The State (An Essay in Honor of Murray Rothbard)

{On March 2, 1926 Murray N. Rothbard was born. The following is an essay in honor of Mr. Rothbard.}

The State (An Essay in Honor of Murray Rothbard)

By R. Heckner

The State, or the government at large, is entity that has existed for most of human history. It is certainly difficult, for many, to imagine a society without a State. However, what is the purpose of the State? What is its function? Is it a moral agency, or an immoral agency? What is the nature of the State? The intention of this essay is to demonstrate that the State is the single most immoral agency in human history, that the State’s only function is to use coercion to increase its power, that the State has no purpose in a just and moral society, and that the very nature of the State is a violation of the highest moral and ethical principles [1]. Primarily two things must be defined.

The first of these things to be defined is morality, or ethics [2]. These may be defined as certain standards held concerning right action or right deed. There is a current trend of moral relativism in much of people’s definition of morality. Moral relativism may be said to be a belief that what is moral changes based on the general populace’s beliefs and standards. However, this essayist, among others, believes that there is only one set of morals that must be universally applicable or be false. What is this moral standard? It is simply this: no one may, morally, initiate force against anyone else. This formulation may be termed the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), it is founded on an even deeper moral principle that must govern all morality. Every individual, thinking and living human actor, owns themselves. This is the natural, or God-given, right. It may be formulated either religiously or secularly. Religiously it may be formulated as the following, each individual was created in the image of an omnipotent and all-caring God and by virtue of this it cannot be said that any individual may be owned by any other individual as God owns himself, thus all people must own themselves (Napolitano, 2010). Secularly it may be formulate thus, each individual is the highest (most highly evolved mentally) species on this earth, each individual is born and by nature possesses ownership of themselves. To deny that each individual owns themselves is to deny the very humanity of each individual. However, before connecting the State and morality, the former must be defined.

The State may be broadly defined as, “the civil government of a country” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED] Staff, 2015). It is defined by Edwards, Wattenberg, and Lineberry (2009) as “the institutions and processes through which public policies are made for a society.” However, Rothbard (2002) defines the State as “nothing more or less than a bandit gang writ large.” Similarly, the philosopher Nietzsche says “the State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from it month: ‘I, the State, am the people.” The State is an agency based solely on coercion that does more harm than good [3]. What is the purpose of the State?

Is the State’s purpose to provide services to those that are governed? Is it “to provide for common defense?” Is it to root out injustice and inequality? Or is the purpose of the State something far more ominous? Many (Edwards, et al., 2009) would say that the State is a public service entity that serves to implement the “common goals” of the people. However, Rothbard (2001) suggests (italics in original):

In the first place, even if there were “collective goods,” it would by no means follow either (1) that one agency must supply them or (2) that everyone in the collectivity must be forced to pay them. In short, if X is a collective good, needed by most people in a certain community, and which can be supplied only to all, it by no means follows that every beneficiary must be forced to pay for the good, which, incidentally, he may not even want. In short, we are back squarely in the moral problem of external benefits… The “collective goods” argument turns out, upon analysis, to reduce to the “external benefits” argument. Furthermore, even if only one agency must supply the good, it has not been proved that the government, rather than some voluntary agency, or even some private corporation, cannot supply that good. [4]

The State is nothing more than a coercive, non-voluntary, agency that maintains a monopoly on the usage of force over a certain area. Thus, the only purpose of the State is to increase its own power and influence. Rothbard (2009):

We may test the hypothesis that the State is largely interested in protecting itself rather than its subjects by asking: which category of crimes does the State pursue and punish most intensely—those against private citizens or those against itself? The gravest crimes in the State’s lexicon are almost invariably not invasions of private persons or property, but dangers to its own

It would be ignorant to believe that the State would have any other true purpose. The most efficient State is wonderful at hiding this with rhetoric; however, this must be so. As Lord Acton famously formulated, “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Most people when placed at the helm of a monopoly of violence will surcome to libido dominandi, the lust to dominate. If this is the States only purpose, can it be said to be moral?

The State is a coercive entity. It is not voluntary; no living person, at least in the United States, signed a compact giving explicit consent to be governed. Voting and receiving the benefits of government are often used to show “implied consent.” However, if this is the case then the common thief may only to have give someone a small gift before robbing them and say, “by accepting my gift, you implied your consent to be robbed.” As Lysander Spooner (2004) says:

The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life…The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful. The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber…Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful ‘sovereign,’ on account of the ‘protection’ he affords you.

