A favorite pastime of mine is reading heated debates between statists, usually of the minarchist type, and anarcho-capitalists. In one such thread a minarchist pointed out that Mises wasn’t in favor of anarchism (to no one’s surprise), and an argument ensued where fellow anarchists claimed that Mises likely had no conception of a stateless, yet lawful society. The debate eventually escalated into anarcho-capitalist theory and how law would naturally arise and be enforced. Statists, however, rebuked that the largest private defense agency would take over everything and enforce tyrannical laws because they had the most guns and money.
This is a popular conjecture and has been used against many an anarchist. The premise is that once a single person, or cabal of rich people, control enough of the legal and protection service apparatus, they will then override their consumers’ preferences and create a de facto state. The person making the argument usually concludes that since the state is inevitable we should accept this reality and focus on shaping the state in the most preferable way.
The common counter arguments I’ve witnessed are always technical in nature. They usually run along the lines that in order to establish the private defense and dispute resolution agencies, the proprietors will need to convince both their investors and their customers that they will not engage in this activity. To prove this a large quantity of insurance will be purchased. Furthermore, accounting statements of what arms and munitions exist will be made public. Also raised is the looming threat that should such an agency or group of agencies violate their contracts, monthly premiums will stop being paid by their former customers resulting in financial ruin.
Regardless of how effective such counter arguments may be, I believe there would be a deeper, more fundamental barrier preventing voluntary defense agencies from later going on the offensive. To shed light on this we must first examine where responsibility lay in various historical state models.
The falsely attributed but popular quote from Louis XIV of France, “I am the state,” exemplifies the idea that ancient rulers were considered to possess the moral authority to do as they wish. Of course, the problem with being the king is that a king and his head are so easily parted, often resulting in the collapse of the state. Moreover, simply dying from natural causes could tear apart an empire. Such was the case concerning Alexander The Great, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, and Genghis Kahn. With their deaths, so went their states.
Borrowing from the theory that ideas are like organisms, if the state is to survive, then having a central power figure as its embodiment is risky business given the guarantee of the despot to eventually die. Luckily for the political class, a more resilient state was founded around the same time that the heads of monarchs began to roll in Europe. An upstart rabble from the American colonies provided just the solution to this age old problem. The state was reborn by the arcane rite of infusing a document with the powers of state coercion for all to see. This Constitution, though honorably intended to serve notice to would-be despots and future kings, breathed life anew into the notions of statehood, thus creating an entity far more powerful than the Roman Empire of yore. Interwoven with the concept of legal person-hood, the state became a purely fictional entity, disembodied from the physical vessel of the despot and transformed into the ephemeral spirit of The Nation. Now, no matter who lost their head, the faceless, invisible state would live on in the minds of the masses through its flags, anthems, legal charters, and titles. Now, it seemed, the state might continue forever, save for the fact that it is built upon contradictions.
This wasn’t quite a new development, however, as it had been tried before in ancient Greece and other places. It had succeeded for quite a while under the Roman Republic and it was no coincidence that a similar form was chosen for the new American Republic. It was an old idea made new again, soaring to new heights as evidenced by how many countries around the world adopted similar systems of governance. Even the Soviet Union had a constitution.
To showcase the disembodied state, consider the prosecution of an individual. At no point will the judge allow him or her to speak to the state in person. Facing the state would be a fair request considering that it is their accuser. But this is an impossibility, of course, as one may only speak with agents of the state, such as the judge. The same goes for policemen and prosecutors. Even the Congress and the President are mere agents, only possessed with the greater authority conferred by their title.
Why this is important is very simple; since the state is a fiction, and everyone of its employees are mere agents, then not a one of them is responsible for its actions. This is the critical feature. No matter what the agents do, so long as it generally lines up with what is written down upon the holy documents, they are not considered morally responsible for their actions and cannot be held legally accountable. Complain to a police officer and he will give you the excuse that he is just doing his job. The state regulator will recite some legalese and say that he is just following the law. The politician will claim that the Constitution mandates the legislature to do certain things. The judge will cite past rulings and the pilot who releases his bomb on a target is sworn by oath to obey the will of the state through its officers.
No one is responsible for anything because they are all servants of an unseen, undetectable, all-knowing, all-powerful entity we call The State. It is a pure fiction.
That is the fundamental difference between an anarcho-capitalist society and a government. Individuals are responsible for their actions. There are no magical super-conscious entities that they can blame for their misdeeds. And that is the reason why a group of people who make agreements to offer protection under specific terms will not later go around tyrannizing everyone after they have accumulated large amounts of weaponry. There simply will not be anyone else to bear the burden of blame for their actions.
Statism’s evil lies in that it gives people an excuse to behave badly by transferring moral responsibility onto a fictional being that isn’t real. Anarchism is the rejection of that myth and as a consequence it places moral culpability where it belongs, the individual.