The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Society Thrives On Law While The State Produces Anarchy

Post by Mark Horne

One of the problems with the discussions of “Libertarian Anarchism” is that the participants in the discussion do not know that

  1. There have been functional societies lacking a state.
  2. These societies have never been libertarian.

You can read about one such stateless society in David (yes, the son of Milton) Friedman’s essay on the economics of Medieval Iceland, “Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case.” After you do so, you might then have “new eyes” to use to read the book of Judges over again. Judges is another society that, before Saul, had no state, unless the religious obligation to support the Tabernacle could be considered that organization.

Unlike Iceland, Israel was not a previously-uninhabited island. So when enemies arose, the tribes of Israel would produce a “state” for the emergency situation (i.e. an army with leadership and some power to enforce participation), and then dissolve it after the struggle was over. The most famous case in which the rules were broken was Gideon, who refused to become a king for the usual reasons, but only refused the nominal title while trying to be the reality. His sin gave birth to death in the person of one his secondary political alliances (made concrete by a concubine and a son by her). This was the turning point in the book of Judges. From the time of Gideon’s “fall” the story goes from bad to worse in Judges. That event even gives birth to the parable which I would guess was the inspiration for the song “The Trees” by Rush.

The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.” But the olive tree said to them, “Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and reign over us.” But the fig tree said to them, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the vine, “You come and reign over us.” But the vine said to them, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?” Then all the trees said to the bramble, “You come and reign over us.” And the bramble said to the trees, “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

The centrality of this passage to Judges should make Evangelicals re-think the meaning of “There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17.6; 21.25) Those stories, at the end of Judges, are stories about failed Levites (Judges 17-18; 19). The Levites were supposed to teach the Law but instead promoted idolatry and mistreated their wives–representing their mistreatment of Yahweh’s bride Israel. Israel’s king was “absent” because the teachers of the law didn’t bother.

All of this is background to something I believe often gets missed. “The rule of law” is not a form of civil government or a production of good government. The rule of law is a social custom. People connected to the state can work to preserve and transmit or degrade and forget those rules, just like parents or pastors or priests or anyone else in society can do. But “rule of law’ is a tradition. It consists of understood ways of behaving in understood circumstances.

In a sense, law is like language and grammar. It can change. It can slip. Change can be resisted by purists. But language is nevertheless a social custom that is “ruled” by no one. It is based on shared rules that can be altered, but only in cooperation.

Society needs such rules to survive. It needs rules for interacting and then rules for judging disputes and punishing violations.

Sometimes governments can impose rules that societies might need. In the territory in West Africa, now known as Liberia, my understanding is that war and tribal violence were common–reflected in the development of a host of unrelated languages. When freed Black slaves from the United States came, they imposed their will like any colonialists from the West would do. So they imposed some rules, but not many. Most of the rules were preferential to the new government economic well-being or else the new government had the power to give itself exceptions on an as-needed basis. In fact, the government was extremely corrupt and only allowed on party during most of its existence. But when the President and his family were murdered by a low-level army officer, bloodshed and chaos followed for many years. That “society” was incapable of holding together–probably because it had not been one society before the colonization and conquest.

(Whether or not Liberia was a society that could have been helped by state agents is not certain from what I have written. It is possible each tribe could have changed and learned peace in a better and more lasting way. All depends on the moral character of the state agents relative to the people of the society being ruled. However, it makes no sense to claim both that a society needs the state and that the only way of establishing the state is by the vote of the people. Somehow, then, members of society need guidance from people who are capable of wining a popularity contest in that same society.)

The easiest tyrannies are over societies that have a healthy, functioning rule of law. Without such a heritage, a tyrant has to constantly give orders, send soldiers, and also keep loyal soldiers to watch the other soldiers. But a society that already has a real rule of law does not require such attention. You only need to be sure you have the power to grant yourself the exceptions you need when you need them.

The problem is that a government that begins making such self-serving exceptions, carving holes in the rule of law by its own force or advantage in tax revenue, has a hard time being able to stop. The appetite for favoritism and power grows so that, at some point, the state becomes obviously dysfunctional. But that may also be the point where society has been degraded so much that it’s social heritage of the rule of law is no longer really functioning within the society.

We can even envision a situation (because we’re living in it) where a state has degraded the rule of law in society. There no longer is a common cultural matrix that counts as a rule of law. This seems to give the state an advantage because it becomes more necessary, but it actually threatens the state as well as every other institution.

