Statism: Conspiracy or Incompetence?
Statism: Conspiracy or Incompetence?
By Duncan Whitmore
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
– Hanlon’s Razor
In some recent essays examining the factors that have brought us to the political, social and economic conditions in which we find ourselves in 2020, we mentioned briefly the role of conspiracies, concluding that it is not necessary to speculate upon their existence in order to explain our current situation. This essay will not examine the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in great detail. Instead, we will look specifically at whether the possible existence of a conspiracy among the global “elite” that aims to reduce the entire human population to enslavement offers a convincing explanation for major societal changes that tend towards a crushing of freedom.
The common theme of conspiracy theories is that certain key events are planned, directed or orchestrated deliberately by establishment figures in order to achieve a specific, underhand purpose while being passed off either as mere accidents or as the responsibility of other parties. Thus, it is essentially a form of historical revisionism that is antagonistic to those who have an interest in maintaining conventional historical understanding, and so the latter normally deploy the term “conspiracy theory” as a slur so as to dismiss any explanation of an event that differs from that of the official, approved narrative. Indeed, following the enormous increase in state power as a result of government responses to COVID-19, the term has been used to pigeon-hole opponents of “lockdown” measures, particularly after popular protests which were attended by well known conspiracy theorists such as Piers Corbyn and David Icke. Generally, however, such opposition is now being voiced in mainstream terms by those whose credentials make them more difficult to ignore, and so the “conspiracy” element has not received a great deal of attention. No Austro-libertarian can doubt, though, that the power of the state has increased many times over throughout the past century or so, often in response to specific events. It is, therefore, important for us to diagnose correctly the causes of this seemingly unstoppable trend if we are to have any hope of reversing it.
In spite of the fact that it is an unhelpfully pejorative label with a tendency to capture both the serious and the spurious within its ambit, we will continue to use the term “conspiracy theory” to denote revisionist theories which, unlike some proven or persuasive theories, have failed to gain acceptance as accurate historical explanations.
Austro-Libertarianism and Historical Investigation
Austro-libertarians will share with the conspiracy theorist a deep suspicion of official narratives, and the conspiracy theorist may succeed in identifying areas of interest to which our attention should be drawn. Indeed, if a rise in the popularity of conspiracy theories is an indicator of widening suspicion of the state in general then this can only be a good thing. In contrast to most conspiracy theorists, however, Austro-libertarians are likely to be equipped with intellectual tools that are more adept at translating alternative narratives into genuine scholarship. Given that competing narratives are normally possible only when evidence is ambiguous, incomplete, or simply withheld from the public domain, these tools are vital if theories are to avoid filling in the gaps with unsupported assumptions rather than convincing demonstrations of cause and effect. For instance, the conspiracy theories concerning Denver International Airport – that it contains secret bunkers and headquarters for the architects of an alleged New World Order – are used to explain its inflated cost and (admittedly disturbing) murals that seem to depict the dying of civilisation and its replacement by a globalist, open society. The Austro-libertarian, on the other hand, armed with the knowledge that the state has little incentive to maximise efficiency and minimise waste, is unlikely to be surprised that a large, public infrastructure project ran behind time and over-budget. Moreover, it is hardly outlandish to suppose that artwork depicting leftist preoccupations should appear in a location that guarantees a cosmopolitan audience.
Indeed, it helps to have a theoretical framework that explains why alternative narratives should be sought in the first place, particularly if a theory is to be not only true but also persuasive. Theorists who construct alternative narratives, including Austro-libertarians, usually approach history from a worldview different from that of the general public, namely, that the system of government itself is rotten to the core. So while appeals to simple notions of “power” and “control” by unidentified forces may work inside the circle of those who share this alternative worldview, to the outside they are more likely to indicate groundless paranoia rather than a rational understanding of how the world works. True enough, most people are quite willing to accept that state actors, out of either malice or incompetence, harm the very people whom they are supposed to serve – indeed, it is sometimes undeniable. However, they usually regard these as localised failures, i.e. the wrong people were hired, the wrong policy was adopted or the wrong decision was made in one particular instance. They are less willing to realise that the genesis of these failures lies in the nature of power itself, i.e. that it is inherently harmful and exploitative, if only because the psychological hurdle of questioning the lofty ideals – “democracy”, “accountability”, “representation”, etc. – that they have, thus far, accepted as good is too high. There is, therefore, an inbuilt bias against alternative narratives that holds them to a higher standard of proof than that which may be required by an official narrative. We can hope that the burden is now shifting gradually as the state lurches from one crisis to another, and perhaps, in the not too distant future, the present level of cynicism and contempt for politicians will translate into an outright presumption that their narratives are false. But for as long as people remain convinced that the socio-economic structures with which they have lived for their entire lives are, overall, good and beneficial, revisionists must be prepared to hold themselves to this higher standard lest they be dismissed as cantankerous crackpots spouting panic-stricken paranoia.
