Violence and the State

Digital StillCamera

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.

  • Stadius

    One of the most obvious problems with this is, I suspect, that ‘private institutions and organizations of security and justice’ would compete on rather more lethal dimensions than price or quality …

    • boniek

      Businness ran like that would be quickly bankrupt without ability of taxation. Violence is risky and uncertain way of conducting a businness. On the other hand I see a lot of violence and opression from the governments (which is expected it is monopoly after all).

  • Roman P.

    Psychological motives are not independent from the social institutions. Some of them might induce homicidal behaviors more than the others. Sociopathic traits might also be inherited so that there are constantly high levels of violence in some populations but not the others.

    In the end, the ability to live in a peaceful society might be just an evolved trait. We know that the first homo sapiens were psychologically different from us; perhaps, they were just inherently unable to limit their constant warfare with other people.

    Overall, your post reads as a wishful thinking. You miss the fact that the consolidation of modern states brought the overall level of violence way, way down. In the primitive societies, a very large part of the population was killed by the neighbors or even the members of one’s own tribe. I don’t remember a clear number from the anthropological study, but it showed that the chance to die from the old age was minuscule. In contrast, even in the worst state-to-state conflicts of twentieth century a much larger part of population survived.

    Why? It is because states institutionalize violence. They regulate who could kill whom. They even introduce the rules for the handling of enemy civilians. In the Middle Ages rape and plunder were the norm, but the outright slaughter wasn’t a norm. Now, even a thievery from the noncombatants could be punished (by death). States do that not because they are such benign things, it’s just usually more prudent to limit the violence. USA seriously considered an agenda of depopulation (i.e. murder) of the population of Western Germany in 1945, but political circumstances led to a decision that at least in the mid-term it was better to conserve the nation of Germany and its population.

    Still, perhaps the future will give us some surprises? In August 6, 1945, humanity proved that we could kill about 80’000 people a minute. Since then, we only got better. Salted nukes, binary phosphoorganics, fast-acting viruses – with them genocides are a quite possible solution right now. Who knows, maybe this is how my life will end.

  • JCatalan

    Stadius: Only if it pays to do so, which is why I stress the importance of competition. In a competitive environment, the returns to violence are much less.

    Roman P.: Your comment has a lot to unpack, so allow me to address it by distilling the separate points.

    I agree that psychological motives aren’t independent from institutional and cultural development. Also, institutional and cultural develop helps deal with people that we might call “unbalanced.” This said, an interesting argument against the state is that it provides an avenue for “unbalanced” people to gain power and use that power towards “bad” ends (such as mass murder, oppression, et cetera).

    I think it’s obvious that the probability of dying of old age was low two thousand plus years ago. What does “old age” mean, though? The average life span was probably around 30 years — that was old age to them. In any case, the post concedes that primitive (I should have used this word rather than “backwards”) societies suffered higher violence per capita, but the point is that alternative political institutions to the state do a much better job at reducing societal violence. And yes, society has been able to impose some constraints on the state, but I see this as a case against it not for it.

    • Roman P.

      “Dying from old age” – dying from the natural body degeneration, possibly exacerbated by the chronic diseases. That leaves out murder, accident or an acute (is that the term?) disease.

      How do you know which ends are bad (for a state)? Hightened antisocial behavior possibly was a mighty advantage of certain societies, allowing them to kill and die easily. For example, if you live in a nomadic tribe, you have to have the willingness to murder outsiders. It is because everyone is a warrior in those cultures; their wars are always total.

      I am not impressed by your example of Somali. The fact that clans stopped killing each other so much and institutionalized at least some juridical bodies do not contradict the story of violence-reducing states. Otherwise, we might as well claim the societies like a barbarian Europe of Dark Ages or Middle-Age Caucasus to be a libertarian paradise.

      • JCatalan


        I admit to being a little confused by your post. Why does my example of Somalia suggest that the European Dark Ages were a libertarian paradise? What do they have to do with each other? (Also, the Somalia example is not about clans no longer killing each other, but clans pushed out of the picture by the growth of private institutions of law, justice, and security.)

        You write,

        How do you know which ends are bad (for a state)?

        I provided some examples: mass murder, oppression, extraction of wealth, et cetera. Nomadic tribes aren’t an example of this: they fall under category “ii,” outlined in the post above (i.e. violence out of necessity).

        • Roman P.

          I am implying that you misrepresent the emergence of the institutions in Somali as the rise of the new type of society, suddenly free from the clutches of state. Maybe the state is just in its infancy, huh?

          How do you know if what you listed as examples are bad for a state? Maybe it is beneficial to oppress insiders and outsiders, slaughter the dissenters to regulate the number of hungry mouths, extract the wealth to accumulate all sort of capitals? At least until the complexity of the societal system makes it undesirable, that is. How do you think Britain got wealthy in its prime? By plundering its own population, extracting its wealth, waging colonial wars to plunder even more.

