The Violent Origins of the State

Anarchism suffers from the same problem that has plagued all opponents of state intervention, namely the implication that they are opposed to the functions the state (theoretically) attempts to carry out. It is implied, for instance, that anyone willing to eliminate state-funding for schools opposes education for children. This, of course, is like saying that anyone willing to eliminate the U.S. Postal Service opposes mail delivery—it is not only false, but misses the whole point of dismantling state institutions, that free-markets can provide these services far better than government monopolies. Similarly, anarchists do not oppose law, courts, or police. They just believe that if the market replaces the state as the exclusive provider of these services, law, courts, and police will function better than they do as a state-run monopoly.

Note that this position is different from a purely anti-state position. The state is not the enemy of liberty; it is an enemy. In most places, it may be true that the state is the main enemy of liberty, but there are places in the world that lack a state, which are not free; Southern Somalia and Lebanon come to mind. Although these places do lack a state, they also lack those freedom-protecting institutions that the state monopolizes elsewhere (e.g. courts and police). It is worth pointing out, however, that they lost these institutions in large part because they were given to the state, and the state abused them until they were worthless. Now, they must be completely rebuilt (and are being rebuilt). This is less true in Western Europe, the United States, and elsewhere where courts, police, and other governmental institutions are still largely functional.

The problem arises partly because the word anarchy has been allowed to be defined by the state. In a brilliant five minute speech defending “ordered liberty without states,” Cato Institute senior fellow Tom Palmer helps to recover its lost origins. “‘Anarchy’ comes from Greek Archon,” he explains, “originally the first in a war party, and later used to mean ruler, suggesting the origins of rulership in war. So to be anarchia means to be ‘without a ruler.’ It does not mean to be disordered.” The violent origins of government are written embedded deep into our language. Randolph Bourne’s axiom “war is the health of the state” apparently does not go far enough. If our language is to be believed, it is also the origin of the state.

History agrees with language. States were not formed out of necessity or established with a ‘social contract’ (at least not a voluntary one). They were formed from war and violence. The Danes rise to power in Medieval England neatly demonstrates this phenomenon:


The spread of the market economy from the time of Alfred the Great onwards meant that by the early eleventh century the economy of Anglo-Saxon England had become one of the wealthiest in Europe. This did not pass unnoticed overseas, especially Scandinavia. Consequently in 980 the Vikings, after an absence of some years, returned again to the English shores to harry and plunder. Sporadic raids and demands continued until finally, in 1016, Cnut of Denmark seized the throne.

The Vikings began with raids that left whole towns in ruins. This strategy soon proved too destructive, however. After all, if they destroyed everything, nothing would be left to plunder the following year. Quickly, they shifted from raids to extortion, that is, threaten war and accept tribute. This method proved much more profitable, particularly because trade in England was, apart from the Viking raids, so unrestrained during this period (due to the weak, central state in England):

Payments to the Vikings grew rapidly, from irregular and unrecorded sums ithe 980s to £10,000 by 994. Thereafter, regular increases in Danegold appear to have been the norm, £24,000 being paid £1002, £36,000 in 1007, and £48,000 in 1012.

In 1016, the Danish Cnut decided simply to become the king of England, which had the advantage of being able to extort without the cost of a continual invasions. Of course, being a “king” also has an air of legitimacy that raiding does not, but nowhere in the story of the rise of this state in England was it about anything more than extortion and plunder (later, Cnut would prove to be more “generous” with his subjects, but only to continue to plunder them with less resistance).

As economic surplus increased in England, they were not only able to support larger populations, but also rulers were able to confiscate the surpluses. The Danes were not the only to raid, extort and ultimately rule their victims. The pattern was widespread from the Normans in England, to the Swedes, to as far East as Moscow. Anthropologists explain the earliest rise of government in similar terms. Jared Diamond explains that “tribal societies without intensive food production have no employment for slaves and do not produce large enough food surpluses to be able to yield much tribute,” but he continues, “when the harvest has been stored, the farmers’ labor becomes available for a centralized political authority to harness… The food surpluses generated by some people, relegated to the rank of commoners, went to feed the chiefs, their families, bureaucrats, and craft specialists.” In other words, rulers did not rise out of necessity, but out of ability. For the first time, economic surpluses could support a class of non-producers, perpetual thieves.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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