An important part of the framework needed to achieve this higher standard is an accurate theory of the state – that it is an entity which alone enjoys the use of violence, possessing the ultimate decision making authority over a given territory. Austro-libertarians have examined in detail the different incentives that influence those acting via the conduit of the state, with some of the most notable works in this regard being: Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism, Interventionism, and Bureaucracy; Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy the State; and Murray N Rothbard’s The Anatomy of the State and Power and Market. More recently, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God that Failed has demonstrated how the precise configuration of the state can influence these incentives and the resulting actions. Hoppe argues that democracy, by relegating leaders to mere caretakers (rather than owners) of the realm, must lead to a widespread ravaging of resources and the debt-fuelled growth of the welfare-warfare state. Further, by coating the state with a veneer of legitimacy, democracy can expand the state to heights that monarchs of ages past could only have dreamt of. For instance, the “achievement” of a worldwide paper money issued and controlled entirely by state institutions is something that centuries of monarchy could never bring about, yet democracy – a rarity before 1900 – was able to make it a reality by 1971.
Critically, we know from “Austrian” economics that transactions compelled by force can only ever benefit some people at the expense of others, as opposed to voluntary transactions in which all parties expect to benefit, at least ex-ante. Given that force is the raison d’être of the state, it is, therefore, an inherently exploitative institution that cannot confer universal benefits. Worse than this, however, the state can only benefit a minority of persons at the expense of a majority, otherwise per capita enrichment is likely to fall below the level sufficient to make continued exploitation worthwhile to the state’s main beneficiaries.1 Such exploitation need not take the form of material enrichment. The preservation of a way of life or the promulgation of a cherished moral code is just as likely to benefit only a minority at the expense of a majority if it must be enforced by the state. For if such a way of life was embraced by the majority, state enforcement is less likely to be needed – the moral code would be self-enforcing through market and social penalties applied to dissenters. It is only when the majority cares little for these scruples that the state needs to step in. Indeed, most the of the “victimless” crimes such as those against drug taking, prostitution and gambling exist in part because a minority of people are bothered by what other people choose to do with their bodies, whereas the majority is not sufficiently motivated against such behaviour.
Whichever form the exploitation takes, the key point is that the state is unable to benefit the productive majority to the same extent that it can benefit the parasitic minority, but it is dependent upon the productive majority for its sustenance. The majority could, in principle, choose to withdraw this sustenance at any time, and, being outnumbered, there is little that the minority could do about it. Thus, at the very least, the state’s parasitism needs to achieve the tacit acceptance (not necessarily the consent or approval) of the majority if it is to survive. Such acceptance is more likely to be achieved if the state can present itself as an institution that either benefits everyone, or can do things that are difficult to disagree with even if most people realise that they will not personally be made better off (e.g. implementing programmes to tackle homelessness or illness).2
Here then, is the key to why state narratives are likely to be false. Because we know, from economic theory, that the provision of these benefits by the state is impossible in the long run (and, in fact, it is more likely to make any problem worse), the state must counter this reality by fostering the illusion that it is possible: in other words, the destructive must be presented as creative; consumption and waste must be dressed up as production and prudence; short sightedness as visionary; stupidity as wisdom; and, critically, failure must be presented as success or attributed to some other cause. At least until recently social democracy has been reasonably resilient in sustaining these illusions, largely because, unlike with direct socialism, state action is not proximate to its eventual effects, often taking place through private intermediaries who can be made into scapegoats should the need arise. Thus, it becomes easy, for example, to blame “capitalism” or “greedy bankers” for economic collapse caused ultimately by state induced inflationary finance.
From this we can learn several things which put some chinks in the notion that mystical grand forces are successfully bending the world towards total subjugation. First, we can suppose that, in most cases, false narratives are more likely to be covers for incompetence and inability rather than for grand schemata. Second, faced permanently with the prospect of rebellion by the majority, the state is likely to do only the minimum necessary to sustain its exploitative powers (or, at least, is likely to increase its powers in only an incremental and imperceptible manner). It is better to ask than to cajole; it is better to cajole than to demand; it is better to demand than to force; and it is better to force than to kill. No one knowingly takes the path of most resistance (or inflicts upon himself the highest cost) in order to accomplish an aim, particularly not when that potential resistance outnumbers you. East Germany, for instance, would not have built the Berlin Wall if its citizens had not, in fact, been fleeing across the border. If states are ratcheting up their powers then it is likely to be because the prior minimum needed to attain tacit acceptance of the majority is no longer sufficient. As we shall see later, the reasons why this tacit acceptance begins to wane are the keys to understanding why state power increases.
Central also to the Austro-libertarian’s tools are praxeology – the study of the logical consequences that unfold from human action – and methodological individualism. By accepting that society is a) composed of individuals, b) that these individuals – whether they are private citizens, emperors, presidents, generals, company CEOs or whatever – are subject to the same, praxeological laws, and c) by knowing the precise benefits and costs which were faced in their particular situation, we are in a better position to explain how people can and do influence events. Because we know that each individual always acts so as to maximise the satisfaction of his ends, Murray N Rothbard suggested that any analysis should begin with the question Cui bono – who benefits?3 Who would have wanted the events that occurred to have occurred in the way in which they did? There are several advantages to reasoning in this way.
