Power Analysis, The Myth of Authority, & Praxeology
This post was written by guest-author Will Porter.
There is a common dialectic that today binds all political discussion. From the right to the left to the libertarians, from the moderates to the radicals, there exists a dichotomy made between “public” and “private” power. The leftists, from mode rate Democrats to radical Communists, in general, focus their gaze more toward private power; to corporations and other market actors. Thinkers part of the radical anarcho-left also commonly make this distinction, but they tend to be a bit more reluctant in endorsing public power as a remedy to its private counterpart.
A portion of the modern American right-wing, like the Tea Party, has complaints concerning the size and scope of public power, sometimes referencing the total abandonment of the limited powers allegedly delegated by the U.S. Constitution. Including the Tea Party, there is a section of the U.S. right-wing that sees itself as being, to a degree, anti-state, or in favor of a restricted, limited state. Unfortunately though, for the most part, the majority-right today embraces public and private power, in a sort of soft-core neo-military-fascism way (not that the powerful Democrat left escape this label either), but to an extent the dichotomy is still maintained.
The libertarians, even anarcho-capitalists, also tend to distinguish between public and private when analyzing the power-structure of the state. While bits and pieces of these viewpoints have their varying degrees of truth regarding this dichotomy, there may be a much more fruitful path of examination.
To frame political discussion in this public vs. private manner is, I think, untenable; or rather doesn’t give us much to go on, lacking sufficient explanatory power.
There is, however, an indispensable tool of the social sciences, primarily used in regards to economics, called Praxeology. But before getting into how absolutely crucial it is concerning power analysis, I will first explain some fundamentals of just what this tool is.
Praxeology is the science of human action. It describes that people are choice-making entities, employing action through a means-ends structure. All human behavior that fits into this means-ends paradigm can be said to be rational. Rational in this sense does not connote correctness or the intelligence of the actor, but only that we set goals and employ means to achieve them, whether those means are the correct ones or not. For example, the action of a witch doctor doing a rain dance can said to be, in the Praxeological sense, rational, because the end, bringing rain, is aimed at with specific means, the dance. Involuntary reflexes or bodily processes, like a healing wound, are not considered actions, because there is no purposive, choice-making behavior directing such occurrences.
An essential component of Praxeology is Methodological Individualism. This tenet states that only individuals act; not nations, countries, political parties, social or economic classes,governments of all levels, or even branches, divisions, or departments of the government.Only individual human beings have ends, and only individuals act to achieve such ends.
Now of course we can apply generalities and labels to groups of people, bodies of thought, etc.as to help us categorize and understand their differences and similarities, but the point is that only the individuals themselves act, not the groups they comprise.
This has primary importance when looking at structures of power, both within the state and outside of it. With this vital insight into the nature of action, we can much easier sort out the ideas of public and private power, of left and right political parties and their agendas, of what the Federal Reserve, CIA, FBI, DHS, or the NSA are doing and how their directives connect and conflict.
The state itself, as a whole, does not have an “agenda”, good nor bad. Such an aggregate of people can’t have one collective goal. There are only people with ends, using various means to achieve them. We can generally put names to certain sets of people with similar goals or agendas, like “the Democratic Party”, or “the left”, or “the National Security Agency”, and this helps us understand how people relate in their ends, but we must see all action on the scale of individuals.When many libertarians and anti-statists speak, they refer to the state as if it is an acting entity.To them, the state “does” bad things. The state uses aggression, the state robs the citizenry, the state passes and enforces illegitimate and arbitrary laws, etc. In reality, it is not the state “doing” anything, only people are.
The most important thing to understand here is that the state does not have ends; it is only a means for the ends of individuals, a tool, metaphorically speaking. When seen this way, the state becomes–rather than an entity that does things, itself having plans and goals–merely an implement for use by individuals in achieving their own ends, whether alone or in conjunction with one another. This Praxeological analysis will have even more import when combined with the next idea.
I now must introduce the concept of The Myth of Authority. The prolific libertarian author and thinker Larken Rose has expounded most on this topic, and so I will here use some of his general arguments and insights (if you’re not familiar with the work of Larken Rose, I recommend getting yourself acquainted). A common definition of government, of a state, is that of an institution possessing an ultimate decision-making power within some geographical jurisdiction or territory; a lawmaking entity. The typical libertarian takes quarrel with the notion that some involuntary social arrangement can be legitimately imposed on people, enforced and backed with violence.
