The Nature of the State and Why Libertarians Hate It

Rothbard described Mencken as “The Joyous Libertarian,” a label that could also be applied to Rothbard himself, called by Justin Raimondo “the happy scholar-warrior of liberty.” Yet Rothbard also famously said “hatred is my muse”. By this he meant, I think, hatred of the state and all manifestations of statism. Anti-statism is an essential aspect of libertarianism–anarchists oppose the entire state, root and branch, while minarchists oppose all of the modern state save for a tiny core of vital functions.

One of the most important thinkers on the nature of the state was Franz Oppenheimer, who distinguished between the economic means and the political means, and defined the state as the organization of the political means. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in his superb Anarcho-Capitalism: An Annotated Bibliography:

Franz Oppenheimer is a left-anarchist German sociologist. In The State he distinguishes between the economic (peaceful and productive) and the political (coercive and parasitic) means of wealth acquisition, and explains the state as instrument of domination and exploitation.

As Oppenheimer wrote in his classic work The State:

I mean by [the “State”] that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra economic power. And in contrast to this, I mean by Society, the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man …. [from the Introduction]

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. … I propose … to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others “the economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.” … The state is an organization of the political means. [Ch. 1]

Rothbard was also heavily influenced by Oppenheimer, writing in The Ethics of Liberty:

If the state, then, is a vast engine of institutionalized crime and aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth, then this means that the State is a criminal organization.

He goes on (in ch. 22):

But, above all, the crucial monopoly is the State’s control of the use of violence: of the police and armed services, and of the courts—the locus of ultimate decision-making power in disputes over crimes and contracts. Control of the police and the army is particularly important in enforcing and assuring all of the State’s other powers, including the all-important power to extract its revenue by coercion.

For there is one crucially important power inherent in the nature of the State apparatus. All other persons and groups in society (except for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. That coercion is known as “taxation,” although in less regularized epochs it was often known as “tribute.” Taxation is theft, purely and simply even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.

If, then, taxation is compulsory, and is therefore indistinguishable from theft, it follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal organization far more formidable and successful than any “private” Mafia in history. Furthermore, it should be considered criminal not only according to the theory of crime and property rights as set forth in this book, but even according to the common apprehension of mankind, which always considers theft to be a crime. As we have seen above, the nineteenth-century German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer put the matter succinctly when he pointed out that there are two and only two ways of attaining wealth in society: (a) by production and voluntary exchange with others—the method of the free market; and (b)by violent expropriation of the wealth produced by others. The latter is the method of violence and theft. The former benefits all parties involved; the latter parasitically benefits the looting group or class at the expense of the looted. Oppenheimer trenchantly termed the former method of obtaining wealth, “the economic means,” and the latter “the political means.” Oppenheimer then went on brilliantly to define the State as “the organization of the political means.”

As Hoppe noted, Albert Jay Nock was also “influenced by Franz Oppenheimer. In Our Enemy, The State he explains the anti-social, predatory nature of the state, and draws a sharp distinction between government as voluntarily acknowledged authority and the State. Nock in turn influenced Frank Chodorov, who would influence young Murray Rothbard.” Nock, thus, likewise drawing on Oppenheimer, wrote:

The State, then, whether primitive, feudal or merchant, is the organization of the political means.


The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner.4 On the negative side, it has been proved beyond peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origin.5 Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another. In this sense, every State known to history is a class-State. Oppenheimer defines the State, in respect of its origin, as an institution “forced on a defeated group by a conquering group, with a view only to systematizing the domination of the conquered by the conquerors, and safeguarding itself against insurrection from within and attack from without. This domination had no other final purpose than the economic exploitation of the conquered group by the victorious group.”

And along the same lines, Jesus Huerta de Soto refers to the state simply as “the body with a monopoly on institutional aggression” and “the sole agent of institutional coercion,” in his “Classical Liberalism versus Anarcho-Capitalism,” in Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Mises also focuses on the state’s use of violence as a defining feature:

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. [Omnipotent Government]

Hoppe provides a characteristically rigorous and accurate definition of “state” as follows:

Let me begin with the definition of a state. What must an agent be able to do to qualify as a state? This agent must be able to insist that all conflicts among the inhabitants of a given territory be brought to him for ultimate decision-making or be subject to his final review. In particular, this agent must be able to insist that all conflicts involving himself be adjudicated by him or his agent. And implied in the power to exclude all others from acting as ultimate judge, as the second defining characteristic of a state, is the agent’s power to tax: to unilaterally determine the price that justice seekers must pay for his services.