First, a convincing answer to the question why is likely to prove more persuasive than focussing on what occurred and how. For example, however many studies are done on the imperfect audio, visual and witness evidence, and however many elaborate recreations of the assassination are carried out, this method is never going to establish once and for all that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone gunman when John F Kennedy was assassinated. Nor is watching endless loops of the World Trade Center collapsing able to absolutely establish whether the twin towers were detonated internally during the September 11th attacks. This is not to undermine the importance of the how of history, and, of course, casting doubt over the logic of an official narrative could be a signpost towards further investigation. But this discipline is a disembodied wraith when unconnected to any specific “why”, especially when it is inconclusive – and, as we mentioned earlier, competing narratives are only possible precisely because evidence is ambiguous, incomplete, or simply unavailable. Moreover, from an investigative point of view, it helps to identify a suspect first and then to follow the specific evidence pertaining to that suspect instead of starting with a deluge of evidence that could point in multiple directions.
Second, once we do confront the question of “why”, we can see that what matters to the construction of an historical narrative are the specific incentives to specific individuals that appeared at specific times. A good historian will, of course, realise that history is nothing but a string of individual actions presaged by their motives, treating the characteristics of large groups and classes, at best, as an heuristic. But it is very easy, particularly in summaries intended for a lay audience, to gloss over individual details by presenting events as being moved by large collectives – and this is precisely the method that is used by the state in order to sustain the illusions in its own narratives.
For example, with the War between the States, we are told that “The South” seceded from “The United States” to preserve “slavery” and the resulting war brought freedom for “slaves” and saved “the union“; “Britain” declared war on “Nazi Germany” to defend “Poland“; “The United States” was forced into the “Cold War” with “The Soviet Union” and so had to create a “Military-Industrial Complex” to defend “the Western World” from “the Communist threat“; The “US Government” launched the “War on Terror” to defend “us” from “terrorists”. Not coincidentally, this, today, is also the favoured technique of identity politics promulgated by the cultural left in order to sow division and antagonism, explaining history as being primarily concerned with the domination of “men” over “women”, of “whites” over “blacks”, of “straights” over “gays” etc. By grouping people and events into large, homogenous classes that can be easily categorised as “good” (if they are on “our” side) or “evil” (if they are on the “other” side) one eradicates from examination the more nuanced question of individual behaviour and motives. History, therefore, becomes romanticised into something resembling an idealistic fairy tale rather than an explanation of the real world: great events must be moved by great masses, with the overall direction determined more by destiny and providence – the natural triumph of good over evil – than concrete objectives.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists often tend to lapse into this way of thinking. This is not to suggest that we are never given specific names – Bill Gates and George Soros tend to be particular favourites, for instance. But how often do we hear that the world’s evils are down to the “New World Order”, to “Freemasons”, to “capitalists”, to “billionaires” etc.? True enough, the allure of conspiracy theories relies in part upon not really knowing who all these shadowy forces actually are. The reality – that specific individuals are likely to carry out relatively specific actions which may even have relatively mundane motivations – seems rather dull. But if alternative narratives are to have anything other than entertainment value, then these broad brush strokes cannot be a suitable tool. We are aiming to counter the state’s illusions, not simply replace them with our own. The notion, for instance, that “billionaires” are automatically evil and so must also be acting together to do evil things which only the massed forces of goodness are able to stop cannot be promulgated by any serious investigator of the truth.4
Once we realise that we are interested in individuals and their specific motives and opportunities, we soon come to realise a number of other things. One of these is that individuals are not necessarily united in their aims even though they may share the same, broad objectives and basic philosophy. Members of the Chinese Communist Party and the representatives of the US Congress are all statists but, quite obviously, the Chinese do not wish to be ruled by Americans and vice versa. Indeed, in spite of the recent drift towards political globalisation, trying to cajole what are still sovereign states into co-operating may well be the biggest stumbling block to any ambition for imposing unitary, worldwide despotism. More specifically, one “evil” billionaire might prefer for the shots to be called by him – and for his companies to gain all of the lucrative government contracts – instead of by another “evil” billionaire. Elon Musk, for instance, has publicly rubbished Bill Gates’ vaccine solution to COVID-19 – hardly a show of unity between two of the world’s richest and most powerful men. How many similar disagreements between others of their ilk are likely to be harboured in private? Gates has also had to pour cold water on Russian and Chinese efforts at vaccine development which, if successful, could threaten his dominance in this regard. Unlike the generation of wealth under a regime of private property, the accumulation of power is an eliminative, zero sum game – what is gained by one person must be lost to another, and, in the long run, multiple plans and multiple desires cannot be accommodated. As Mises pointed out, central planners love planning only because they all think that their own plan is the one that will be implemented.5 They seldom give much thought to the possibility of ending up as a mere cog in someone else’s plan. There isn’t even a guarantee that different individuals have the same time horizon in mind. The state’s donors and influencers may be playing the long game, but the politicians in possession of de jure power are notoriously short-term oriented.