This objection is, I think, completely justified.
A coercive “contract” is an absolute contradiction in terms. Engaging in contractual agreement necessitates a consensual interaction. The “social contract” is a very popular justification for the existence of government, but it is intellectually corrupt from even a surface-level examination. More will be said below on the slew of contradictions and anomalies tied in with various state-doctrines or justifications.
It is agreed among anti-statists that even on face-value, as an institution, the state is inherently illegitimate. But there is much more to the matter than some gang of thieves using brute force against a populace to control them and plunder their production. While the individuals comprising the state do continually levy aggression against innocents, the crux of the issue is that of authority.
The perceived legitimacy of the state is truly what gives it its power. The “consent of the governed” does play into the situation, even granting that there are often many who don’t give their consent at all. For if a criminal mafia organization were to start going around asking for “taxes” so they could “protect the people”, they would be quickly denied. If the gang persisted and began making threats and using force to extract what they desired, the people would almost certainly resist and oppose this oppression.
Even if the people were overwhelmed in terms of capacity for force, they would still never imagine this criminal gang to have any sort of legitimate right to what they demand.
This is the difference between gangs of criminal thugs and governments. Governments command respect, reverence, and obedience, and they get it from the majority of the citizenry. This mass-obedience isn’t gained without much story-telling and propaganda (using things like the news-media and educational system) but nonetheless, the vast majority of people are fully convinced that this institution has a right to initiate the exact same force that they would resist tooth-and-nail if it were used by any other group.
This point is best illustrated by a quote from the great Lysander Spooner, a legal theorist and scholar, radical individualist, and abolitionist, who, in the mid-1800s, wrote:
“But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life. And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side,and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection.
He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you.
He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country,and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands.
He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villanies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.“
It is the Myth of Authority that makes government so much different from any other institution;when people feel a legal and moral obligation to obey Leviathan in all its decrees, that entity accrues a special type of power over them. This allows it complete exemption from the ethical and legal norms that are so commonly-held by (and imposed on) the vast majority of regular people.
Seeing how clearly wrong and impossible this kind of political authority isn’t difficult.
How can any individual or group of individuals delegate powers and rights to another person or group that the first group never had to begin with?
If I, as an individual, do not have the right to initiate force against my peaceful neighbors, and if none of my neighbors have that right either, how can we get together and “vote” to give that power to any person or group?
It is inherently nonsense to advocate any form of democratic or governmental system where some people claim to give authority to others to do things that they, and nobody else, has the right to do on their own in the first place, as regular people.
Ethically, it is contradictory to establish a rule that states one is compelled to do something he regards as wrong. Yet this is exactly what the state demands in all its particular instantiations.
Even if you believe your tax money is going to fund immoral or destructive programs, you are still legally and morally (according to the IRS at least) obligated to “pay your fair share”, lest you be damned as an immoral scumbag or a crook of some sort.
Even if you think war is atrocious and evil, you are condemned as a draft-dodger or tax-cheat if you refuse to obey state-conscription or to fund it through the taxes demanded of you.
Much more can be said about the contradictory and insane nature of political authority, but the most valuable piece of this is that the state is an institution used almost exclusively to get away with things that no mortal can ever have the right to do.
Special interests and pressure groups of all kinds flock to the state to have it rob people and spend money on the things that they want. If the state were confined to the non-controversial ethical rules of conduct that every civilized person is held to, it couldn’t possibly oblige any ofthese interests in their pleas for bureaucrats and politicians to solve their problems with political aggression.
With these ideas in mind, Praxeology and its Methodological Individualism, as well as the Myth of Authority described above, we can come at the issue of power analysis well-equipped.
If the state is only a means to the ends of specific people, what is the nature of this tool?Examination of the Myth of Authority has already shed much light on this. The state is simply a means, an excuse, to commit evil with no repercussions. A private act of aggression, put under the aegis of statism, is now deemed legitimate, completely flipping the common morality on its head.
I can’t get away with “taxing” people to fund my own “programs”, but people comprising the state certainly can on my non-consenting behalf.
