A common libertarian theme is that the state promotes violence, and that if it weren’t for the state society would be much more peaceful. Let’s call this “naïve libertarianism.” Against naïve libertarianism, Gene Callahan invokes some research by Jared Diamond to show that violence isn’t a product of the state, but a result of human nature. The example is that of the Dani War in the 1960s, in New Guinea, a vendetta-inspired “traditional” war. I don’t know the details of this war very well, and I’m not exactly sure what the connection between it and a stateless society is, but I’ll indulge Professor Callahan’s thesis. I think he has a point on “human nature,” but that he misses the role of the state in propagating violence in an advanced division of labor.
Beyond the fact that the state is the product of human action — and, therefore, to one degree or another whatever the state does has some relation to human nature —, I see two broad motivations behind violence: (i) psychological inclinations (people who commit acts of violence, not out of necessity, but for pleasure, or something similar); (ii) as a means to achieve an end in the absence of better alternatives. The most relevant type to this discussion falls under “ii.” Why should society as a whole participate in violence? Because alternative means of achieving ends — such as resource acquisition (a common theme in modern warfare) — either don’t exist, or are “crowded out” (e.g. trade barriers).
In relatively “backwards” societies, where “backwards” or “advanced” refers only to the relative extension of a society’s division of labor, it’s sensible that there is a greater degree of violence (per capita?) because the availability of means is limited. Related, there are also less (in volume), and less developed, institutions and organizations designed to maintain security or peace. In this case, it makes sense to assume that the introduction of a potent state reduced violence, because the state acts in place of private institutions and organizations of peace and justice. This, of course, refers only to violence within that particular state (which is rarely guaranteed, anyways), and not to violence between states.
But, as the division of labor grows then the role of the state in minimizing violence becomes less obvious. In fact, the state has historically not minimized violence at all — I have in mind things like civil wars (oftentimes fought to wrestle control of the state’s extractive institutions) and wars between states. Only the state is an institution large enough to mobilize the quantity of resources needed to wage large scale conflicts within or between entire territories. Conceivably, in a competitive market for justice and security, these firms would not be in a position to accomplish something similar, but this presupposes a certain degree of competition (what I see as the main weakness in the anarcho-capitalist position).
The point is that the merits of a stateless society should be judged on changes over time. While the state has not guaranteed peace, and in fact has induced it to a far greater degree than simple “human nature” ever could have, a competitive market for security would to a much greater degree. This market wouldn’t just come about as an increase in the number of related firms, but also in the development of institutions — rules and general framework — and culture. As such, the question of state versus stateless doesn’t come down to just the inherent nature in humanity to see violence as an option, but what kind of institutional framework is more conducive to long-run peace. I think the state loses out.
There is a real world “natural experiment” that isn’t always appreciated, and is usually actually ridiculed: Somalia. Unfortunately, the relevant period of Somali history (~1991–2005) was cut short by the Ethiopian invasion and occupation, and now by the African Union’s occupation and the radicalization of Somalia’s non-government political organizations (as moderates in these groups were forced to join the interim government by the foreign “peace keeping” operation). But, in Somalia we saw just what we would expect: the collapse of Sidi Barre’s government, the divvying up of the country by warlords fighting over the existing institutions of extraction, and the gradual replacement of these warlords with private institutions of security and justice (molded by the institutional framework of local law, Xeer, and Sharia law). What finally put a stop to these improvements? Foreign occupation and their support of a central state in Mogadishu, which has in turn radicalized non-state political elements. (Interestingly, and as a final note, there is a clear correlation between foreign involvement in Somalia to support the central government in Mogadishu and a rise in violence — this not only after ~2005, but also between ~2000–2002.)
Granted, Professor Callahan doesn’t necessarily imply that the state is peaceful. But, his argument is that violence is a product of human nature, not just the state. There is a lot of truth to that statement, but ultimately it’s misleading. Government reflects human nature, but it also reflects a monopolized market which might lead to a restriction in choice that induces warfare (and the larger government is, the more advanced and bloodier violence tends to be). Alternative, competitive, private institutions and organizations of security and justice can conceivably do a much better job at maintaining peace. But, these institutions and organizations develop and improve over time, and so looking at an example of a relatively “backwards” division of labor isn’t a fair indictment of a stateless society.