Thus, once we realise that any grand plan is more likely to be a series of small plans either bolted together or mixed into some form of compromise (with several, competing small plans hoping to fill the next gap in the sequence) then it raises the question of whether there really can be any grand plan at all. Even with COVID-19, it is true that states, generally, have marched together in imposing lockdowns, but, in addition to outliers such as Sweden, the unity has not been strong enough to make comparisons between different approaches impossible – and, moreover, whatever unity there was is visibly crumbling as governments have to decide whether to impose secondary lockdown measures this winter.
So once we move beyond broad, collective notions of “control” and “power” and have to consider the details of its exercise by individuals who acquire it, it becomes equally more difficult to sustain broad narratives. In fact, we have seen this before in Marxist class theory, which assumes that the interests of an individual member of a particular class align with those of the class as a whole. This is patently not true. A labourer who wishes to be paid the highest possible wage will find that it is an additional supply of other labourers that will push his wages down; similarly, a businessman who wishes to pay the lowest possible wage will find that it is other businesses which will tend to bid wages up. The real opponents of any individual labourer and any individual businessman come, therefore, from within their own classes. Such competition is more likely to motivate a person’s actions (and the resulting events) than the alleged interests of the whole of his class – as, for example when unions representing skilled workers have championed minimum wage laws and restrictive immigration policies that would benefit their members at the expense of lower skilled or foreign workers. In the same vein, while it is true that statists and state beneficiaries as a whole are engaged in the exploitation of everyone else it does not follow from this that they see themselves as brothers-in-arms rather than competitors when it comes to the matter of exercising that exploitation. Indeed, when push comes to shove, individuals who gain power are not unknown to eliminate their former comrades altogether once the power of the latter is perceived to be a competitive threat – as Hitler did to Ernst Röhm and the SA, and Stalin did to Trotsky (and to just about everybody else). As one journalist observed during the bloodbath that followed the overthrow of Louis XVI, the revolution devours its children. Hitler himself was the target of several dozen known plots from within the Reich, but these weren’t necessarily carried out by freedom fighters. The architects of the famous 20th July Plot were all senior military figures and politicians each of whom, at one time, supported the regime, and so it is unlikely that, had they succeeded, they would have instituted a paradise of freedom.
The post-Cold War liberal democratic consensus has been quite good at hiding the disagreement and disunity between state actors and beneficiaries, and since the collapse of communism it has seemed as though the Western world has been moving in the same direction. However, now that the economic failures of inflationary finance and increased but unpopular moves towards global governance are experiencing a backlash, this apparent harmony is coming apart at the seams. One of the emerging gulfs is between, on the one hand, the continuation of the globalising corp-tocracy of the Davos crowd represented by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and, on the other, a return to a more economic kind of socialism championed by supporters of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So too are outfits such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa and Extinction Rebellion likely to maintain an uneasy relationship with the “establishment left”. For while it is beneficial to the latter to exploit these people’s grievous narratives of oppression and the subsequent division that they can sow, “harder” left ideologies are also a threat. Just this week the co-founder of a Black Lives Matter chapter complained that Joe Biden was just as much of a “violent white supremacist” as Donald Trump. So if the Biden campaign – which has already been walking back its prior support for the protests and riots that have plagued American cities since the death of George Floyd – manages to oust Trump from office this November then it wouldn’t be surprising if we were to see these more extremist outfits thrown under the bus after Inauguration Day. So while libertarians may despise all of these different parties, we must realise that the threats they pose to our rights and freedoms is more of a grand competition than a grand co-operation. Indeed, we can take some comfort from the fact that they will spend as much time fighting each other as well as our freedom.
Incompetence and Catastrophe
Nothing in what we have said thus far has challenged the notion that there are not, in fact, evil and amoral people within the deep state apparatus who use whatever means they can to expand their own power for the sake of it, nor are we disputing the possibility that individual events may be shaped (or utilised) deliberately to serve this purpose. Indeed, we cannot deny the praxeological law that all humans will seek to achieve their ends at the lowest possible cost – and this will involve exploiting other humans as means where the situation allows. So we are not dismissing the likelihood that plots and plans to reduce freedom exist, and it would certainly be ignorant to believe that the state and its beneficiaries will abstain from exploiting a situation in order to increase their power if they believe that they can do so. This includes the planning of oppressive measures that must lie in wait for the appropriate moment of their deployment. For instance, the fact that the Patriot Act was drafted prior to the September 11th attacks in 2001 has been documented, and similar claims have been made that lockdown measures in response to a pandemic were planned ahead of the appearance of COVID-19. Everyone makes hay while the sun shines (or, in the state’s case, sucks blood when night falls). Moreover, we certainly shouldn’t deny the fact that consolidation of power is a danger and that there is nothing to be worried about – in fact, we should be very worried by what the state can and will do to us, regardless of whether the cause is calculation or incompetence.
