On Realistic Alternatives to the Modern State
Libertarians imagine a different world – a better world. One where the overweening power of the state is reined back and individual freedom reigns. One where the clumsy mechanisms and interventions of centralized government is abolished and people are free to govern themselves through voluntary association. One where property rights are absolute. One where people are truly, and fully, free.
It’s worth asking yourself – why hasn’t this ever been put into practice or even attempted? After all, it sounds wonderful! I’d like to live in that society – as long as I wasn’t crippled, or developmentally disabled, or otherwise a non-producer. But if you are, it sounds like a nice place to live – no government confiscating my income or inflating away the value of my money. Yet…no one’s ever made a society like this work. What if the actual alternative to a statist society isn’t the libertarian utopia?
It might be something else, which we tried before the state came around in the 1600s or so – and it might not be very pleasant. Mark Weiner has written a nice essay about this alternative – he calls it rule by clans. Or as a hardcore libertarian might say, traditional family-based voluntary associations:
Across their differences, these three forms of the rule of the clan share a socio-legal structure that, for all its benefits, undermines personal autonomy. This structure radically decentralizes legal and political authority and institutes a culture of group honor and shame. Group honor and shame allow the rule of the clan’s devolution of power to work by promoting both internal self-regulation within extended kin groups and coexistence among them—but this structure comes at a substantial price.
The world of the clan isn’t a nice place. It’s what happens when the state is stripped away and we degenerate. It’s a brutal place where groups are engaged in a fierce struggle to bring resources into their private domain, and will treat their members ruthlessly to further group ends. It’s a world where substantial personal autonomy is possessed only by the man (and it is usually a man) heading the clan.
The modern state is the most important technology invented in the last thousand years, because it’s what made the rest possible. And it’s the single technological innovation that has done the most to further the goal of individual liberty. When libertarians ask, “Doesn’t the state make us less free?”, we have to respond, “Compared to what?”