This article was published in the Autumn 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
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 threat. "exploitation would be seen as a more attractive mode of interaction than cooperation," 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 food. "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, not soldiers. "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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