          • JCatalan

            Regarding Somalia, it’s pretty clear we’re not talking about a “state in its infancy.” At the same time, there was a state in its infancy. The rise of private institutions should be seen not only as an alternative, but as actively undermining the ability of the interim government to consolidate power. In fact, it took a foreign occupation to finally allow the interim government to, more-or-less, consolidate power in Mogadishu, at the expense of private institutions.

            How do you think Britain got wealthy in its prime? By plundering its own population, extracting its wealth, waging colonial wars to plunder even more.

            “Prime” a compared to what?

            How do you know if what you listed as examples are bad for a state? Maybe it is beneficial to oppress insiders and outsiders, slaughter the dissenters to regulate the number of hungry mouths, extract the wealth to accumulate all sort of capitals?

            It’s difficult for me to take this seriously. I don’t mean it in an insulting way; I’m just genuinely at a loss for words, because I don’t see how any of those are viable arguments.

          • Roman P.

            By the ‘prime’ I mean (loosely) from the hedging laws to the end of 19th century, perhaps.

            What could I say? I just like the iconoclasm of poking the various taboos of the modern societies. Still, my questions are not just an exercise in the idle subversiveness: what if the ‘sociopathic’ character of the early states is the necessary element of their survival and progression?

            States, by their nature, are greater than their parts (people and even rulers). So, what you, as an individual, might deem horrid, would be quite logical and necessary for a State, even if some actions mean that its parts must suffer. Sometimes societies could not afford not to oppress, extract and plunder…

          • JCatalan

            Re England: Right, but my argument is more along the lines of what Britain would have looked like with a different government. And, in fact, much of England’s (and Britain’s) success was in the fact that political institutions there gradually became less extractive (and more pluralistic).

            I don’t think being a sociopath is a requirement for any successful state. The problem with your analogy to the whole being greater than the parts is that sociopaths impact much more than just one individual: they impact the majority of individuals negatively.

    • Stadius

      I would say that it would most likely pay to attack rival forces, etc., but a much simpler obstacle to competition in the security/justice market exists: the enormous economies of scale inherent to it, which would create a tendency toward monopoly. The monopolist would then be free to appropriate and enslave factors of production at whim, extending its reach throughout the economy and society until your fledgling libertarian society came under the heel of an utterly tyrannical state.

      • JCatalan

        I’ve seen Gangs of New York, but I don’t consider that movie a case study of what we’re talking about here. It also doesn’t prove how it would pay to attack other security organizations, instead of cooperating with them. Neither do I think that your economies of scale argument proves that the market for justice would become gradually less competitive. In fact, in the real world we see it moving in the exact opposite direction.

        • Stadius

          Economies of scale do imply increasing concentration, up to the point where they are diminished. I think it’s probable that they would not be diminished in this case, and that monopoly would follow. I’m talking specifically about policing here, which is where the danger lies.

          • JCatalan

            There can be increasing returns to scale in a perfectly competitive market. Increasing returns to scale doesn’t imply industry monopolization.

          • Stadius

            It does if, as I’m arguing, the cost function is globally subadditive (see Baumol (1977)). Industrial economics is a major weak point for Austrians; I’ve read Mises on monopoly, and it really underlines the weaknesses of the deductivist approach; there are innumerable logical errors and hidden assumptions. Depart from those, and you end up with an altogether different conception of political economy.

          • JCatalan

            As a side note, Mises’ isn’t the only theory of monopoly held by Austrians. Just as an example, Rothbard’s theory of monopoly departs from Mises’. Also, there are probably various Austrians who hold theories of monopoly closer to the Neoclassical one. I’m not sure what Hayek thought in this regard. Also, it’s important to distinguish between the theory of monopoly price and the theory of competition — these are two different things. Finally, that there’s competition in the market for security doesn’t imply that that market is an example of a perfectly competitive one. Note, too, that there’s a dynamic element in the theory of the market for security, for which an equilibrium model of natural monopoly might not be entirely relevant.

            (Btw, the concept of increasing returns to scale in a perfectly competitive market isn’t Austrian.)

  • gcallah

    “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”

    Well, the facts directly contradict this, but don’t let them get in the way!

  • gcallah

    “In a competitive environment, the returns to violence are much less.”

    News to the Mafia!

    • JCatalan

      Gene (this also serves as a response to your first comment):

      1. Which facts? The post already concedes that
      the state may have reduced violence in a society with no other viable
      alternatives for security. But, it’s not clear that the state has
      reduced violence more than private institutions would have, over time.

      How is the mafia relevant? The mafia doesn’t exist in a competitive
      environment. In fact, mafias exist in uncompetitive environments: there
      are governments where mafias exist.

      • Silvano

        Mafia competes with government to extract rents from a territory.
        I mean the original one in Sicily, Calabria & Naples. Not the “grandfather” version of it.