Whether one thinks “rights” or even ethics altogether are viable as concepts or not, it cannot be denied that the vast majority of human beings accept that certain things, like aggressive acts of violence, are in some way wrong and that people should refrain from doing those things or have the right to resist them if necessary.
No matter what your ethical stance is, the state always demands that it has a right to do things that even they themselves deem wrong in their own laws: murder, theft, kidnapping, etc.
Individuals that act using the state as a means to their own ends almost always do so to escape the basic and simple rules of human morality; you own you, I own me, don’t hit, don’t steal (why do we accept an entire social system based in blatant contradiction to the incredibly plain rules we teach to our 3 and 4 year-olds?).
Whether the people are in the private sector comprising various corporations and interest groups or in public sector in some political party or department of the government, their use of the state as a mean is almost exclusively to accomplish things they couldn’t have otherwise done, because in private society brute force isn’t tolerated as legitimate. With the state, however, it is.
Out of the millions of public sector employees, I’m not here saying that all of these people purposely endorse violence. The Myth of Authority is so prevalent that most don’t even see the violence occurring on a daily basis, and therefore they seldom ever even consider it.
But for those who do have aspirations for power — a libido dominandi — the state is an easy tool for them to commit wicked acts with no public outcry or legal reprisal whatsoever. For this reason, endless groups of lobbyists, corporations, pressure groups, individual voters, etc. crowd around the state apparatus for special favors, like carrions on a carcass.
This is, in fact, the very nature of democracy; countless groups of individuals pandering to the state to implement violence to accomplish ends that could not be met by private people, who are held to certain fundamental standards of behavior.
This is not because the state can somehow organize society more efficiently — it can’t — but because the state is exempt from the rules accepted by the majority of the human race, not to mention their own laws, making it incredibly expedient and attractive as a perceived solution.
Each individual has his own agendas and aspirations. If a person of loose moral character wishes to better himself, rather than doing so on the market, he appeals to the state to intervene in society, to rob, to start wars, to legislate on his behalf or in his favor. He sees his goals reached not by work and accomplishment, but by force.
When we hear people speak of public and private power in this respect, we should remind them that this distinction does not carry significance. No matter what group an individual belongs to, we must view their actions on a means-ends basis. If someone’s means implement violence or aggression, whether with the state or not, it must be deemed illicit.
The only proper distinction to be made is between criminal or legitimate, aggression or peace,coercion or voluntary interaction. It is not public vs. private; it is, echoing the words of Murray Rothbard, power vs. market.
Power, in the end, is power all the same. It does not matter where it comes from or who wields it, but only how it operates. What means does power use to achieve its ends? How do individuals and groups use institutions to accrue power and influence?
The state provides a virtually limitless arsenal of force for those who lust for domination. Such dominance could never be attained without political-means. From people starting wars to benefit military-industrial-complex corporations, to a crooked lawmaker using his district’s tax-dollars as if they were his own, power exists on all levels of society, primarily and most obviously emanating from the weapon that is the state.
To illustrate the value of this Praxeological power analysis, let us consider a few individual cases.
When looking at private actors, not officially part of the state, we can see the use of state-legitimacy to influence things like starting wars as mentioned above, or to fund and subsidize their firms/industries with tax money and protect themselves from competition. We will look at the latter; state-protectionism.
The businessman in the private market wishes to maximize his profits and returns. This is his end. To meet it, he may pursue a finite number of means. In this case, the businessman could engage in peaceful cooperation and competition on the market, legitimate activities. But to truly compete — offering more and/or better goods and services than his competitors – is not always the easiest endeavor. Market competition is hard work, long hours; real dedication.
Without power, the businessman must strive to attain his customers’ patronage through purely voluntary, peaceful means. If consumers decide they prefer another product to his, they may freely choose between them.
The entrepreneur may wish he could simply do away with his rivals. Unfortunately for him,there are no ways by which to peacefully do this. If he were to demand his competitors follow some arbitrary restrictions from which he was then exempt, he would be seen as a lunatic or a criminal the moment he ever tried to enforce such “laws”.
The only other means left available to our businessman is to lobby to the state. What was
condemned as criminal in a “private” setting is now made perfectly sensible and acceptable when the rubber stamp of legislation is applied to it. This is precisely what happens when the state tries to “regulate” business.
