Why Do Libertarians Believe In the Conquering State?

Portrait of Franz Oppenheimer

Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943)

Libertarians portray the “State” as an alien entity that forces itself onto free individuals. It isn’t just that they believe the state is granted a monopoly on coercion, they often argue that the state is nothing but coercion and violence. It produces nothing, it uses violence to seize from productive individuals all that it has. We do not create the state; the state is them and they take what they want from us without regard to our wants or needs. In trying to trace the origins of this “othering” of the state I found myself reading a lot of nineteeth-century German social science, in particular the work of Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943).

Franz Oppenheimer was a German/Jewish sociologist who published a short book in 1908 entitled Der Staat (translated into English as The State in 1922). Oppenheimer was perhaps the strongest critic of racial theories of statehood in turn-of-the-century German sociology (Stoetzler, 2014, pp. 121-2). In his own account of the origin of the state Oppenheimer argued that the origin of the state was one of war and conflict. He began his argument by claiming that there are only two ways of producing wealth:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. Robbery! Forcible appropriation! …

Both because of this, and also on account of the need of having, in the further development of this study, terse, clear, sharply opposing terms for these very important contrasts, 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.”

Politics, which is the essence of the state, is nothing but theft according to this view. And the state, as a political institution, cannot itself provide resources or be a source of wealth. The state can only acquire resources produced by the labor others by means of coercion. This is Libertarianism 101.

Picture of Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945)

Many twentieth-century libertarians adopted Oppenheimer’s ideas about the origin of the state. The first to do so was Albert Jay Nock (various right-wing authors still sing Nock’s praises). Nock was a huge fan of Oppenheimer’s theory of the state and made it the centerpiece of his own book, Our Enemy the State in 1935 (still easy to find on different libertarian websites). Nock was followed by many others who took up Oppenheimer’s position on the origin of the state, especially those on the anarchist end of libertarian thought. Murray N. Rothbard adopted Oppenheimer/Nock’s ideas in his essay, “The Anatomy of the State” first published in 1965 and the title essay of a book still in print.

Even here in the twenty-first century, testimonies to the centrality of The State to the libertarian movement are thick on the ground (For example: see here, here, here, here).  Twenty-first century libertarians cite Oppenheimer as proof that the state is always and everywhere predatory. In his massive history of the American libertarian movement, Brian Doherty (a libertarian himself) wrote:

It is fair to characterize the vision of German anthropologist Franz Oppenheimer in The State (1922) as a dominant libertarian story of how we ended up with the state and what it’s all about in origin and essence.'” Oppenheimer says that the state was born in blood and conquest, as conquerors lived off of the efforts of the conquered through taxation and in return provided “protection.” In Oppenheimer’s classic distinction, the state reified the practice of the “political” means of survival—predation—as opposed to the “economic” means—production.

Let’s pause for a moment and make something clear. Oppenheimer’s distinction between productive economics and predatory politics is not an analytic distinction. That is to say, he is not positing a theoretical definition between economics and politics, he is making an empirical claim. He is claiming that, if one looks at the historical record of the origin of the state, it only came about through violence and coercion. He is not offering a philosophical definition, but making a sociological/historical/anthropological claim about what actually happened to give birth to the state.  He couldn’t be more clear on this point:

Others may call any form of leadership and government or some other ideal, the “State.” That is a matter of personal choice. It is useless to quarrel about definitions. But it might be well if those other thinkers were to understand that they have not controverted the sociologic idea of the “State,” if a concept of the “State” grounded on a different basis, does not correspond to that which they have evolved. And they must guard themselves particularly against the danger of applying any definition other than that used in this book to those actual historical products which have hitherto been called “States,” the essence, development, course and future of which must be explained by any true teaching or philosophy of the State.

This is the way libertarians read Oppenheimer: as offering historical proof that the state, always and everywhere, originated in violence. In his memoirs, Nock expressed how impressed he was by Oppenheimer’s “historical researches” (p. 123). In Our Enemy the State, Nock wrote:

The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner. On the negative side, it has been proved beyond peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origin. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another. In this sense, every State known to history is a class-State.

John Chamberlain, when describing the book’s influence on pioneering libertarian Frank Chodorov wrote that Oppenheimer’s “concept of the State-as-racket (see his epochal book on The State) was too formidably grounded in history to permit of any easy denial” (p. xiii). Norman Barry argued that Oppenheimer’s book was not a theoretical treatise, but a sociological one (pp. 163-4). In a review of of The State published a seven decades after the book’s initial publication, Murray Rothbard praised the book for

Throwing over theories of how the State should have arisen for a realistic historical inquiry of how it actually arose…Oppenheimer pointed out that all states have arisen through conquest… Oppenheimer, as a libertarian, went on to a scintillating and brilliant analysis of the State as a parasitic and antisocial institution. The State is unsurpassed in its analysis of the State as parasite and exploit.

Is it really the case that the best account we have for the origin of “the state” is Oppenheimer’s? Have historians, anthropologists, and political theorists made no progress since 1908?  Of course not. Indeed, it is doubtful that Nock was justified in his wholehearted endorsement of Oppenheimer’s ideas back in the 1920s.

