Anarchy, Violence and the State

Does more government equal less violence?

By Stefan Molyneux, MA

When the subject of anarchy comes up, the most common objection to a stateless society is that violence will inevitably increase in the absence of a centralized state. This is a very interesting objection, and seems to arise from people who have imbibed a large amount of propaganda about the nature and role of the state. It seems hard to imagine that this conclusion could ever be reached by reasoning from first principles, as we will see below.

There are several circumstances under which the use of violence will either increase, or decrease – and they tend to resemble the basic principles of economics. For instance, people tend to respond to incentives, and tend to be drawn to circumstances under which they can gain the most resources by expending the least effort. Thus in the lottery system, people respond to the incentive of the million dollar payout by expending minimal resources in the purchase of a ticket.

There are several circumstances under which violence will tend to increase, rather than decrease – and interestingly enough, a centralized state creates and exacerbates all such circumstances.

Principle 1: Risk
Economically speaking, risk is the great balancer of rewards. If a horse is less likely to win a race, the gambling payout must be higher in order to induce people to bet on it. By their very nature, speculative investments must produce greater rewards than blue-chip stocks. Similarly, white-collar criminals generally face less physical risk than muggers. A stick-up man may inadvertently run up against a judo expert, and find the tables turned very quickly – while a hacker siphoning off funds electronically faces no such risk. In general, those interested in taking property by force will always gravitate toward situations where the risks of retaliation are lower.

One of the greatest ways of reducing the possibilities of retaliation is through the principle of overwhelming force. If five enormous muggers circle a 98 pound man and demand his wallet, the possibilities of retaliation are far lower than if the 98 pound man approaches five enormous men and demands that they surrender their wallets.

Clearly, the existence of a centralized state creates such an enormous disparity of power that resistance against government predations is, in all practicality, impossible. A man can either stand up to or move away from the Mafia, but can do almost nothing to oppose expansions of state power.

Thus we can see that the existence of a centralized state creates the following problems in regards to violence:

  1. The use of violence tends to increase when the risks of using that violence decreases
  2. the The risks of using violence tends to decrease as the disparity of power increases
  3. there There is no greater disparity of power than that between a citizen and his government
  4. therefore there is no better way to increase the use of violence than to create a centralized political state

Principle 2: Proximity
Using violence is a brutal and horrible task for most people. Most people are not physically or mentally equipped to use violence, either due to a lack of physical strength, a lack of martial knowledge, or an absence of sociopathic tendencies. However, the government has enormous, relatively efficient and well-distributed systems in place to initiate the use of force against (usually) disarmed citizens. Thus those who wish to gain the fruits of violence can do so by tapping into the government’s network of enforcers, without ever having to direct thely witness or deploy violence themselves.

It can be generally said that the use of violence tends to increase when the visibility and proximity of violence tends to decrease. In other words, if you can get other people to do your dirty work, more dirty work will tend to get done. If everyone who wished to gain the fruits of state violence had to go on and hold their own guns to everyone's everyone’s heads, almost all of them would end up refraining from such direct brutality.

Thus in the realm of proximity as well, the existence of a centralized state tends to both the distance and hide the effects of violence from those who wish to gain the fruits of violence – thus ensuring that the use of violence will tend to increase.

Principle 3: Externalization of Costs
In a stateless society, it is impossible to “outsource” violence to the police orf the military, since they do not exist. With the government, however, those who wish to gain the fruits of violence – i.e. tax revenues, the regulation of competitors, the blocking of imports and so on – can lobby the government to enforce such beneficial restrictions on the free trade and choices of others. They will have to pay for this lobbying effort, but they will not have to directly fund the police and the military and the court system and the prison system guards in order to force people to obey their whims. This “externalization of costs” is an essential ingredient in the expansion of the use of violence.

For instance, imagine if you are a steel manufacturer who wants to block the imports of steel from other countries – can you imagine how expensive it would be to build your own navy, your own radar system, your own Coast Guard, your own inspectors and so on? And even if you found it economically advantageous to do all that, could you guarantee that none of your competitors would do the same? Would still be economically advantageous if you ended up getting into an arms race with all of your fellow manufacturers? And what if your customers found out that you were using your own private militia to block the imports of steel – might they not take offense at your use of violence and boycott you? No, in the absence of a centralized state that you can offload all the enforcement costs to, it is going to be far cheaper for you to compete openly than develop your own private, overwhelming and universal army.

Thus in any situation where the costs of using violence can be externalized to some centralized agency, the use of that violence will always tend to increase. Offloading the costs of violence to taxpayers will always make violence profitable to specific agencies within society – whether private or public. And so, once again, we can see that the existence of the state will always tend to increase the use of violence.