The problem, however, is that the same people who allege that actual, long term societal trends have been designed and engineered by an overarching conspiracy to enslave us all are often the very same people who will, in another breath, proclaim that the state is so incompetent and inefficient that it cannot even deliver the mail. Some of the regular contributors to Lew Rockwell’s site – one of the most popular libertarian resources in the world – seem to be of this ilk, and lately there seems to be no shortage of those prophesying not only doom and despotism but, specifically, calculated doom and despotism.6 Indeed, I seem to recall, back in 2016, that the same line of thinking on the same website was used to cast a cloud of pessimism over Brexit and the possibility of Trump taking office in spite of the votes for each – as if our dark overlords would just have to flick a few switches or pull a few strings in order to cancel these unthinkable abominations. The fact that Trump was, in fact, sworn into office and Brexit has all but happened should give us some clue that, even if worldwide domination is planned, it is not going to be all that easy to achieve. True enough, a targeted assassination here or a false flag there is likely to be achievable, as is a malevolent influence on policy initiation. But when it comes to accomplishing long term outcomes, we seem to forget, when lamenting the loss of our freedom, that the state is not a well oiled and polished machine that can simply be manipulated in any way to produce a desired outcome. Rather, not only is it slow, bureaucratic, disjointed and wasteful, but it usually doesn’t have the ability to avoid some form of overt and obvious failure, especially when you consider the law of unintended consequences. For instance, most of the contradictions and calamities resulting from the current lockdown measures result from the fact that the government knows that it cannot completely crash the economy, and so it has to end up enforcing rules that are neither one thing nor the other. Hence, we have pubs, bars and restaurants allowed to open for business, but with the caveat that they must shut no later than 10pm – with all of their customers then spilling out onto the street at the same time, making a complete farce of “social distancing” rules. This is before we even mention the fact that the current assault on the hospitality industry is an about turn from the summer’s “Eat out to Help out” campaign. Or we have students returning to university so that the tuition fees and rent money still flow into the coffers, but are then effectively imprisoned because of supposed outbreaks of “cases”. Why not just let them stay at home?
More seriously, one of the spectres presently hanging over us is the possibility of mass vaccination, which has been attributed to ulterior motives such as inflated pharmaceutical profits, population reduction through the back door, and the issuing of “health” passports and freedom “licences”. But even if these ambitions are harboured (and I would not extend any doubt that they are), has anybody actually stopped to ask whether it would be even logistically possible for our government to vaccinate all 65 million British citizens, or even a majority of them? This government has already struggled to keep up with a testing regimen on just a fraction of that number so as to sustain the narrative of the virus threat, and, moreover, the roll out of the so-called NHS Test and Trace app has been beset by almost comical problems. Just this week it was reported that the data feeding this multibillion pound system was stored not on a proper database but on an Excel spreadsheet which ceased to update when it reached capacity. Is this system being run by experts or by GCSE IT students? In light of all of this, why do we think that the state could achieve anything far more difficult and complex? Does anybody doubt that the mere attempt at mass vaccination is likely to end up in complete failure?
Greater scepticism could be levelled at the prospect of a global digital currency or a global economic “reset” planned by the World Economic Forum. These are enormous undertakings requiring co-operation and complicity from the best part of the world’s governments, corporations, institutions and individual citizens, and however much they may be desired it is doubtful that they could be accomplished quite as swimmingly as some writers seem to suggest. The same goes for any other incarnations of this type of planning such as a “Green New Deal”. Indeed, the political right usually emphasises the organic nature of society and the inability to subject it to the conscious shaping and moulding into something that is explicitly desired. Yet if those same rightists overestimate the state’s abilities in enacting its predations then they inadvertently lend credence to the leftist notion that a society of individually thinking, feeling, choosing and acting human beings is, indeed, as engineerable as a Meccano set. There often seems to be little awareness of this inconsistency.
A realistic understanding of actual outcomes therefore needs to reconcile, on the one hand, the likelihood of predatory intent harboured in the depths of the deep state with, on the other, the state’s inherently incompetent and inefficient nature. This understanding relies on us recalling our theory of the state – that it is a necessarily exploitative institution that can benefit only a minority through harming somebody else. In other words, any state action – whether it takes the form of higher taxes, a price control, a regulation, a subsidy, or laws enforcing “moral” behaviour such as prohibitions on drinking or smoking, and so on – will benefit a handful of people while heaping a negative externality onto others. Critically, however, the power of the state can be destroyed easily by the majority should the latter refuse to maintain its tacit acceptance of the state’s regime, and so the state’s predations must remain limited by the boundary within which the majority will maintain this acceptance. Indeed, states could probably exist permanently at a very low level of exploitation that otherwise permits it citizens to live perceptibly free and prosperous lives – much as they do in Switzerland or did in Hong Kong under British rule. If, however, negative externalities of state action reach a point where they cause a disaffection that threatens the tacit acceptance of the state’s regime, then the state is in trouble.
