On State Legitimacy: A Reply To Danny Shahar

This is a response to Danny’s post.

I don’t think it’s necessary to provide a positive “proof” for the immorality of the state. To be more precise, I think of it more in terms of this: given certain nearly universal social norms (such as the shunning of murder, theft, arson, rape and kidnapping), if one wants to be consistant with those norms then one must aknowledge the degree to which the state contradicts those norms, so for me it’s more about internal consistancy. For the most part, something along the lines of voluntaryism basically already is the meta-ethical framework of most of civil society. It is implicit in their interaction and it is also pragmatic for its functionality. Most people do not engage in the negative rights violating activities that are commonly classified as crimes. The problem comes in when the meta-ethical framework is breached as centralization occurs and institutions with excessive territorial claims form and begin acting as mechanisms to externalize the risk and responsibility necessary to engage in such behaviors, and hence there is the creation of a glaring double standard between personal or “private” conduct and conduct within the context of these institutions.It should be fairly obvious that the state as it currently exists (and as far as we know, as it always has existed) is in fundamental violation of civil society’s meta-ethical norms at face value. The problem is that most people within society believe in a fictional conception of the state that has the effect of regaurding the state as being immune to society’s meta-ethical norms. The reality of what the state is and does is cloaked behind all sorts of ideological tenets of legitimacy that function as apologetics for inconsistancies in the application of principles. Hence, the libertarian is not necessarily the one in the position of putting foreward positive “proofs”, the rest of the political spectrum is. The libertarian only needs to deconstruct or delegitimize the positive assertions and assumptions that exists within the language and ideologies behind politics. Once this is done, state legitimacy is essentially logically ruled out, much in the same way that a belief in a diety is ruled out by atheism. It is fundamentally the negation of a concept, and hence it has no metaphysical significance in and of itself.

The question of state legitimacy is also indirectly linked to a more practical question of institutional incentives. There is no need to put foreward a “proof” of the idea that the state is inherently evil, one can easily demonstrate that the incentives internal to the institution are enabling of a breach of civil society’s meta-ethical framework. Sure, one can point to certain individuals or instances that might be more reserved in this regaurd, but ultimately they have a very clear role as an institutional member or agent that their individual personality or traits can do very little to defy. In conjunction with my earlier points about how people externalize risk and responsibility, members of the state may very well be fairly civil as individuals, but in their role as members of the state they are part of the functionality of an institution that ultimately serves ends that contradict the norms of their more personal lives. So while it might be a little misleading or sweeping to say that the state is evil, implying that its members are all evil in their personal behavior, the institution simply cannot function as a state without either some prior or active breach of society’s meta-ethical norms.

About talking points such as “taxation is theft”: The situation is certainly more subtle or complicated than these three words alone can explain, but the essence of the sentiment is correct. Perhaps a better word to describe the function of taxation would be extortion, as it isn’t as direct as a common mugging or theft would be, but nonetheless the effect is basically the same as theft. Taxation is basically an institutionalized extortion fee or compulsory rent for living within the territory claimed by the state and participating in commerce within the territory. In the case of property taxes you are extorted for having your own dwelling, and in the case of income taxes you are extorted for having a job. While it is not taken directly from you initially, you are threatened with legal action that is ultimately backed up by the threat of force and if you persistantly refuse to pay up then you will eventually have your home invaded and be forced off of your own property, essentially kidnapped. As things escalate in light of persistant refusal to cooperate, it is more and more likely that you will be shot.

The way that taxation functions to pay for services is notably different from even the way that consumer prices function in a semi-unfree-market. In the case of consumer prices, you at least have the option to choose to not buy something or not patronize a service, while in the case of taxation the payment for the service is legally compulsory for everyone within the territory regaurdless of the degree to which they use or don’t use the service. Furthermore, these state provided services become such massive inherited power structures that in many cases one has little choice but to use them if one wants to function in society and the incentive to provide alternatives to the provision of the service are greatly diminished by the law, and so in a sense there is an element of compulsory consumption as well. In light of this, I don’t see it as unreasonable at all to compare taxation to the extortion fees of a mafia or to the rent of a fuedal landlord, especially considering the primacy of the state’s monopoly on the provision of justice. The only differance is ideological legitimacy and scale: the mafia isn’t as large-scale as the state and the state is presumed to have legitimacy, and the fuedal landlord is just a mini-state. Hence, the question of legitimacy is very relevant.

Many people may be prone to shift the discussion to the question of public services at this point, argueing that taxation is legitimate or not so bad because you get public services in exchange for them and are therefore compensated. Aside from the already mentioned problems of a lack of consumer choice in the process of patronizing these services, this is rather naive because it begs the question: why couldn’t you have voluntarily gotten that service with the money you had in the first place then? Furthermore, the provision of these services is predicated on past and present generations of taxation, the institutions are entirely dependant on taxes (aside from inflation and borrowing). Ultimately you are only getting back a small portion of what was taken from you and past generations and you get almost no real decision-making power in the process of deciding on the particulars of the service. The public services often function as bribery with money that was extorted from the populace to begin with.

We’ve basically just identified the three keystones to state power: the territorial dominion or monopoly, the power of taxation that follows from the territorial dominion, and ideological legitimacy (which is often coupled with bribery). All of these things interconnect, as the territorial dominion and taxing power are dependant on ideological legitimacy in order to not be seen as a mere centralization of criminal activity. The libertarian deconstructs all of this and puts it to the test of consistancy, revealing that there is nothing to back it up but dogma and prejudice. There is no grandios positive proof necessary: the territorial dominion and the taxing power that follows from it are what require proof and ultimately do not withstand the burden of proof. The arguments people most often put foreward only beg the question by presuming the legitimacy of the territorial dominion in the first place, and it’s clear that there is no real logical explaination for the legitimacy of such a territorial dominion.

Hence, the “love it or leave it” argument is an epic fail because it presumes the legitimacy of the territorial dominion to begin with. It does nothing to explain why the state has such an arbitrary claim and why the individual must leave the state’s dominion rather than the state leaving the individual’s dominion. There is an inherent conflict between the individual’s sovereignty (including their rightful property) and this sweeping and arbitrary claim to territorial dominion, and to simply assume the legitimacy of the more powerful entity in the scenario by mere virtue of its power makes no sense. At such a point, one must put foreward at least something resembling a theory or meta-theory of property in order to examine and explain the state’s territorial claim and the individual’s claim, and one must put foreward a theory of how states form (and not just some mythical fantasy). How did the state really aquire all this land, or didn’t it? How would an individual or group manage to aquire an entire country? Endless absurdities arise in the attempt to legitimize this territorial claim.

Basically what we’re left with are few bad arguments for legitimacy: implicit consent to the social contract and political democracy. Once again, these arguments are predicated on assumptions of legitimacy to begin with. For example, the idea that we’re free because the state allows voting is predicated on the assumption that voting is actually a significant mechanism of public control and that the members of the state are actually accuratel reflective of and responsive to the demands of the public. Furthermore, the system of voting itself is predicated on the legitimacy of the positions of power that are being voted on. Likewise, the social contract argument assumes the legitimacy of the territorial dominion to begin with and leaves no real room for individual choice. It basically reduces to: “you were born, therefore you’re obligated to serve”, and there is no way to logically justify this rank contradiction in terms of the status and abilities of men.

So I think it’s important to have a proper grounding for rejecting legitimacy.

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