Re: poly: democracy, etc.

From: Perry E. Metzger <>
Date: Wed Feb 11 1998 - 15:30:12 PST

Damien R. Sullivan writes:
> On Feb 11, 2:31pm, "Perry E. Metzger" wrote:
> > 2) We've had free and fairly pleasant-to-live-in societies that have
> > operated without Governments and have lasted for many centuries --
> > especially impressive given the overall violence of the worlds they
> > were embedded in. Iceland is my oft used example (and rather boring
> Arguably Iceland _wasn't_ that embedded in its world, and started losing
> independence when Norway began paying more attention to it.

Norway was paying attention for quite a while. The place resisted
quite well up until amost the end -- and I doubt that they could have
resisted better had they possessed a State. (In general, people often
fail to ask the question "how did the State make this better", or "how
could a State make this better". Iceland would have been no better off
w.r.t. Norway had they been centrally organized.)

> Brin pointed out the existence of thralldom when I mentioned Iceland
> to him some time ago.

I seem to note that slavery and serfdom was prevalent throughout
the "Western" nations until the last century. Why would a State have
been better in this respect?

> And what other free and pleasant and stateless societies are you thinking
> of?

Ireland at various points in its history, the area now known as
"Somalia" during large chunks of its history, and others.

> > documented. These societies have often lasted with their legal
> > structure intact for far longer than most modern nation states have
> > survived. If you look at Benson's book "The Enterprise of Law",
> Iceland lasted 300 years.

350 years (give or take a couple.)

Lets compare this to other places and times, shall we?

France has had no less than six complete upheavals in its government
in the last couple centuries, including a near coup d'etat in the
60's. This is hardly "stable". The U.K. has had several complete
revisions of its legislative system in the last several centuries, and
one actual revolution. Neither Italy nor Germany existed as nation
states 150 years ago. Russia has been through two major revolutions in
the last 80 years. Japan has had three major changes in governance in
the last 130 years.

The U.S. can lay some minor claims to stability, but it is the
exception, not the rule, and it hasn't lasted nearly as long as
Iceland's anarchy did.

That is comparing Iceland's anarchy to *modern* states, mind you. If
you compare the situation in Iceland to that in its contemporary
European lands, it was downright miraculous in its stability --
nothing lasted that long in the Europe of its day (a Europe in which
the State largely existed as a mechanism for the naked enrichment of
the ruling "Lords", i.e. legitimized criminal class.)

> Rome, Egypt, and China lasted for a long time,

During the Principate, Rome had major revolutions at frequent
intervals, as anyone who has studied the history would know. The
succession of the Emperor was hardly assured, and frequent civil wars
occured in which Emperors were deposed. The Republic was hardly more
stable -- it was, in fact, the revolution of Marius and its subsequent
repression by Sulla that resulted in the period of civil wars in the
first century B.C. and the subsequent creation of the Principate by
Augustus. Egypt and China had some stability, but again, dynasties
came and went with breathtaking regularity.

> > 3) I'm not sure what State power really buys people. Certainly it
> > doesn't buy safety. We are rather spoiled in that most of us live
> Is it possible differnet species of State are being conflated? Yes,
> they all have a monopoly on legitimate violence, but can you really
> compare the liberal states with most of history when the former clearly
> have a good deal of accountability to their populace, in distinction to
> the latter?

I find myself forced to confront this interesting problem: we are told
that modern States are "different", and yet so few people question

I mean, if for millenia States mostly victimized their citizens,
shouldn't we be questioning how they arose and what they were for in
the first place? I mean, why reform the Droit du Seigneur -- when the
whole thing was an abuse in the first place?

"The State is better now. Before, we raped just anyone. Now we all
vote on who's going to get raped." Wouldn't a saner person question
why anyone needs to be raped in the first place?

I'd argue that the State arose largely as a way to "legitimize" the
victimization of the populace by gangs of theives. The earliest
taxation was called tribute and did not come with the patina of mock
legitimacy modern taxation has. Now, of course, after millenia of
being ruled, we accept the explanations for why we need the State and
why we need taxation. Taxes provide us with "protection" after all.
(Just like protection money paid to mobsters, I'll note.)

As I'm fond of noting, to a medieval peasant, the notion of someone
not believing in God at all was alien. They could imagine someone in
league with The Devil, but they couldn't imagine the idea that someone
might reject the entire notion. "How could you live without a God?"

Similarly, people still seem to wonder "How could you live without a

> I think you're seeing States as independent parasites upon society,
> whereas my current mental fashion, heavily shaped by economics, sees
> them as natural functions of their societies.

I fail to see what function they serve.

> Remove one government and a new one may spring up in the next crisis.

True enough, but is that because government is natural, or because
people demand it because they are used to it? If you blow up the local
church, people might rebuild it -- but does that mean that man "needs"
religion, or does it instead mean that people blindly believe in it
and attempt to reconstruct it?

> Governance in general -- all constraining social customs, not just
> formal states -- may have the function of handling affairs which the
> market can't handle well because of high transaction costs. As those
> drop markets can expand. The rise in government may be connected with
> the rise in positive freedom: there are more things which are now
> difficult to do (hence gov't steps in) which were previously
> inconceivable and impossible.

Can you list some?

>From what I can tell, most of the expansion of goverment has come from
such necessities as making sure the price of peanuts is kept high,
preventing people from trying to market oranges without marketing
associations, and other things we couldn't do without. Oh, and
performing tasks the market can't do on its own ever, like building

> But I think one could question whether there _has_ been a rise in
> governance, or whether our gov't merely formalizes a subset of the rules
> previously bound in family and social custom.

I don't argue that government is necessarily more or less expansive on
a long term basis (although simply looking at the percentage of the
GDP consumed by the government should show you that the
U.S. government at least is far larger than it was in the last
century). I argue merely that it is, for the most part, useless --
indeed, worse than useless.

> > Again, I'm not sure that the State is really of help here. I suspect
> One minimal role of a minimal state might be that of occupying the role of
> 'state' so that people don't fill it with something else.

We've seen, though, that people who are "state atheists" seem to
manage without it, just as people who are "religious atheists" seem to
survive without worshiping anything.

Received on Wed Feb 11 23:33:08 1998

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