Sometimes, this disaffection might be widespread amongst the majority, and can result even if the state’s action does not target the majority directly. For example, the lion’s share of income taxes is normally paid by the minority of highest earners, but the economic effect of reduced investment in capital goods is felt by everybody. However, it is important to realise that disaffection need not be felt by the majority in order for it to threaten the state’s rule – it is enough for the majority to simply refuse to intervene if the state is challenged by an unsettled but powerful minority. The popular view of revolutions is that wealthy, exploitative rulers grind down the common folk into destitution and despair until the latter rise up and overthrow their masters by sheer force of numbers. Such a romanticised depiction is often far from the truth, however. In the first place, revolutionary ideas are promulgated not by the illiterate lower classes but by the educated middle classes – the minority of intellectuals, lawyers, merchants and businessmen who are likely to fill the vacuum of power once the current rulers are displaced. More importantly, any resulting revolutionary war can, and has, been won not by overwhelming numbers of peasants storming the palaces with torches and pitchforks; rather, there is more likely to be a rebellious minority on the one hand fighting a loyalist minority on the other while everyone else just stands aside. Indeed, this is a loose description of the state affairs that persisted during the American Revolution, one of the greatest displacements of power to have occurred in the whole of history. This is not to suggest, of course, that the majority can simply be ignored. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, the people are the water through which the revolutionary fish must swim, and it is likely that the permanence of any particular regime can only be bolstered in the long run by the positive support of the majority. The important point is that, when faced by a motivated minority, the inaction of the majority is at least as much of a threat to the regime as its positive action.
The truth of this is confined not just to revolts and rebellion – it applies to a modern democracy also, with the disaffected critical mass most likely consisting of a minority of voters whose votes are significant enough to sway an election. The battlefield on which elections are frequently won and lost, and, thus, where electoral candidates concentrate the majority of their campaign resources, is on that crucial centre ground of “swing voters” with no particular loyalty. But even where a candidate suffers the ultimate form of defeat – a landslide victory for the opponent – this isn’t usually due to an overwhelming shift of support to the latter. Rather, it is more likely that the candidate’s “base” simply didn’t bother to turn up and vote, i.e. stood on the sidelines.7 Thus, even with peaceful transitions of power through the ballot box, the most consistent threat to the current regime is a hostile, active minority coupled with the passivity of the majority.
What we can see, therefore, is that the current state rulers are always in an extremely precarious position, never more than a stone’s throw from being toppled if it upsets a motivated minority. Such a threat can be mitigated by one of only two options: either the state can cease the exploitative action causing the disaffection; or it can try to heap on another predation in order to solve the effects of the first.
Option one might be possible in specific circumstances where the cause of the problem is too obvious to deny. Indeed, the epitaphs of modern administrations are littered with failed and abandoned projects and programmes which succeeded in producing only mountains of waste. In the long run, however, such a path would both penalise enrichment for the state’s beneficiaries and (perhaps more critically) draw too much attention to the fact that the state is an unnecessary blight rather than a positive contributor to human society. The overall tendency, therefore, will be for the second option – for the state to take action and thereby present itself as the solution, not as the problem. Indeed, we should remember that disaffection amongst the populace could take the form of demanding positive action from the state anyway. Given that, as we noted, the disaffected are also likely to constitute a minority, their motivation may not be to cancel the state’s exploitation but to share in it. Such rent seeking behaviour is especially likely to be the case in larger states and/or those that lack a homogenous culture, and has been a particular feature of the modern nation state.
This tendency of heaping one interference on top of another in order to control the effects of the latter has progressed to the position we are in today where the very fundamentals of the modern state – namely, democracy, inflationary finance and the welfare state – which are actually the cause of so many of the problems which the state feigns to solve have, at least until now, been placed largely beyond question. However, this second option will, itself, take the form of a forced action which, by necessity, will benefit some at the expense of others. It too, therefore, will create another negative externality which will eventually, if left un-tempered, show up as disaffection which threatens the tacit acceptance of the state’s regime. This must then be solved with another response, which will then create a similar distortion requiring yet another response, and so on. Like a gathering snowball, these responses must become bigger and bigger as they seek to control an ever swelling number of problems, leading to the state taking increasing amounts of control over every aspect of life.
