Definitions of the state vary depending on the political theory or political philosophy inspiring the definition. However, there is a common element to all of them. The state is an organization monopolizing the legitimate use of force or claiming a monopoly on the use of coercion in a given geographic area and over a political entity, and possessing internal and external sovereignty. Recognition of the state by other states, and thus its ability to enter into international agreements, is often considered a crucial element of its nature. When not conceptually specified, the term state is typically defined ostensibly by pointing out the political structure that emerged after the Peace of Westphalia and that currently constitutes the dominant form of political organization in the world. The terms country, nation, and land are sometimes used as synonymous with state. In addition, the term also is used to describe the territorial and politico-administrative divisions within a federal system. Many authors have emphasized the distinction between the state and the government—the second referring to the group of people who make decisions for the state and/or their specific decision-making institutional arrangements; however, this distinction is not universal in common parlance.
Theories about the origins of the state fall into two categories. On the one hand are the consensual theories, which regard the state as having evolved from a stateless society through the consent of the governed. Under this notion, the state is a mechanism that expresses the public interest and acts on its behalf. Realizing that they need a state-like mechanism, the members of a society agree to create it. This mechanism is both a producer and provider of public goods while ensuring that individuals do not free ride (i.e., do not overconsume these public or common goods) and that all contribute to the costs of their production. This benign view of the origin of the state contrasts with a different set of theories that hold that the state is born in conflict. These theories trace the state’s origins to the application of force applied by a victorious (or stronger) group on a defeated (or weaker) group. The purpose of the resulting institution is to regularize the dominion of the stronger group over the weaker. It ensures against revolt from within and attacks from abroad, and it functions in a more or less explicit way as an instrument of exploitation by one group of another.
Although at the normative level libertarians may have disagreements regarding the justification for a minimal state, their views on the origins of the state and its historical nature tend to embrace conflict-based interpretations. The libertarian theory is an outgrowth of the distinction between economic and political behavior, voluntary exchange and coercion, monocentriciy and polycentricity, catallaxy and hierarchy, and market processes and government processes. Irrespective of which dichotomy is employed, libertarians consider that there are two basic organizing principles of social order. One is peaceful and based on one’s own labor and voluntary exchange. The other is based on coercion, domination, and the administration of force. The state emerges from society when people utilize force against others and when an entire institutional structure is established on the basis of this relationship. Many libertarians reject the standard view that the state’s origin is natural, created by people who have voluntarily surrendered their sovereignty, or the view that the state grew organically, as a consequence of economic surplus and the division of labor. “Force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, to the state.” When robbery, expropriation, and conquest become institutionalized, the state takes shape. At that point, the voluntarism of market exchange is overwhelmed by the coercive apparatus of the state. It is for this reason that the analogy between the state and a criminal gang is so popular in libertarian literature again and again, and it is why so many libertarians embrace the view that those who use the state to advance their objectives are a professional criminal class.
Libertarian literature is especially preoccupied with the problem of the state’s unchecked growth—that apparently once set in motion, the state has a propensity to expand until it penetrates and controls both the market and all other spheres of social life. The concern is particularly pronounced in F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which provides the most frightening description of the process. The growth in size and the scope of government has been almost continuous during the past century. The question is whether this evolution is contextual and accidental or whether unchecked growth is inherent in the nature of government. There appear to be two mechanisms at work that account for this unrestrained expansion. First, the internal dynamics of state bureaucracies are self-enlarging. Second, states grow in massive leaps in supposed response to alleged national crises. As Robert Higgs explained in his study of the state, Crisis and Leviathan, these crises can either be real, as were World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, or invented, as is the war on drugs. Irrespective of the nature of the crisis, the government assumes new functions with each problem and creates new agencies that endure long after each emergency has passed. The more the government grows—incrementally or in radical leaps—the more autonomous it becomes. Thus, it becomes increasingly immune to the efforts to decrease its size and scope and more able to resist those opposing its further attempts to enlarge its reach.