In his autobiography, Nock recounted how he discovered Oppenheimer’s writings from writer Herbert Quick whom Nock described as on the “extreme outer fringe” of American politics and virtually “the only person I knew” who embraced Oppenheimer’s ideas (p. 123). Nock introduced Oppenheimer to his reading public in a 1920 editorial in his journal, The Freeman. Nock recommended Oppenheimer as the “sort of thing the radical has to offer” and a reader should

chew his way through seven chapters of the most highly concentrated and most highly nutritious pemmican ever put before mankind, he will find it in Franz Oppenheimer’s little volume, hardly more than a pamphlet, called Der Staat. It is solid food-value, if one can worry it down, but it is very, very rough.

Nock, like many libertarians, delighted in adopting radical ideas simply because they were radical. This not to say that extreme positions are necessarily incorrect, but when presented with one it is a good idea to compare it to available options and see if it is worthy of support. In the early twentieth century, when Nock brought Oppenheimer’s writings into the nascent libertarian movement, Oppenheimer’s was only one of “multiple competing definitions” of the state in the academic literature (Korhonen, 2018, p. 172) There is no evidence that Nock examined any other literature on state formation; Nock apparently embraced Oppenheimer because supported what Nock already took to be true: that the State was an inherently coercive institution. A broader survey of the literature would have cast doubt on whether or not Oppenheimer got it right.

Oppenheimer’s view of the origin of the state was not terribly well-received among his academic peers. One reviewer found the book brilliant in some of its claims but limited because it was “decidedly one-sided in its neglect of all factors save force in state origin and of all influences save the economic in state development” and that “The author errs in…considering the political and economic organizations of society as separable and antagonistic.” Another found the book a “reductio ad absurdum of both the classical and the socialistic economic interpretations of history.” A third reviewer found the book simply tautological:

The author narrows the meaning of “state” sufficiently to exclude everything that was done by human societies until the condition arrives which he needs for his thesis, and he is certain that sooner or later these conditions must be met, for history is of course filled with examples of conquest and subjugation. Having thus made a definition (in effect, for he does not trouble to give a formal definition of “state”) suitable for his preconceived theory he goes on with his argument by substituting whenever convenient the concept “government” for that of “state.”

A further problem was Oppenheimer’s source material. If you look at the endnotes in Oppenheimer’s book, he cites one author far more than any other: Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904). Just eyeballing it, a reasonable guess is that the number of citations to Ratzel is equal to the number of citations to all other sources Oppenheimer uses. Ratzel’s empirical evidence was drawn almost entirely from the Old World. In 1924, in a telling empirical test of Oppenheimer’s work, anthropologist William MacLeod found that the idea of state formation exclusively through conquest was unsupportable when evidence from American Indian cultures was considered.

Picture of Robert H. Lowie

Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957)

Nock, of course, was a journalist, not an anthropologist and we could perhaps forgive him for not being up on the literature if it were not the case that one of the most telling critiques of Oppenheimer appeared in Nock’s own journal.

A frequent contributor to Tthe Freeman was Robert H. Lowie one of the most important anthropologists of the twentieth century. Like Nock, Lowie was impressed with Oppenheimer’s work but Lowie brought a much deeper knowledge of history and comparative cultures to his analysis. In 1922 Lowie published a pair of articles entitled “The Origin of the State” in The Freeman  where he noted that Oppenheimer offered a “distinct view by defining “the State in terms of caste.” According to Lowie, while Oppenheimer’s “ethnographic facts” were correct and praised the book for its lucid account for the origin of caste. But Oppenheimer failed to account for the origin of the State itself. Oppenheimer’s was “properly not a theory of the State but a theory of caste. It explains the origin of hereditary classes, but it does not solve the more fundamental problem of all political organization.”  First because “conquest led to complication and integration, but the germs of statehood antedated these processes.” Second, caste differences arose from other causes besides the conquest of one group by another. Third, the “motive for the maintenance of caste-differences need not be sought entirely in economic exploitation; as already noted, ideological factors, such as religious taboos, are likely to play their part.”

A few years later, Lowie published a short book, The Origin of the State in which he supplemented his earlier work, Primitive Society, by folding in Oppenheimer’s ideas. There he argued:

Oppenheimer’s theory is, indeed, properly not a theory of the state at all but of heredity social classes. However it cannot be regarded as adequately synthesizing even the phenomena of caste. For one thing, the German sociologist injects into the primitive atmosphere, charged with emotional values, the rationalism born of our industrial age. As Thurnwald has wisely remarked, nothing may be further from a primitive aristocracy than “the systematic, brutal, cynical exercise of economic power.” (p. 36)

Oppenheimer, still accepted as gospel by many twentieth and twenty-first century libertarians for his supposed grounding of libertarian conceptions of the State in the historical record, instead gave us a limited and incomplete account of the origins of caste rather than of the State. The State’s shortcomings should have been recognized by Nock who published Lowie’s critique of the book in his own journal. Instead, Nock accepted Oppenheimer’s theory of the state because it suited his radical political agenda. The same love of radicalism for the sake of radicalism can explain why an obscure German academic is still cited in libertarian circles. But sometimes a radical viewpoint isn’t rejected by the mainstream because the mainstream is afraid of radicalism. Sometimes a radical idea is just wrong.

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