Thus, the growth of power and all of its terrible consequences owes itself to the fact that the state has to find bigger hammers to hit more and bigger nails. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, to an outsider, it looks as though the state’s beneficiaries spend all their time “plotting” and “planning” to do just that. As it becomes consolidated and centralised, decision making authority increasingly violates the principle of subsidiarity – that an issue should be dealt with at the lowest level capable of providing a resolution. Eventually, we reach a position where a handful of mandarins wield enormous amounts of power which – because of the necessary limits of their purview – must force greater numbers of people into “one size fits all” solutions in order to solve increasingly more extensive problems. Indeed, in the confines of the office of a professional bureaucrat like Matt Hancock who, when faced by the problem of a pandemic, has to find some way for the state to respond, a measure such as a nationwide curfew at 10pm may seem like a realistic idea. But to everybody else it can appear as a wanton, deliberate usurpation of their lives, for only all of the individual people in their individual situations on the ground will see the myriad of costs, benefits, problems, disturbances and knock on effects that such an edict will entail. This problem is especially exacerbated today by the fact that so many politicians, civil servants, advisers and technocrats have, to put it bluntly, never had a “real job”. Instead, their entire professional lives have been spent dealing with only with aggregations, abstractions, concepts, models and statistics, devoid of any exposure to the reifications of having to deal with real problems in real situations with real people. As one wedding and events planner has put it with regards to the COVID-19 restrictions:
It is plainly ridiculous that spacious wedding venues, including some that seat 1,500 people, have to restrict themselves to 15 people. It’s all based on the Government view that weddings are ‘super-spreader’ events […] The Government’s thoughtless assumption is that wedding guests will be drunkenly hugging and kissing everyone in the room as though Covid didn’t exist. In the real world, the Government must see that most people have adapted their behaviour and, particularly around the vulnerable, are acting with great restraint. A wedding meal for 100 people, with guests spaced as in restaurants, with no mingling or dancing, with modest consumption of alcohol, poses a very small risk indeed. Wedding events can be closely supervised by venue staff and family members who would be determined to keep things safe. Weddings pose no more risk than many other permitted activities.
From all of this we can see that the state, overall, is more likely to spend most of its time reacting to the problems that it causes rather than proactively planning its plunder (although, as we mentioned earlier, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that it will be proactive if it sees an opportunity, or that it will have certain reactions prepared in advance to an anticipated event). As we explained recently, we in 2020 are living through the biggest challenge to state authority since the fall of communism, namely the reassertion of economic law in exposing the failures of inflationism, welfare statism and political globalisation. To this the state has responded by doubling down and kicking the can down the road, from which every corrosive aspect of state growth – authoritarianism, antagonism, barbarism, collectivism, conformity, corruption, chaos, cultural decay, and the fracturing of social cohesion – has become magnified as a logical result. The more this continues then the bigger the problems grow, repeating the vicious cycle until something has to give way.
A further consequence of this – and one that may become more apparent in the near future – is that, particularly as the situation reaches a crisis point, the outcomes of any one action tend to be blown out of proportion. Thus, consequences tend to be shaped more by blunders and mishaps rather than by deliberate design. We have already mentioned the law of unintended consequences, but even quite innocent slip ups can have disproportionate effects.
In fact, one of the most momentous events in recent history owes itself, in part, to a bureaucratic mistake made in a time of crisis. In the autumn of 1989, the East German government – one of the most resistant to the Perestroika era reforms that were sweeping across the Communist Bloc – failed to stem the tide of East Germans escaping to the West across the recently reopened border between Austria and Hungary. Consequently, on November 9th, it was decided that the travel restrictions across the Inner German Border and the Berlin Wall would be relaxed, allowing East German citizens to apply for travel and emigration without having to meet the former (highly restrictive) requirements. Crucially, passports and permission would still be required – the intention was not to permit travel on demand, nor was it to end the absurdity of a heavily fortified border running through the centre of a major metropolis. Furthermore, the relaxation was to come into effect on the following day, November 10th.
However, at the tail end of an otherwise mundane press conference, an inadequately briefed official (reading from a poorly drafted note he had received just minutes earlier) announced that East Germans could emigrate across the border – and, when pressed, stated in error that the new regulations would come into effect “immediately” rather than on the following day. Once reported by the press later that evening, this message became misinterpreted as “East Germans can cross the border immediately”. On hearing this news thousands of East Berliners swarmed to the handful of official border crossings in the city, demanding to be let through the barriers into the West. Under the pressure of the vast numbers, and with no one willing to authorise the use of force, the clueless border guards eventually relented by opening the crossings. Both East and West Berliners, in jubilation at their sudden reuniting, began hacking at the wall with hammers and chisels, with similar scenes occurring at the Inner German Border.
Thus, the iron curtain that had sustained communist tyranny for nearly half a century was de facto abolished in a single night by a bureaucratic cock-up disseminated by an eager media that heard what it wanted to hear. Half a day earlier, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who would have believed that mauerfall was even possible, let alone imminent.8 While communism was already in its death throes, the sense of inevitability that followed that extraordinary night – amplified by the Soviet Union’s refusal to intervene – means that, without it, the swift and largely peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union may not have occurred.
Such apparently trivial mistakes and blunders (or just minor actions) are not confined to the fall of communism. Napoleon delayed the start of the Battle of Waterloo because he believed that the ground was too wet, giving time for the Prussian forces to join the British against him. The great general’s defeat led not only to his abdication as Emperor and permanent exile but also to the fall of the First French Empire and all but a century of peace throughout Europe. The aforementioned 20th of July Plot against Hitler failed because a planted briefcase containing the bomb intended to kill the Führer at a meeting was inadvertently moved by an officer behind the leg of the conference table, shielding the target from the blast. Under Hitler’s continuing leadership, the war persisted until Germany was destroyed and occupied by the Allies, with the Russians having swept across Eastern Europe. Nuclear Armageddon was averted in 1983 when a Soviet officer monitoring the missile detection system realised that a warning of an imminent attack by the US was down to a mere computer glitch. As a result of his judgment, we are all still here.