        • JCatalan

          Right, but they essentially exist in a vacuum.

          • Silvano

            Mafia members collect money, offer protection, and provide some sort of public goods and welfare to gain social consensus. They have rules, they have “foreign affairs” with both similar organization and corrupted politicians. They are not officially legitimate (so you can’t apply Weber), but anarchy does?
            What do you really mean for “vacuum”?

            Competition implies rivalry. Do you think competition under the rule of law (where private property is – more or less – well defined) is the same like competition to provide the use of strenght?

          • JCatalan

            What I mean when I say that mafias exist in a vacuum is that they exist in a vacuum created by the state. That is, they exist in a world where there is no competition in the rule of law and the provision of security, and so even though they “compete” with the state, it’s not the same type of competition that they’d face if the state allowed for multiple agencies of law, security, and justice.

            Regarding competition, the rule of law is related to the use of strength, since you need force to enforce the rule of law.

  • George Machen
    • JCatalan

      George, thanks for the link. I think Goodall’s point supports either mine or Gene’s arguments. Whereas Gene would see the state as the best institution to limit violence, I think that competitive private institutions would do a better job.

  • Silvano

    Roman P.

    “States, by their nature, are greater than their parts (people and even rulers). So, what you, as an individual, might deem horrid, would be quite logical and necessary for a State, even if some actions mean that its parts must suffer. Sometimes societies could not afford not to oppress, extract and plunder…”

    Well, I broadly stand with gcallah and I don’t share with Catalan his weird (from my point of view) interest in post Siad Barre Somalia. However, by the way you define what a State is, you sound almost like a Russian nationalist. All nationalists I knew would subscribe the first part of your argument “States, by their nature, are greater than their parts (people and even rulers)”, but few the second one (“what you, as an individual, might deem horrid, would be quite logical and necessary for a State, even if some actions mean that its parts must suffer”). And very few in doing this would employ the expression “quite logical”. I admit it’s a little bit off topic, but I bet a beer.

    PS: my wife is from Russia and I (relatively) often read books about history of Russia, sociological analysis of the transition period after the fall of USSR, etc.

    • Roman P.

      Is being a Russian nationalist bad? I admit to not liking the public who currently label themselves ‘Russian nationalists’ (they are, in my opinion, right-wing wankers with ideas), but I am not opposed to it per se. I find it somewhat funny that you worded it like being one is heinous.

      Concerning my beliefs: it all depends on what you exactly mean by the word ‘nationalist’. In one sense we are all nationalists because we live in the environment of the national states. I am Russian because I exist in the shared cultural field of the Russian culture (if we define nations as Gellner did), so I couldn’t quite cease to be of Russian nation without losing a piece of self. I guess there are some individuals who are anti-nationalistic in this sense, as they actively oppose the unity and identification with some nation and people of it, but I am not one of them. There are some Russians who want a balkanization of even the European part of Russia, but I think that would be catastrophic for the Russians all over the world.

      I think that the better question should be if I am an authoritarian. I am. Have you read Bob Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”? A fascinating read. I am certainly not a right-wing authoritarian as he describes them, and I also do not fit his short description of left-wing authoritarians: I do not like strong personalities of leaders and I do not want a violent revolution to occur. I just think that the most successful regimes were based on the consolidation of power. The exact form of government is not very relevant for that. For example, Britain consolidated itself into the very authoritarian structure during the course and immediate aftermath of the WWII while remaining a parliamentary democracy, and Soviet Russia had pretty dispersed power structure (in my opinion) in twenties despite being a dictatorship. When the nation is divided, when the power is lost, the state is unable to do anything, whether bad or good.

      On the other hand, I do not think that states bring happiness to the people. They could be monstrous, inhumane, do bad things to their population… Whatever is good for Russia could be very, very bad for me, and I like myself too much to ignore this distinction. It’s just that I believe that nations and states are in some sense greater than me, other people, even the rulers themselves. They exist in their own logic, and we as individuals are only the oil in the machinery of History that drives them. Whether we want it or not.

      Good for you to read on the Post-Soviet history of Russia. I do not think that we themselves do it much (I have just one book one the period on the shelf). There is much interest in the Soviet period, especially the WWII and the Cold War, but not in the newest stuff. Perhaps, the national catastrophe is still too recent and raw for my generation, or maybe there is just a desire to shield ourselves from the current political reality. There is a lot of frustration in the air. Some are sublimating it into the decidedly radical political ideas, some are turning to the eschatology. There is a persistent little idea that NATO shall in the end occupy and destroy Russia: for some it’s a serious possibility, for the others – a masochistic joke, and some others still seriously think that that’s the only way to happiness and order. I think that the fate of Russia has already been sealed by the course history and whether it’s a salvation or us fucking it all up beyond any repair it will be by our own hands.

  • Pingback: Skepticlawyer » Violence and the State