Based on this definition of a state, it is easy to understand why a desire to control a state might exist. For whoever is a monopolist of final arbitration within a given territory can make laws. And he who can legislate can also tax. Surely, this is an enviable position. [See Hoppe, Reflections on the Origin and the Stability of the State.]

For further commentary on the nature of the state and anarcho-libertarianism, see also Anthony de Jasay, The State; John Hasnas, The Obviousness of Anarchy (also the author of The Myth of the Rule of Law, a modern classic); Roderick Long, Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism; Alfred G. Cuzán classic article Do We Ever Really Get Out of Anarchy? (see also his Revisiting “Do We Every Really Get Out of Anarchy?”); and my article What It Means to be an Anarcho-Capitalist.

Libertarians, “Government,” and the State

Now, given this understanding of the state, it is quite clear why libertarians hate the state. We libertarians are proponents of human liberty and freedom and individual rights. And we recognize that aggression is the only way to violate rights. We thus condemn aggression as criminal and unjust. We oppose not only private crime, but also institutionalized crime (see my What It Means to be an Anarcho-Capitalist and What Libertarianism Is). If there is an agency that commits institutionalized aggression then we oppose it because it commits aggression. The state just is “the agency that commits institutionalized aggression.” (Incidentally, the concept of the state in international law is this: The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.)

When the state is defined in this manner, then the various debates among minarchists and anarchists about whether “government” is libertarian or not become purely semantic (see, e.g. my post Machanarchy). If by “government” the minarchist means a (small) state, then it is criminal and unlibertarian. If by “government” they mean merely the non-state institutions of law and justice in a free society, then we are not opposed to it because such institutions are not inherently aggressive. In other words, when minarchists talk about government, the question is not how we classify it or what the best words are for state, government, etc., semantically: but rather: the question is: does the “government” that “minarchists” (?) favor engage in institutionalized aggression, or not? If not, it’s not a state, and it’s not unlibertarian. If it does, it’s merely a type of state.

Update: great quote from Rothbard’s Do You Hate the State?:

Furthermore, in contrast to what seems to be true nowadays, you don’t have to be an anarchist to be radical in our sense, just as you can be an anarchist while missing the radical spark. I can think of hardly a single limited governmentalist of the present day who is radical — a truly amazing phenomenon, when we think of our classical liberal forbears who were genuinely radical, who hated statism and the States of their day with a beautifully integrated passion: the Levellers, Patrick Henry, Tom Paine, Joseph Priestley, the Jacksonians, Richard Cobden, and on and on, a veritable roll call of the greats of the past. Tom Paine’s radical hatred of the State and statism was and is far more important to the cause of liberty than the fact that he never crossed the divide between laissez-faire and anarchism.

And closer to our own day, such early influences on me as Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken, and Frank Chodorov were magnificently and superbly radical. Hatred of our enemy, the state and all of its works shone through all of their writings like a beacon star. So what if they never quite made it all the way to explicit anarchism? Far better one Albert Nock than a hundred anarchocapitalists who are all too comfortable with the existing status quo.

Where are the Paines and Cobdens and Nocks of today? Why are almost all of our laissez-faire limited governmentalists plonky conservatives and patriots? If the opposite of “radical” is “conservative,” where are our radical laissez-fairists? If our limited statists were truly radical, there would be virtually no splits between us. What divides the movement now, the true division, is not anarchist vs. minarchist, but radical vs. conservative. Lord, give us radicals, be they anarchists or no.

Coercion, Socialism, Capitalism, and Semantics

While we are sorting out some semantic issues here, let’s mention a few others. First: this is a minor issue, but as I noted in The Problem with “Coercion”, the word “coercion” technically just means forcing someone to do something by means of a threat. As such, it may be justified (as when it’s used to deal with a criminal) or it may be aggression. Yet libertarians often use “coercion” as a synonym for “aggression.” This is a mistake for two reasons. First, as noted, coercion need not be aggressive. Coercion is like a type of force: and force used in defense is legitimate, while initiated force is not. Second, even if coercion were always aggressive, aggressive-coercion would only be a subset of aggression: shooting someone is not coercing them, it’s just aggressing against them. Threatening to shoot them if they don’t join your army is coercing them.