This is why losing a state can result in social chaos and bloodshed even when a society was previously law-maintaining. Within a few generations a society that was stable and self-governing can be trained through state intervention to be dependent and hostile to neighbors.

  • People, who once took it for granted that it was their duty and privilege to support themselves and their families, suddenly find they don’t need to do either. In fact, this social change can occur so fast that older and younger siblings behave in completely different ways.
  • Those who once negotiated wages and prices for themselves have children looking to government agents to make those decisions for them and grant their wishes.
  • Parents satisfied with renting or buying a home in their later years have children who expect the government to provide special guarantees that allow them to go into debt despite their risk to creditors.
  • Retail outlets that once sold to customers at prices they could afford are trained to expect buyers to have more purchasing power through the state-fixed banking system that pushes unsecured loans (unsecured loans would be an anomaly apart from political intervention).

Awhile back I read a news story (can’t find it now) about a grandmother who was arrested and charged for the crime of buying too much cold medicine. She had several family members who were sick and purchased several over-the-counter products because of the differing ages and conditions of her loved ones. She was unaware that her state had place legal limits due to the concern for meth labs using the active ingredient to make illegal drugs. The police put her in jail. The prosecutor allowed her to go free if she paid court costs. I remember that he made it clear to the news reporter that he thought he was doing this grandmother a great and magnanimous favor. After all, she broke the law and ignorance is no excuse.

But there is no such law.

The real law is that grandmothers buy cold medicine to help out their loved ones when they are sick. Abducting and incarcerating the grandmother is lawless, and no one can be held accountable for not learning in advance about the threat of such lawless behavior. (This should especially be true when the retail establishment that sold the products and pocketed the money is not held accountable for any violation.)

This is an extreme example of how the state produces anarchy and actively subverts and derails the law-keeping of society. But it is an increasingly common one.

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8 thoughts on “Society Thrives On Law While The State Produces Anarchy

  1. Really good stuff. You might find Oliver O’Donovan’s book, “The Ways of Judgement” interesting. I’ve only started it. It’s something of a follow up to “Desire of Nations” and looks at how government/authorities make judgments, and the ethical questions and implications of different approaches to judgment.

  2. Very interesting Mark. Epic song, too!

  3. Steve Orr on said:

    Well done! Regarding… “The state produces anarchy.” What a concept. Love it!

  4. Which is why the State loves to multiply laws. With virtually infinite number of statutes on the books, covering virtually all of life, the authorities can apply them (or not) at will. Every citizen is guilty of *something,* giving the State a pretext for abduction, imprisonment, confiscation of property, and even physical abuse at its own discretion. More laws gives the rhetorical ammo of being a society of laws, while functionally allowing the State’s behavior to actually be lawless.

  5. By contrast, when written statutes are simple and relatively few, this situation dries up in terms of the State. It seems that fewer statutes would actually keep the State in check and make it more likely to behave lawfully.

    • The smaller the government the longer it will last, but also the worse the things it will be able to do to those outside of its protection.

      Farmers that process their chickens inhumanely will get less eggs and less meat than farmers who free-range. But the latter can then use their gains to support their quail hunting hobby.

  6. Mr. Horne,

    Great piece here! And I second Drew on the song. Rush just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today.

    You say that “these societies have never been libertarian.” But that really depends on what is meant. Were they permissive, relativistic, and so on? If not, then it is not that they weren’t “libertarian” per se, they simply weren’t “libertine”. No doubt you know the difference and usually distinguish between the two, but in this case it seems you might not have.

    If they respected private property (perhaps, having a slightly different conception of it), then the fact that they weren’t perfectly tolerant or hedonistic or irresponsible is irrelevant as to whether they were libertarian (but perhaps a better term is propertarian, which I believe all right-libertarians and right-anarchists are).

    Hans-Hermann Hoppe makes the case that libertarian (as in voluntary, private property respecting) communities and societies will actually have more stringent social norms than statist societies, and less tolerance for deviation (enforced by ostracism as well as defensive violence rather than aggression and threats). People, including most libertarians, generally assume the opposite. That is, that a libertarian society will be a perfectly open and permissive society that accepts everyone and everything so long as it is non-coercive, or if they do shun some, it is simply because they have lost a debate in the free marketplace of ideas, not because they are really all that despised. Hoppe points out just how utopian and foolish this assumption is, which is why he is hated and maligned in so many libertarian circles.

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