A very short book that punches way above its weight class. It crystallizes key concepts around the government. Not just a specific government, but any and all governments.
I stumbled upon this book by chance when Jack Dorsey the founder of Twitter posted the book link.
I was intrigued because Jack Dorsey’s most recent posts are completely focused on (฿) Bitcoin. But this has nothing to do with blockchains and cryptocurrencies.
The funny part was that Twitter showed me this tweet followed by another tweet by Nassim Taleb about the book author, and he wasn’t kind to him.
So, naturally, I looked up the author:
“Murray Newton Rothbard (/ˈrɒθbɑːrd/; March 2, 1926 – January 7, 1995) was an American heterodox economist of the Austrian School,economic historian and political theorist. Rothbard was a founder and leading theoretician of anarcho-capitalism, a staunch advocate of historical revisionism and a central figure in the 20th-century American libertarian movement. He wrote over twenty books on political theory, revisionist history, economics, and other subjects.”
Wikipedia had me at anarcho-capitalism… What the heck was that? It was interesting to learn that anarcho-capitalism sounds pretty much like the underlying principle of the decentralized internet, cryptocurrencies, and decentralized finance (DeFi).
I had to read the book.
In the following blog post, I’m sharing a few of my highlights and some brief notes on them.
So, what is a government?
“Briefly, the State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue, not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion.”
Let’s not forget that a government also is a massive business corporation, but its business is ‘People.’
It was really enlightening to read the following passage:
“One method of the birth of a State may be illustrated as follows: in the hills of southern “Ruritania,” a bandit group manages to obtain physical control over the territory, and finally the bandit chieftain proclaims himself “King of the sovereign and independent government of South Ruritania”; and, if he and his men have the force to maintain this rule for a while, lo and behold! a new State has joined the “family of nations,” and the former bandit leaders have been transformed into the lawful nobility of the realm.”
Makes all the sense in the world in this context, especially since the ‘conquered’ are never allowed to bear arms to revolt against their conquerors, but let’s not linger on that thought.
So how does a government claim and sustain legitimacy?
“For in order to continue in office, any government (not simply a “democratic” government) must have the support of the majority of its subjects. This support, it must be noted, need not be active enthusiasm; it may well be passive resignation as if to an inevitable law of nature.”
Active enthusiasm or passive resignation. Perhaps, at the moment of creation or revolution, emotions run high, especially when the crowds are following a charismatic leader wielding a powerful influential ideology. Later on, however, realities set in, and the public feels the squeeze between the rock of the new way of doing things and the hard place of fear.
The masses will suffer under oppressive regimes until they feel the futility of ever making changes, and eventually, turn docile and apathetic. But the following passage captured my thoughts for longer:
“Many and varied have been the arguments by which the State and its intellectuals have induced their subjects to support their rule. Basically, the strands of argument may be summed up as follows: (a) the State rulers are great and wise men (they “rule by divine right,” they are the “aristocracy” of men, they are the “scientific experts”), much greater and wiser than the good but rather simple subjects, and (b) rule by the extent government is inevitable, absolutely necessary, and far better, than the indescribable evils that would ensue upon its downfall. The union of Church and State was one of the oldest and most successful of these ideological devices. The ruler was either anointed by God or, in the case of the absolute rule of many Oriental despotisms, was himself God; hence, any resistance to his rule would be blasphemy. The States’ priestcraft performed the basic intellectual function of obtaining popular support and even worship for the rulers. Another successful device was to instill fear of any alternative systems of rule or non-rule.”
The first argument has been employed successfully in the entirety of the history of my home country Egypt, under every possible guise possible. The Pharoah ruled under Divine Right and were worshiped as Deities. It was ruled by the dynasties of the countless Royals who were the educated aristocratic benefactors of the people. And when the King was ousted under the influence of a military coup, the newly acquired flavor of ‘democracy’ was hailing the age of progress under qualified competent expert leaders and scientists, especially after it started opening up the universities for free high education for all citizens.
Its people had been converted to basically all religions from their original native Egyptian religions to Judaism, Christianity, and finally, Islam, both Shiite and Sunni consecutively. And all throughout Egyptian history, religious authorities were always and ever one of the most important tools the government used to control and herd the masses.
The second argument was pretty much prevalent during the long rule of President Hosny Mubarak spanning 30 years, for it was indeed, the time of “stability” and ‘peace’ that brought about prosperity for the people, and who would want to jeopardize that by asking for a truly democratic power transition. Alas, the heavy-handed oppressive method of the security apparatus along with the rise of religious fanaticism, both, coincided with the age of the internet that literally demolished all barriers to knowledge. And of course, social media opened the flood gates that washed away all resemblance of stability for quite a few abysmal years.
Finally, when the latest iteration of the military rule took over, the second argument reigned supreme: “It’s way better than the alternative.” And everyone fell back in line immediately after the horrible years of instability lawlessness, terrorism, bombings, and assassinations of the Arab Spring, not to mention a quick one-year interlude of religious fanatics taking over the government.
I personally see the wisdom in a monopoly on violence. You really have to live in a situation where there are multiple warring factions, all bearing weapons, to see the light of day in that argument. Indeed, it is better than the alternative, and when you consider the alternative which entails instability, violence, and economic melt-down, no matter how bad things are right now, they can always get significantly worse really really fast.
