Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The State by Ludwig von Mises

The State
The state is essentially an apparatus of compulsion and coercion. The characteristic feature of its activities is to compel people through the application or the threat of force to behave otherwise than they would like to behave.
But not every apparatus of compulsion and coercion is called a state. Only one which is powerful enough to maintain its existence, for some time at least, by its own force is commonly called a state. A gang of robbers, which because of the comparative weakness of its forces has no prospect of successfully resisting for any length of time the forces of another organization, is not entitled to be called a state. The state will either smash or tolerate a gang. In the first case the gang is not a state because its independence lasts for a short time only; in the second case it is not a state because it does not stand on its own might. The pogrom gangs in imperial Russia were not a state because they could kill and plunder only thanks to the connivance of the government.
This restriction of the notion of the state leads directly to the concepts of state territory and sovereignty. Standing on its own power implies that there is a space on the earth's surface where the operation of the apparatus is not restricted by the intervention of another organization; this space is the state's territory. Sovereignty (suprema potestas, supreme power) signifies that the organization stands on its own legs. A state without territory is an empty con­cept. A state without sovereignty is a contradiction in terms.
The total complex of the rules according to which those at the helm employ compulsion and coercion is called law. Yet the char­acteristic feature of the state is not these rules, as such, but the application or threat of violence. A state whose chiefs recognize but one rule, to do whatever seems at the moment to be expedient in their eyes, is a state without law. It does not make any difference whether or not these tyrants are "benevolent."
The term law is used in a second meaning too. We call interna-tional law the complex of agreements which sovereign states have concluded expressly or tacitly in regard to their mutual relations. It is not, however, essential to the statehood of an organization that other states should recognize its existence through the conclusion of such agreements. It is the fact of sovereignty within a territory that is essential, not the formalities.
The people handling the state machinery may take over other functions, duties, and activities. The government may own and operate schools, railroads, hospitals, and orphan asylums. Such activities are only incidental to the conception of a state. Whatever other functions it may assume, the state is always characterized by the compulsion and coercion exercised.
With human nature as it is, the state is a necessary and indis­pensable institution. The state is, if properly administered, the foundation of society, of human coöperation and civilization. It is the most beneficial and most useful instrument in the endeavors of man to promote human happiness and welfare. But it is a tool and a means only, not the ultimate goal. It is not God. It is simply com­pulsion and coercion; it is the police power.
It has been necessary to dwell upon these truisms because the mythologies and metaphysics of etatism have succeeded in wrap­ping them in mystery. The state is a human institution, not a superhuman being. He who says "state" means coercion and com­pulsion. He who says: There should be a law concerning this mat­ter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: The police should force people to obey this law. He who says: The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad govern­ments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster.
The apparatus of compulsion and coercion is always operated by mortal men. It has happened time and again that rulers have ex­celled their contemporaries and fellow citizens both in competence and in fairness. But there is ample historical evidence to the con­trary too. The thesis of etatism that the members of the government and its assistants are more intelligent than the people, and that they know better what is good for the individual than he him­self knows, is pure nonsense. The Führers and the Duces are neither God nor God's vicars.
The essential characteristic features of state and government do not depend on their particular structure and constitution. They are present both in despotic and in democratic governments. De­mocracy too is not divine. We shall later deal with the benefits that society derives from democratic government. But great as these advantages are, it should never be forgotten that majorities are no less exposed to error and frustration than kings and dictators. That a fact is deemed true by the majority does not prove its truth. That a policy is deemed expedient by the majority does not prove its expediency. The individuals who form the majority are not gods, and their joint conclusions are not necessarily godlike.

Omnipotent Government

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