especially when, because of the human element, theory rarely aligns with reality. Gov’t is rarely properly formed and even more rarely properly administered, and yet its existence can create the means to exert power and control over people that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. That’s where the evil comes in.

    1. As you said, we have debated this before, and I doubt we will disagree, but allow me to offer one analogy that might make my case.

      Antibiotics are, by any reasonable definition, poisons. The reason they are named "antibiotics" is they destroy living things. They are all toxins of some sort, some targeted at particular types of entities, some such as silver or hydrogen peroxide, generally destructive. However, used properly, they have also been a huge boon to mankind, changing influenza, for example, from a killer of millions to a minor inconvenience in most cases.

      So, would you consider antibiotics useful medicine or poisons we must tolerate? I choose to take the medicine viewpoint. And I feel the same about government. In the wrong hands, it is dangerous, and wrongly operated it is dangerous. And I grant, throughout history we have used government improperly. Then again, it took us just as long to get much of science and medicine even close to right as well. (At least as close as we get at present.) So it is no surprise we flubbed government so badly as well.

      But that does not incline me to see government as evil, simply as a tool we have not yet learned to use properly. Or, more accurately, as a tool that a few only learned to use properly in the past 2-3 centuries, and that knowledge is still taking time to spread, and encountering trouble due to entrenched errors. Just as it took centuries for a heliocentric view of the solar system to become widely accepted, it is taking time for humans to figure out how government works.

      But that does not make government evil. The evils are simply the result of ignorance, perhaps combined with a bit of self-interest on the part of those who gain from government as it is.

      (I was actually working on a follow up to my old post "Chaotic Government" on how improper government is self-destructive, which I will probably try to write this evening, time permitting.)

  2. I guess it’s all in how you read the quote, Andrew, and how you define gov’t. Typically when Americans complain about the gov’t we aren’t complaining about the framework or the organizational chart. It’s the human element that floats in and out of the framework and gives life to it that creates the element of evil, because that human element presents a perpetual threat to liberty once the mechanisms are in place for government’s existence. In that sense I don’t see the comparison with antibiotics, which people always have the freedom to use or not use. I would say it’s more like taking a stranger as a roommate because he’s the only one who answers your ad and otherwise you’ll be evicted. Now you can pay the rent but you must forever sleep with one eye open.

    >>” But that does not incline me to see government as evil, simply as a tool we have not yet learned to use properly.”

    When someone ends up dead from a mishap with an axe, it’s rarely because the person wielding the axe hasn’t yet learned to use it properly. It’s far more likely to be the case that someone is intentionally misusing that axe, and that’s true for government as well. All the time and practice in the world will not cure the problem of axe murders so long as killers find it to be a convenient weapon to use.

    1. However, if you routinely hand axes to children and psychopaths, the problem is not necessarily the children and psychos, but the people who have not yet learned who to entrust with axes.

      I think the problem is that you are looking at it as if the tyrants and other exploiters somehow self-create government and then use it. The problem is not them, but rather that people entrust that much power to the state which attracts tyrants and corruption. If people were more aware of the proper function of government, they would not entrust that much power to the state and there would, in your analogy, no longer be an axe for the potential murderer to use.

    2. There’s something inherently dangerous about an inescapable system for which there is no means to keep a dangerous tool out of the hands of children or psychopaths. I’m sure that’s where the “necessary evil” comes from.

    3. But the problem is, the danger is only present if the government is ill-wrought. Provided power is limited to protecting rights, the state lacks the means to truly do harm. Yes, potentially, if the limitations were removed, and people voted in bad rulers and accepted their ill-rule, then it could do harm, but that is akin to the arguments for gun bans. Their potential for harm means we should ban them.

      And as with guns, I argue the state is a tool. Like any tool, it can be misused and do harm, but when used properly it is a boon, not a "necessary evil."

      Look at it this way, do you call gasoline, kitchen knives, automobiles, fertilizer, airplanes, heart medicine and rope "necessary evils"? All can, and have, been used to do tremendous harm, yet we tend to think of that as an abuse of the items, and generally view them as beneficial. So, why is the state a "necessary evil" because it shares the possibility of being misused?