Each of these events could have gone the other way but for the relatively minor actions of the individuals involved, and world history would have taken a very different path in each instance. What if Napoleon had fought earlier at Waterloo and won? What would have happened to the decades of relative European peace and prosperity that persisted until the outbreak of World War One? How different might the world have looked after 1945 if Hitler had died in that conference room, allowing the plotters against him to negotiate peace with the Allies nearly a full year earlier than VE Day? The Russians were barely half way across Eastern Europe at this point and so the latter may well avoided falling to communist rule. And we don’t even want to contemplate what would have happened if the Soviets had launched their nuclear weapons at the United States in 1983. Fallible humans who wield disproportionate power will that find mistakes and slip ups, of both themselves and those around them, are magnified into extraordinary circumstances, especially when they are refracted through the prism of the already incompetent, inefficient and wasteful state apparatus.
While the theory outlined in this essay neither confirms nor denies the existence of deliberate, planned intention to crush freedom, we end with this observation so as to relieve ourselves from what Brendan O’Neill calls the “narratives of powerlessness” typical of those with a conspiratorial bent. What we have seen is that the reliance of the state upon the tacit acceptance of the majority means that, ultimately, it is not possible for the state to keep expanding its power without sowing the seeds of its own, eventual destruction. Indeed, the fact that the East German government relented in 1989 because of the overwhelming numbers demanding to cross the Berlin Wall illustrates the fact that the state consists of an ultimately powerless minority – a minority which, theoretically, could have been overthrown at any time. None of this is a warrant to bask in complacency, nor to expect that the near future will be anything other than difficult. But for those who see nothing but a dark era of despotism ahead, we should take much comfort from the fact that the state is as hopeless as it is terrifying – and that it becomes ever more blundering, incompetent, inefficient and wasteful the more it grows, with the magnification of these factors eventually exerting a greater influence on the course of events regardless of the intentions of those who benefit from power.
* * * * *
1This is not to suggest that the state cannot engage in redistributive bribery from which members of the (otherwise exploited) majority can benefit. Another “achievement” of social democracy is to have blurred the lines between the state’s victims and its beneficiaries. But it must still be the case that those who are mostly productive must outnumber those who are mostly exploitative. A parasite can suck enough blood only out of a bigger host.
2In contrast to popular belief, force, even when dispensed by the most brutal regimes, is not sufficient, and can only be exercised in practice upon a minority of the most problematic dissenters. If a majority of the population was to deny its compliance then there is little the state could do about it. Thus, the real value of force is the fear of its use in achieving the tacit acceptance of the majority. Hence, we can see the truth in the warning, attributed to Edmund Burke, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
3Quoted in B K Marcus, Radio Free Rothbard, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 20, No. 2 (Spring 2006), 17-51 at 17.
4Austro-libertarians sometimes use the collective term “deep state” to describe the vested interests and power bases that benefit from the state’s largesse. However, they are also careful to emphasise that it as an informal and splintered network. It would, moreover, be unfair to ascribe the error of collectivist thinking solely to popular historical accounts or to conspiracy theorists. Even within academia it was not until the Public Choice school of thought that serious attention was given to the specific motivations influencing state actors as individuals.
5Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, Liberty Fund/Ludwig von Mises Institute (2010), 243.
6Gary D Barnett and Bill Sardi seem to stand out in this regard (although we may note, in fairness, that their primary aim seems to be to alert people to what could happen if they fail to resist). See, for instance, here, here, here, here and here.
7For instance, turnout in recent landslide election results in the UK was 72.7% (1983), 71.3% (1997) and 59.4% (2001). This is against higher turnouts which produced more balanced results: 76% (1979), 75.3% (1987), and 77.7% (1992). Turnout has remained consistently below 70% since the 2005 election, most likely because of general disaffection with politics. But even here, the highest turnout of 68.8% (2017) produced a hung parliament whereas the lowest of 61.4% (2005) resulted in a decent majority of 66 seats. We might as well note also that the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Communities produced a result of 67% for Yes vs 33% for No on a turnout of 64.62%, whereas the 2016 referendum produced a more even 52% for Leave vs 48% for Remain on a higher turnout of 72.21%.
8Indeed, the West Berlin government was still pressing ahead with infrastructure projects that assumed the permanence of the city’s division, including an extension to the city’s metro rail system just south of the Brandenburg Gate, which only opened to passengers after reunification. It soon had to be dismantled to allow for the reconnection of the older lines between the two halves of the city. Details such as this are illustrative of the importance of small and seemingly mundane decisions for interpreting historical events.