The firms with political sway are awarded exemptions from the rules and dictates imposed on everyone else. This happens through various loopholes or legal tricks, but the result is nonetheless always the same. An individual was able to use the state as an illicit means to accomplish ends otherwise impossible using any other method.
On the other end of the perceived dichotomy, on the governmental side, public actors profit and benefit from the flow of money that passes through state-bureaucracies, with a revolving door between private industry and the public agencies that regulate them. This is simply the reverse side of the example given above.
Where the businessman was able to restrict his competition, the state-agents that make it possible always receive some sort of benefit, whether it is direct monetary compensation or being offered a cushy position or job in the industry in question. The politician, whose end is attaining financial security, also has finite options, as did the entrepreneur.
He can accomplish his goals using peaceful and voluntary means, or he can be a criminal and simply take what he wants. Since no regular person is ever in a position to offer benefits to firms or businesses by restricting the peaceful activities of their competitors, the only way to get away with this is to use the perceived legitimacy of the state. As a tool, the primary use of the state apparatus is to exempt certain actors from the guiding rules or principles that the rest of us are bound by.
Also, by using this Praxeological analysis, we can tie individuals to agencies, corporations, and groups, examining both the particular ends of these persons and the proclaimed agendas of their group overall. We can show how individual motivations are pursued through these groups and to what overall end. When individuals associate with groups or parties or firms, we can better estimate the general set of interests they are working to benefit.
When examining aggregates such as political parties or departments of the government, it now makes sense to see the inevitable conflicting interests between them. Since the state doesn’t act as a single entity, the separate goals for each individual or the groups they constitute may come into contention. Even though, for example, the NSA is part of the government overall, the individuals within the NSA may have different ends than those in different divisions or positions, like Congress as a whole or the President as an individual. This may help to explain why the NSA wiretaps politicians, like Barack Obama (look it up).
Again, even though the Republican Party is one organization, there are factions within it, like the Tea Party or the Neo-Cons, with varying ends. Even though the FBI and the CIA are part of the same federal state, their agendas can radically differ, even directly oppose one another,and often do.
In reality, there is no “state” out there, but only people with an excuse to commit acts otherwise universally deemed evil. Murder, theft, kidnapping, imprisonment, counterfeiting,fraud, deceit, false promises, exploitation, expropriation — all these things and much more are transformed in the public eye from morally reprehensible, into the common functions of every societies’ largest institution, the government. With its decrees, commands, and laws, it’s seen as legitimate in doing things that, if engaged in by any other person, would be immediately condemned as evil and stopped by force if required.
We must adopt a much more nuanced power analysis if we are to truly understand the workings of such a machine. It is not self-directed; it does not have unified goals of its own.
The millions of people, pandering to and purposely benefitting from the state, ranging from any social or political group or any economic class, are what we should analyze in reference to power. Only on this individual basis can the sometimes seemingly contradictory actions of the state make sense.
When we imagine the government to be doing something and want to know why, we need to look at the individuals involved, what groups they are affiliated with, and figure out what their personal ends might be. Since the government doesn’t itself “do” or “want” things, our analysis must be restricted only to the actual people who do act and desire.
It is not public vs. private power, the power of the left vs. that of the right, religious power vs.secular, bourgeois vs. proletariat; it is only power vs. market, aggression and coercion vs. peace and voluntary interaction. The distinction to be made is between the productive, cooperative sector of society, and the criminal, parasitic one.
Power takes shape in many different forms, whether it is the group of thugs in the street gang, the mafia, or the gang of criminals called government, our only concern is whether there is power or not.
The unique characteristic of the state is that when it employs power, invasive illegitimate force,it does so at the behest of cheering crowds, masses of fanatical zealots who not only ask, but demand that somebody rule them, crushing all who might resist or disobey.
When, finally, we, as a society and as individuals no longer demand our own enslavement, no longer insist on bestowing a divine right to any ruling class, we will finally see an end to power,or at least an end to the kind of power that nobody dares to resist. Power and authority can never be legitimate; can only be used as excuses for wickedness. Until we rouse from our dogmatic slumbers, the entirety of human civilization remains in dire jeopardy.
“Government” itself does no harm, because it is a fictional entity. But the belief in “government” – the notion that some people actually have the moral right to rule over others – has caused immeasurable pain and suffering, injustice and oppression, enslavement and death.