Principle 4: Deferment
How much do you think you would spend if you knew that you would be long-dead when the bill came due? This is, of course, the basic principle of deficit financing – the deferment of payments to the next generation – which is perhaps the most insidious form of taxation. Forcibly transferring property from those who have not even been born yet is perhaps the greatest “externalization” of costs that can be imagined! Naturally, the risks of retaliation from the unborn are almost nonexistent – and neither is any direct violence performed against them. Thus the principle of “deferment” is perhaps one of the greatest ways in which the existence of a centralized state increases the use of violence.

Principle 5: Propaganda
It is well known in totalitarian regimes that in order to get people to accept the use of violence, that violence must always be reframed in a noble light. Government violence can never be referred to as merely the use of brute force for the material gain of politicians and bureaucrats – it must always represent the manifestation of core social or cultural values, such as caring for the poor, the sick, the old, or the indigent. The violence must always be tucked away from conceptual view, and the effects of violence elevated to sentimental heights of soaring rhetoric. Furthermore, the effects of the withdrawal of violence must always be portrayed as catastrophic and evil. Thus the elimination of the welfare state would cause mass starvation; the elimination of medical subsidies would cause mass death; the elimination of the war on drugs would cause massive addictions and social collapse – and the elimination of the state itself would directly create a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk nightmare world of brutal and endlessly warring gangs.

A pPropaganda is different from advertising in that all that advertising can ever do is get you to try a product for the first time – if the quality of the product does not meet your needs or expectations, then you will simply never buy that product again. Propaganda, on the other hand, is quite different. Advertising appeals to choice and self-interest; propaganda uses rhetoric to morally justify the absence of choice and self-interest. Advertising can only stimulate a one-time demand; propaganda permanently suppresses rationality. Advertising generally uses the argument from effect (you will be better off); propaganda always uses the argument from morality (you are evil for doubting).

The private funding of propaganda is never economically viable, since the amount of time and energy required to instill propaganda within the mind of the average person is far too great to justify its cost. In a voluntary system like the free market, paying for year after year of propaganda (which can only result in a ‘first time’ purchase of a good or service) is never worth it. Propaganda is only “worth it” when it can be used to keep people passive within a coercive system like state taxation or regulation. For instance, here in Canada, socialized medicine is always called a “core Canadian value”, and can be subject to no rational, moral or economic analysis. (Of course, if it really were a “core Canadian value”, then we would scarcely need to state to enforce it!) Because the existing system is so terrible, it takes years of state propaganda – primarily directed at children – to overcome people's people’s actual experiences of the endless disasters of socialized medicine. Propaganda is always required where people would never voluntarily choose the situation that the propaganda is praising. Thus we need endless propaganda extolling the virtues of the welfare state, the war on drugs and socialized medicine, while the virtues of eating chocolate cake are left for us to discover and maintain on our own.

Government propaganda is primarily aimed at children through state schools, and primarily takes the form off an absence of topics. The coercive nature of the state is never mentioned, of course, and neither are the financial benefits which accrue to those who control the state. Children do hear endlessly about how the state protects the environment, feeds the poor and heals the sick. This propaganda blinds people to the true nature of state violence – thus ensuring that state violence can increase with relatively little to no opposition.

Government propaganda is primarily delivered through state schools, which parents are forced to pay for through taxation. Thus a ghastly situation is created wherein the taxpayers are forced to pay for their own indoctrination – and the indoctrination of their children. This “externalization of cost” is perhaps the greatest tool that the government uses to ensure that increasing state violence will be subject to little or no opposition. No corporation or private agency could possibly profit from a 14-year program of indoctrinating children – the state, however, by pushing the costs of indoctrination onto parents, creates a situation where the slaves are forced to pay for their own manacles. And as we all know, when slaves don't don’t resist, owning slaves becomes economically far more viable.

For the above reasons, it is clear that the existence of a centralized state vastly increases both the profit and the prevalence of violence. The fact that the violence is masked by obedience in no way diminishes the brutality of coercion. All moralists interested in one of the greatest topics of ethics – the reduction or elimination of violence – would do well to understand the depth and degree to which the existence of a centralized state promotes, exacerbates and profits from violence. Private violence is a negative but manageable situation – as we can see from countless examples throughout history, public violence always escalates until civil society is utterly destroyed. Because the state so directly. P profits from violence, eliminating the state can in no way increase the use of violence within society. Quite the contrary – since private agencies do not profit from violence, eliminating the state will, to a degree unprecedented in human history, eliminate violence as well.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (, the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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June 2024

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