A normative discussion regarding the justification of the state should not, of course, be confused with an analysis of its origins, nature, and growth. One may consider that currently existing states are mechanisms whose main function is pillage, yet hope for sufficient structural reform so that they become transmuted into noncoercive, voluntary institutions. The arguments used to allow theoretical justification of the state are of two types: teleological and emergent. Teleological arguments justify the state by showing that it is in fact what it ideally should be or that it accomplishes the purposes for which it was created. Some states might possibly develop in accordance with a set of normative principles. A state that in fact develops in this manner would be justified because, by its very functioning, it embodies these objectives. Hobbes’s account of the state, based as it is on a “social contract” and justified either “by obtaining the consent of [its] citizens” or by “being the kind of state that rational agents would consent to,” falls in this category. Emergent arguments, in contrast, offer a totally different approach. The state is justified by virtue of reflecting the emergent properties embedded in its evolutionary history. Inasmuch as the state emerged as a consequence of a spontaneous order, that is, through an invisible hand mechanism, it is therefore legitimate. The classic example of this argument for a state is provided by Robert Nozick in his discussion of the rise of a minimal state. For Nozick, the minimal state is justified by the fact that, by their very decisions, uncoerced individuals have set into motion an invisible hand process.
Libertarians have made use of both emergent and teleological arguments, but have generally applied them to governance systems rather than to government, on voluntary forms of association rather than on the state. Yet when they discuss the state, libertarians tend to divide on its size and role. Moderates, often referred to as minarchists, argue for a small or minimal state that simply protects property rights and enforces individual contracts. However, in the view of radical libertarians, people do not need nonvoluntary institutional arrangements to protect and enforce their rights. They argue that the institutions through which individuals can provide for all social services, including arbitration and police services, are more naturally based on voluntary contracts. Although moderate libertarianism has adjusted and adapted the standard teleological and emergence theories to support the idea of a minimal state, the radicals, also called anarcho-capitalists, reject the state in its totality. Those theorists who have rejected the legitimacy of the state in all its aspects have sometimes relied on the notion of self-ownership, coupled with an unlimited right to private property and a sweeping prohibition against coercion. Murray Rothbard offers the clearest example of this type of approach, which is inspired by a theory of natural rights. In contrast, David Friedman, also an anarcho-capitalist, has argued that there is no need for either moral arguments or an appeal to a theory of natural rights to demolish the legitimacy and justification of the state. Rather, his arguments are based on issues of economic efficiency. Utilitarian ethics and economic reasoning are sufficient, he maintains, to justify a libertarian social order.
Irrespective of interpretive nuances and schools of thought, the libertarian ideal remains that of a contractual society, one based exclusively on voluntary action and exchange. Such a society evolves naturally, emerging out of countless individual decisions and freely entered contracts between individuals. The aggregate result is the emergence of an institutional structure and social order difficult to predict. Chances are that it will differ from place to place depending on the individuals’ preferences and how those preferences are manifested in their contracts. Any institutional system would be regarded as acceptable as long as it were formed on the basis of voluntary contracts among individuals. The results are likely to be complex and diverse systems, with many overlapping and competing authorities and a large variety of governance arrangements. In other words, it will be a polycentric system. One of the most difficult problems radical libertarians have to deal with is the issue of collective defense of individual liberty in polycentric arrangements. Yet from their standpoint, the principle of voluntarism holds here as well. Collective defense, some libertarians argue, should be seen as an industry like any other, and its organization should not differ from that of other industries. They point out that private systems of arbitration, justice, and defense already exist and that history is replete with examples of these private institutions before the rise of the modern national state. In summary, their ideal, regardless of whether it is reachable, is a contractual society based on voluntarism.
Friedman, David. The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.
Hampton, Jean. Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Hayek, Friedrich August von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Mises, Ludwig von. Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
Oppenheimer, Franz. The State. New York: Free Life Editions, 1975.
Rand, Ayn. Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library, 1966.
Rothbard, Murray N. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1978.
Schmidtz, David. “Justifying the State.” Ethics 101 (October 1990): 89–102.
Originally published .