The Sudden Vanishing of the State
There is a popular cultural trope which imagines what the world would be like if some foundational societal institution or another were to suddenly disappear. The electrical grid suddenly fails (the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still), nuclear attack cuts off all communication with the outside world (the short-lived TV drama Jericho), or the entire human race ceases to reproduce (Children of Men). Among liberty folk, the societal institution in question is, of course, the State.
Murray Rothbard, in his famous essay about David Friedman, wrote, of the radical position:
“The abolitionist is a ‘button pusher’ who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed. But the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist, and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary – while always preferring the whole loaf if he can achieve it.”
Whether he was right or not, I do not know. But from this line of thinking has come one of the most absurd objections to the stateless society that has ever been expressed (save for perhaps the problem of the roads). Anybody who has spent a significant amount of time in discussions about Liberty will be familiar with this objection, which comes in many forms but is, in its essential parts, “Statelessness is undesirable because of the chaos and destruction that would occur if suddenly the State were to vanish.”
Typically, the objection is expressed in much more dramatic terms – mayhem in the streets! children using hard drugs! criminals running free! and the like.
Therefore, the objection concludes, we ought not espouse anarchy. It’s just much too dangerous.
But, this is a curious objection, and obviously not well-thought out. Any large and sudden societal change can be expected to cause chaos and destruction. This has nothing to do with the value of those changes themselves. After every major hurricane or earthquake, there are always photos and videos of hordes of refugees wandering aimlessly, abandoned pets, vehicle fires, and stubborn property-owners standing outside their homes brandishing shotguns. The same scenes can be found in places of political unrest, poverty, totalitarianism, and on and on.
But even positive changes are likely to cause this type of chaos. Imagine if, sometime just before the American civil war, all slaves were suddenly and miraculously freed at the same time. What would the results be? Wouldn’t the sudden appearance of hundreds of thousands or millions of recently unemployed and homeless former slaves upset the social order? Would there not be looting? Chaos?
To go back farther, imagine if some medieval kingdom was to transition to representative democracy overnight. How would that work? Think of the confusion that would result. It seems impossible that such a democracy could even get started. How could ballots be distributed? How could representatives be chosen? Where would they meet? Who would enforce the will of the newly created legislature?
To return to a contemporary example, think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It truly did happen almost overnight. Tens of millions of Germans suddenly found themselves with worthless currency, no pensions, no jobs, no representation in government, and no government-issued IDs or papers of any kind. It was the realization of the West German government’s biggest nightmare.
But the fact that these improvements would have caused chaos does not justify their rejection. It was the fault of the slave trade that abolition would have caused upheaval. It was the fault of the culture of royal hierarchies that a transition to democracy would have been a failure. It was the fact that the wall was made in the first place that made its fall such a problem. We ought to put the blame where the blame is due. The existence of the State is the reason a sudden transition to anarchism would be disastrous. But that doesn’t have any bearing on the logical, moral, and social validity of anarchism any more than the problems associated with the sudden abolition of slavery are reasons to continue slavery.
We favor abolition not because it is convenient or easy, but because it is the right thing to do. We favor anarchism not because it is popular (ha!) or an easy way of achieving liberty (have you ever tried explaining anarchism to someone?) but because the State is a cancerous agent of destruction which will not be satisfied until each and every person is either dead or enslaved by its power. When compared to this threat, the transient social chaos that would result from a sudden move to anarchy is actually quite trivial.