Now. On to “capitalism.” As I noted in Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism, there is undoubtedly baggage associated with the word “capitalism,” but it is still useful to describe a significant aspect of the free market economy of a libertarian society–so long as one is careful to distinguish it from crony capitalism and corporatism. Yet it’s probably not a good synonym for libertarianism, both because of the baggage and bad connotations, and because, at best, it has to do with only part of the economy of a free society. So, the words has its limited uses but we have to be careful.

What about “socialism”? Some left-libertarians (such as Kevin Carson and Gary Chartier) go so far as to argue that socialism is libertarian. While the word could be re-defined in a libertarian-compatible way, there are obviously too many statist-connotations associated with “socialism” for this project to even be attempted. If left-libertarians think there is too much baggage with “capitalism” for it to be a synonym for libertarianism, “socialism” faces far worse problems. In fact, if we understand socialism in its classical meaning–state control of the means of production–then we see that socialism and statism imply each other. As Hoppe argues,

There can be no socialism without a state, and as long as there is a state there is socialism. The state, then, is the very institution that puts socialism into action; and as socialism rests on aggressive violence directed against innocent victims, aggressive violence is the nature of any state. [A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, pp. 148-49; emphasis added (From Re: Is the Vatican a State?)]

As I noted in What Libertarianism Is, Hoppe, in his treatise A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (chapters 3–6), provides a systematic analysis of various forms of socialism: Socialism Russian-Style, Socialism Social-Democratic Style, the Socialism of Conservatism, and the Socialism of Social Engineering. In fact, recognizing the common elements of various forms of socialism and their distinction from libertarianism (capitalism), Hoppe incisively defines socialism as “an institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims.” Ibid., p. 2 (emphasis added). In other words, although the term socialism is usually narrowly restricted to public ownership of the means of production, from a political or ethical standpoint there is nothing special about “capital”; what is important about it is that it is a type of private property. Thus the essence of socialism is simply institutionalized aggression against private property. In this broader sense, any state action that infringes on property rights is socialistic.

This definition seems to get at the essence of what socialism is; it is basically public, or institutionalized, crime. Applied literally, any state at all, even a minimal one, is “socialistic” to a certain degree, since states necessarily commit aggression. Therefore, according to this definition, anyone other than an anarcho-libertarian is to a degree a socialist–even a minarchist. Certainly all those outside the anarchist/minarchist camps are advocates of socialist policies and institutions, to a degree.

Mythologizing America

Given our radical view of the state, I believe it is time for libertarians to stop glorifying early America, the Founders, the Constitution, etc., as proto-libertarian. All states are illegitimate, including America’s. For further reading, see my blog posts Goodbye 1776, 1789, Tom; Jeff Hummel’s “The Constitution as a Counter-Revolution”; Rockwell on Hoppe on the Constitution as Expansion of Government Power; Bill Marina (R.I.P.) on American Imperialism from the Beginning; Happy We-Should-Restore-The-Monarchy-And-Rejoin-Britain Day!; Revising the American Revolution, The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army; The Declaration and Conscription; ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’.

Our Enemy, The State

Let me conclude with Lew Rockwell’s stirring words in his article The Enemy Is Always the State:

Let me state this as plainly as possible. The enemy is the state. There are other enemies too, but none so fearsome, destructive, dangerous, or culturally and economically debilitating. No matter what other proximate enemy you can name – big business, unions, victim lobbies, foreign lobbies, medical cartels, religious groups, classes, city dwellers, farmers, left-wing professors, right-wing blue-collar workers, or even bankers and arms merchants – none are as horrible as the hydra known as the leviathan state. If you understand this point – and only this point – you can understand the core of libertarian strategy.

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  • This article locates the definition of libertarianism in the answer to

    one critical question: How do you regard the state? This seems a

    better approach than trying to define libertarianism in reference to

    “capitalism,” “socialism,” or — even more vaguely — “being for

    liberty,” and is better still than a definition by reference to particular

    positions (abortion, immigration, etc.). The current fashion to

    redefine its relation with long-accepted terms (viz., “capitalism” by

    S.Richman, “socialism” by K.Carson G.Chartier) I think stems from

    exasperation with the fecklessness of the Libertarian Party. But

    holding a certain position does not make one responsible for other

    people’s misapprehension of that position. Any deference to this

    misapprehension should be clearly stated as tactical, and should

    not tempt us to compromise on the clear meaning of terms.