What exactly is a state? The canonical definition was offered by MaxWeber,who defined the state as “that human community which (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory.”In fact, it cannot be the case that all wealth is attributable to the state.Historically, the existence of a state apparatus required a pre-existing surplus to sustain it in the first place. The state,in other words, would not exist without wealth being produced before its emergence. Let’s explore that a bit furtherWhy do people have wealth? Charles Dunoyer, an early libertarian sociologist, explained that “there exist in the world only two great parties; that of those who prefer to live from the produce of their labor or of their property, and that of those who prefer to live on the labor or the property of others.” Simply put,makers produce wealth while takers appropriate it…
State formation represents a transformation from “roving bandits” to “stationary bandits.” As the economist Mancur Olson wrote, “If the leader of a roving bandit gang who finds only slim pickings is strong enough to take hold of a given territory and to keep other bandits out, he can monopolize crime in that area—he can become a stationary bandit.”That is an important insight into the development of human political associations.The state is, at its core, a predatory institution. Yet, in some ways, it also represents an advance, even for those being plundered. When the choice is between roving bandits—who rob,fight, burn what they can’t take, and then come back the following year—and stationary bandits—who settle down and plunder little by little throughout the year—the choice is clear. Stationary bandits are less likely to kill and destroy as they loot you and they fend off rival bandits. That is a kind of progress—even from the perspective of those being plundered..
What are the incentives of the rulers? Overly simplistic models posit that rulers seek to maximize wealth, or gross domestic product. Scott,however, argues that the ruler’s incentive is not to maximize the GDP,but to maximize the “SAP,” the state-accessible product,understood as that production that is easy to identify, monitor, enumerate, and confiscate through taxation: “The ruler. . .maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.”
State systems of social control—from military conscription to compulsory schooling—have thoroughly permeated our consciousness.Consider,for example, the passport. You cannot travel around the world to day without a document issued by the state. In fact, you can no longer even travel around the United States without a state-issued document.Passports are very recent inventions. For thousands of years, people went where they wanted without permission from the state.
Modern states also claim to be the sole source of law. But historically,states mainly replaced customary law with imposed law. There is a great deal of law all around us that is not a product of the state,for law is a byproduct of voluntary interaction. As the great jurist Bruno Leoni argued, “Individuals make the law insofar as they make successful claims.” Private persons making contracts are making law.
The evolution of freedom has involved a long process of bringing power under law. The imposition of force has none the less left a powerful imprint on our minds. Alexander Rüstow, a prominent sociologist and a father of the post war revival of liberty in Germany, meditated on the origins of the state in violence and predation and its lingering imprint: “All of us, without exception, carry this inherited poison within us, in the most varied and unexpected places and in the most diverse forms, often defying perception. All of us, collectively and individually, are accessories to this great sin of all time, this real original sin, a hereditary fault that can be excised and erased only with great difficulty and slowly, by an insight into pathology, by a will to recover, by the active remorse of all.” It takes work to free our minds from our dependence on the state