But as I read along, the text shed some more light on patriotism and how it’s utilized, or perhaps weaponized, towards the war effort.
“Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identification of that land and its people with the State was a means of making natural patriotism work to the State’s advantage. If “Ruritania” was being attacked by “Walldavia,” the first task of the State and its intellectuals was to convince the people of Ruritania that the attack was really upon them and not simply upon the ruling caste. In this way, a war between rulers was converted into a war between peoples, with each people coming to the defense of its rulers in the erroneous belief that the rulers were defending them. This device of “nationalism” has only been successful, in Western civilization, in recent centuries; it was not too long ago that the mass of subjects regarded wars as irrelevant battles between various sets of nobles.”
This interesting chapter perhaps is all about the kingdoms of Europe in the 18th century, where kings and queens used to get married, divorced, usurped, betrayed, and wage wars with and have their kingdoms overrun and annexed by other kings and queens. But nationalism, although innate and natural in and of itself, can be employed by state propaganda and fed to the masses, or rather rammed down their throats along with a hefty dose of religion for an added effect to ensure long-term compliance and subordination in an act of aggression on other nations, or to support the government in defending against an aggressor.
This brief codebook of the tools of government brings about another fascinating concept: Guilt.
“Another tried and true method for bending subjects to the State’s will is inducing guilt. Any increase in private well-being can be attacked as “unconscionable greed,” “materialism,” or “excessive affluence,” profit-making can be attacked as “exploitation” and “usury,” mutually beneficial exchanges denounced as “selfishness,” and somehow with the conclusion always being drawn that more resources should be siphoned from the private to the “public sector.”
So, the motives of the loud voices of the parliament or opposition parties driven by the puppet masters to denigrate the enterprising “rich” and calling for them to give away their wealth and riches can be uncovered for what they truly are. Especially since they never really touch the actual rich, but use the word “rich as a synonym for the upper-middle-class, the Bourgeoisie, which is also a code word for the entirety of the middle-class, a stratum of society that had been crushed mercilessly under the tug of war between capitalism and socialism.
And then… there’s how robbing the government is perceived differently by the governed:
“The average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that government is something lying outside him and outside the generality of his fellow men—that it is a separate, independent, and hostile power, only partly under his control, and capable of doing him great harm. Is it a fact of no significance that robbing the government is everywhere regarded as a crime of less magnitude than robbing an individual, or even a corporation? . . . What lies behind all this, I believe, is a deep sense of the fundamental antagonism between the government and the people it governs. It is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members. . . . When a private citizen is robbed, a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the government is robbed, the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before. The notion that they have earned that money is never entertained; to most sensible men it would seem ludicrous.”
And on the flip side, the government perceives crimes committed against itself, its institutions, or its official representatives in a different light than crimes committed against citizens.
“We may test the hypothesis that the State is largely interested in protecting itself rather than its subjects by asking: which category of crimes does the State pursue and punish most intensely—those against private citizens or those against itself? The gravest crimes in the State’s lexicon are almost invariably not invasions of private person or property, but dangers to its own contentment, for example, treason, desertion of a soldier to the enemy, failure to register for the draft, subversion, and subversive conspiracy, assassination of rulers and such economic crimes against the State as counterfeiting its money or evasion of its income tax. Or compare the degree of zeal devoted to pursuing the man who assaults a policeman, with the attention that the State pays to the assault of an ordinary citizen. Yet, curiously, the State’s openly assigned priority to its own defense against the public strikes few people as inconsistent with its presumed raison d’etre.”
All the previous points were illuminating to me personally, but this next one stung me the most since it hit a little closer to home for me.
“But if, at a certain date, the government of, say, Ruritania is coerced or even bribed by the government of Waldavia into giving up some of its territory, it is absurd to claim that the governments or inhabitants of the two countries are forever barred from a claim to reunification of Ruritania on the grounds of the sanctity of a treaty.”
That part, in particular, was quite bitter since Egypt under the rule of its current “patriotic” government headed by a highly regarded and respected figure in the military establishment, suddenly discovered that two islands under its territory were actually the property of Saudi Arabia, and were officially ceded back in 2017 under a “treaty.”
The last chapter places a nice little bow on the full definition of what state power really is in the context of history and economy.
“Just as the two basic and mutually exclusive interrelations between men are peaceful cooperation or coercive exploitation, production, or predation, so the history of mankind, particularly its economic history, may be considered as a contest between these two principles. On the one hand, there is creative productivity, peaceful exchange, and cooperation; on the other, coercive dictation and predation over those social relations. […] Social power is the power over nature, the living standards achieved by men in mutual exchange. State power, as we have seen, is the coercive and parasitic seizure of this production—a draining of the fruits of society for the benefit of nonproductive (actually antiproductive) rulers. While social power is over nature, State power is power over man.”
Food for thought indeed. No matter your political views or your inclinations, you cannot escape the fact that the issues of government power, structure, effectiveness, and corruption are worth thinking about in the grand scheme of things.
Many intellectuals and business people see the government as the ultimate powerful monopolistic corporation that reserves certain powers like registering and keeping tabs on its citizens, using violence, and printing money, all for the sake of managing and controlling the population it governs.
The rising calls for decentralization and individual sovereignty and privacy indicate that the tide is coming soon, and we have to understand the powers that will be supporting the coming change and those that oppose it. I’m hoping to write on the topic soon.
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