This article was published in the
Autumn 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free
to Roderick Long’s "Was
the State Inevitable?"1
By Phil Jacobson
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Let me set the tone for my remarks by agreeing to agree with Roderick
to an extent. He states: "Even if the state was not inevitable,
the greater material scarcity of pre-industrial societies doubtless made
it more likely." Thus stated, I can hardly disagree.
Much of what Roderick says in his essay is based on what seems to be
an inaccurate understanding of some of my views. Our last FNF Forum was
about the family in a free nation. I chose to approach this from the perspective
of the historical relationship between family and state. References to
the origins of the state in my presentation were brief. The verbal comment
I made in response to Roderick’s question was far briefer.
To clarify things, I will explicitly address the topic of the origins
of the state in an essay entitled, "Food Wars and
the Origin of the State" (beginning on page 33 in this issue) which
can be read independently of my discussion with Roderick. However a number
of points which Roderick raised (in quotes below) deserve separate comment.
"… at our most recent FNF Forum, I asked [Phil] … whether the transition
from primitive society to civilization could have been accomplished without
the creation of the state—or whether instead the state was a historically
inevitable phase that humanity had to pass through.
"Phil replied that the latter seemed more likely to him, because prior
to the Industrial Revolution there simply were not enough resources to
support everyone, and so human interaction had to be, on balance, zero-sum"
Close, but not completely what I meant. I believe that the zero- (often
negative-) sum forces associated with the state were specifically the result
of periodic food shortages in the denser post-hunter-gatherer economies.
Other limited resources were not part of the problem I’m referring to.
And even food shortages were not continuous, though they became a constant
"exploitation would be seen as a more attractive mode of interaction
This is not about exploitation, which is a by-product of the real problem.
It is about surviving. As several generations of individuals grew up believing
that famine could strike with little warning, they learned that survival
required military institutions which would be ready to protect or steal
"If Phil's account is right, … the absence of industrialization is
what maintained the power of the state..."
It was not the absence of industrialization—but the citizen’s fear of death.
"if it is the state that prevents us from getting to that positive-sum
ideal, and the absence of positive-sum society is what maintains the state,
then by Phil's argument the present existence of the state might make its
future continuation inevitable"
I think the state actually encouraged industrialization because of the
value of industrialization in the production of weapons and other war supplies.
And it is not in the state’s interest that the entire society be zero-sum.
It is only necessary for the state that individuals feel that they must
be prepared for a war over their survival. War itself is a negative-sum
environment. Preparation for war would not necessarily require zero-sum
relations between citizens. Between wars economic productivity within the
society provides the state with a larger tax-base, which can make it stronger
and thus more appealing to security minded citizens.
"I want to resist the idea that pre-industrial society was zero-sum
in so strong a sense as to make gains from exploitation generally outweigh
gains from cooperation."
I never said this. I don’t believe it. The only zero-sum game is the one
of social dominance. The leaders of the state want to keep their status
relative to every one else in the society. This does not inherently preclude
a general rise in prosperity though it often has that effect. The state
is primarily interested in being able to suppress military competition.
It wants loyalty from its citizens, not poverty. Cooperation between citizens
is fine as long as this cooperation does not threaten the state. Civil
strife in a single society can be useful to a state if there is no external
military threat upon which to base citizen fears. But for any one state,
it is best if the conflict (and fear of conflict) on which the state feeds
is directed towards other communities (usually with their own states).
George Orwell described this fairly well in his novel 1984 under
the heading "War is Peace." I believe Orwell was wrong, however, to imply
that sheer propaganda could sustain the fear indefinitely.
"we can see that moral views advocating cooperation as preferable
to exploitation even in the face of severe material costs were plentiful
and popular in the ancient world."
It is useful for most states that a part (often the majority) of the subject
population be non-military producers, who pay their taxes but who never
participate in or train for violent activity. Many ancient (and modern)
philosophies provided handy belief systems for such people and were (and
are) quite useful to the state. In especially desperate times part of this
docile population could (and can) be abandoned so that the soldiers and
more privileged citizens remain adequately fed.
"Phil … would presumably say that although trade itself was positive-sum,
it occurred in a context that was zero-sum."
Phil would not say that trade occurred in a context that was zero-sum,
but rather that it occurred in a mixed (zero-sum, negative-sum and positive-sum)
environment, much as Roderick himself says. Phil thinks that theoretical
explorations of such mixed environments are long overdue and thanks Roderick
for raising the point.
"I take it that Phil sees ancient societies as being in something
like this situation, where the cost of refraining from exploitation is
so great that it outweighs the gains from cooperation."
No. Only that the fear of death motivates the bulk of a statist society’s
citizens (and serfs, and slaves) to cooperate with the exploitive institution
known as the state. Most of the support of the state comes from taxpayers,
"our ancestors certainly had the conceptual resources to realize that
their experiment with statism was not going to benefit most of them"
The state was not an experiment. (It is interesting that this is as close
as Roderick gets to offering an alternative explanation of the origin of
the state.) I see no evidence suggesting that an ancient constitutional
convention established the first state as a contract between free individuals.
The state was formed when bands of conquering warriors found it more expedient
to treat the conquered as cattle than to simply kill them and/or steal
from them. This was a major conceptual breakthrough for these warriors.
The conceptual resources of the conquered were limited to accepting this
situation as preferable to death.
1 This essay forms part of a series which begins with Phil Jacobson's
"From Free Families to Statist Societies and Back
Again" Formulations, Vol IV, No. 3, then continues with Roderick
Long's "Was the State Inevitable" Formulations,
Vol. IV, No. 4 (Summer 1997). The next installment is Jacobson's
"Food Wars and the Origin of the State", which
appears in this issue. [Web Editor's note: the discussion continues in
Formulations, Vol V, No. 3 as "Continued Dialog on
the Origin of the State". See also Mary Ruart's related comments
in this issue, "Aggression a Luxury, Not a Necessity"]
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