Franz Oppenheimer, a German sociologist, practiced as a physician in Berlin for many years, after which he took up the study of economics while supporting himself by writing articles. In 1909, he became a privatdozent (an unsalaried lecturer who received only students’ fees) of economics at the University of Berlin. Ten years later, he became a full professor of economics and sociology at the University of Frankfurt, where he taught until ill health forced him to retire in 1929.

Oppenheimer disagreed with those neo‐​Kantians who claimed that the science of sociology should eschew value judgments and deal only with facts. Oppenheimer, while acknowledging the difference between facts and values, argued that some evaluations can be objectively justified, and this position enabled him to employ the concept of justice in his sociological and historical investigations.

Oppenheimer was influential in shaping modern libertarian thought through his book Der Staat (The State, 1914). An expanded version of this book later appeared in the second volume of his four‐​volume magnum opus, System der Soziologie (1922–1929). This treatise offers a detailed description of the origins of the state, which Oppenheimer claimed began in conquest. According to Oppenheimer, “the State grew from the subjection of one group of men by another. Its basic justification, its raison d’être, was and is the economic exploitation of those subjugated.”

Oppenheimer identifies six stages in the development of the state. The first was marked by roving tribes of herdsmen who periodically attacked, looted, and killed sedentary peasants. These victorious herdsmen then realized that more could be gained by enslaving the conquered peasants than from their wholesale slaughter. There followed a system of economic exploitation that became institutionalized through the payment of regular tributes (later known as taxes) by the vanquished to their rulers. Various factors accounted for the two classes, rulers and ruled, to occupy the same territory, thereby bringing about some degree of social integration. As quarrels arose between neighboring villages and clans, the ruling class claimed the exclusive right to adjudicate disputes. Finally, as a sense of national identity developed among the residents of a territory, the ruling class (the descendants of the original conquerors) developed a system of law and other formal trappings of a sovereign government. That the state originated in conquest reflects the most significant fact about its nature.

Oppenheimer distinguishes between two methods of acquiring wealth: the economic and the political. “These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others.” Oppenheimer continues:

I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”

Oppenheimer’s distinction between state and society became a crucial aspect of libertarian philosophy. The state, he contended, is “the fully developed political means,” whereas society, based on voluntary relationships, is “the fully developed economic means.” He attributed the growth of individual freedom to the development of cities in late medieval Europe and to the emergence of a money economy. Industrial cities, which developed spontaneously by economic means, offered freedom and economic opportunity. They drew serfs from feudal estates, thereby diminishing the power and wealth of the landed aristocracy.

Some of Oppenheimer’s ideas were transmitted to libertarian thinkers through the work Albert J. Nock, especially his influential essay, Our Enemy, the State (1935). Nock embraced much of Oppenheimer’s interpretation of politics in his own work and regarded him as one of the “Galileos” who had deprived the state of all moral prestige. Moreover, because Nock largely agreed with the views of Henry George in regard to land and that the only legitimate tax was on the natural (unimproved) value of land, he was attracted to Oppenheimer’s contention that land rent originated in unjust expropriation by the original exploiter. More recently, Oppenheimer’s insights have been employed by Austrian economists, among them Murray Rothbard, who rejects the Georgist theories of land ownership and rent.

George H. Smith
Originally published