Liberty Matters

Is the Amount of State Coercion Inevitable and Fixed?


I think everyone in this symposium agrees with Jasay that the state is an inherently coercive institution. Munger writes, “Jasay does not just claim that existing states are not legitimated by tacit consent; he goes on to conclude that no state could be legitimated, even by actual consent.  This is, indeed, the fundamental anarchist conclusion.”
But Munger does add this qualifier: “The reason that Jasay is not an anarchist is that he concedes that, despite the failure of contractarian justifications, rational individuals would certainly acquiesce, and might even want to acquiesce—something close to voluntary endorsement—to the empirical fact of the existence of the state.” This perspective suggests that we might be stuck with a coercive state whether we like it or not.
Similarly Kliemt writes, “The state is such a potent instrument of exploiting others that once invented it will be used for exploitative purposes. The fact of the state’s existence does not justify its claims to act on behalf of the collectivity. For this view Jasay has merely scorn. Yet he is aware that once the state is invented it will stay around due to its superiority as an instrument of aggression and exploitation of others. As far as the withering away of the state is concerned, the situation is hopeless.”
Even though a society comprised of only voluntary interaction is the ideal, some amount of coercion may always exist. Munger illustrates that with his example of two people, a wallet, and a gun.
Munger writes, “Imagine that Stringham has a gun -- okay, no, that’s too scary.  Never mind.”
Scary indeed! Although I am too much of a pacifist to own a gun, Munger points out that guns can either be used to violate or protect what most people consider legitimate property rights.
This has relevance for limiting coercion from both private criminals and government. Just because the state is an inherently coercive institution, it does not mean the amount of coercion it can commit is fixed.
Coyne’s discussion of the many weak and failed states around the world shows that government’s powers are often very tenuous.
In certain cases, such as with the American Revolution, established governments can be overthrown and many (e.g., Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Murray Rothbard, and Leonard Liggio) suggest that the revolution had permanent liberty advancing effects on the world.  When enough people withdrew their support from or acted in open defiance of the British state, that state’s ability to impose itself on the American public was eliminated.
Governments also can often be evaded in nonviolent ways. James Scott’s study of upland Southeast Asia[33] describes what is called swidden agriculture, the practice of planting crops that are not easily detected or taxed. When would-be-tax collectors show up with their guns, the stateless people of Southeast Asia simply move up the mountain until the tax collector is gone. Even if a would-be state exists, its ability to extract resources from the public is extremely limited here. Similar factors are at play in the modern economy when businesses choose to move some or all of their operations to less extractive locales. The state is able to extract much more than my ideal (zero), but the productive sector of the economy is always able to carve out and operate in pockets of anarchy, and the important question is how much.
In Against Politics,  Jasay (Routledge, 1997: 10) writes, “The reasoning, leading from the prevalence of a centralized, sovereign third-party enforcement to its necessity is manifestly a mistake of inference, a non sequitur.” Recognizing that the government is not created or necessary to produce order in markets is one of the most important steps towards for bringing about a free society.
[33.] See at Edward Peter Stringham and Caleb J. Miles, “Repelling States: Evidence from Upland Southeast Asia”, Review of Austrian Economics, November 25, 2010; at <>.