The State is, by very nature, in violation of the moral principle of NAP. It enters into aggressive action, in the forms of taxation, aggressive wars, and many other actions. In doing so the State is an immoral entity. As Rothbard (2002) says:

Murder is murder, theft is theft, whether undertaken by one man against another, or by a group, or even by the majority of people within a given territorial area. The fact that a majority might support or condone an act of theft does not diminish the criminal essence of the act or its grave injustice. Otherwise, we would have to say, for example, that any Jews murdered by the democratically elected Nazi government were not murdered, but only “voluntarily committed suicide” – surely, the grotesque but logical implication of the “democracy as voluntary” doctrine.

It is immaterial if a State is democratic, republican, monarchical, or otherwise, it is always immoral, it is always unethical. The State by its very nature is a non-voluntary and, thus, coercive entity, and, therefore, is completely immoral. What is the function of the State in society?

Many will adject to the above statement. Many will say the State is a selfless, public service-entity that must help to maintain or achieve such and such a policy. However, as Thomas Woods (2011) says:

Regulation in the real world is not a simple matter of selfless, disinterested public servants innocently seeking to provide for the common good in areas where private markets are supposedly incompetent. The actual operation of regulation tends to far less benign than abstract models suggest. And there are plenty of voluntary solutions that for both moral and practical reasons are to be preferred to the coercive, bureaucratic kind.

There is no moral or rational function of the State in a free society. Voluntary action could much more efficiently, and morally, provide for such things that most can only conceive of the State providing. Whether through voluntary collective organization (for example, voluntarily entered into communes) or voluntary exchange on a profit and loss scale; voluntary, non-coercive, non-State action could better serve everyone, except the political entrepreneur that coercively takes wealth from individuals.

The State is a cruel and immoral entity that has no place in a free society. Liberty, justice, and equality could be better served through the abolition of the State. The State has for far too long been give the benefit of the doubt. For far too long people have pass by State atrocities by claiming that a few “bad apples” just got into the process. The State is the mechanism by which the greatest wrongs of human history. It was not an individual that massacred millions of Jews, Catholics, Romai, and homosexual people; it was the State. It was not an individual that murder countless Russian individuals, slaughtered other tribes, or perpetrated the Cambodian killing fields; it was the State. It was not an individual that kept institutional slavery a feature of the United States, or enact Jim Crow laws; it was the State. It was not an individual that dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, enacted conscription, tore apart families and countries through immoral and unnecessary wars; it was the State. It is not an individual that commits theft because they have a “right” to other’s wealth, it is not an individual that maintains that it can run society better than its members; it is the State. The State is unnecessary, immoral, unethical, coercive, and wrong. The State has no function, its sole purpose is achieving more power. It is the most immoral entity ever conceived of in human history.  Why must it be maintained? Why must it exist? Why does the State persist in robbing, murdering, power-grabbing, and fear-mongering without widespread challenge? Can liberty survive in the face of the all-consuming State?


[1] The failures of this essayist to demonstrate these points fully and perfect do not reflect on the nature of the State, but merely the difficulty of the task to demonstrate these points in a limited amount of space.

[2]  Morals are the principle, ethics are the application of morals. The terms can be used nearly interchangeably.

[3] Rothbard (2009):

The State, in the words of Oppenheimer, is the “organization of the political means”; it is the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory.4 For crime, at best, is sporadic and uncertain; the parasitism is  ephemeral, and the coercive, parasitic lifeline may be cut off at any time by the resistance of the victims. The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively “peaceful” the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society.

[4] For further treatment of this, and the “external benefits” argument, see Rothbard, M. (2001). Man, Economy, and State. Ludwig von Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama.


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Napolitano, A. (Misesmedia) (2010). What Ever Happened to the Constitution

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Nietzsche (n/d).  Thus Spoke Zarathustra (excerpts). Retrieved from:

Oxford English Dictionary Staff (2015). “State.” Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from

Rothbard, M. (2002). Ethics of Liberty. Ludwig von Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama

Rothbard, M. (2001). Man, Economy, and State. Ludwig von Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama.

Rothbard, M. (2009). Anatomy of the State [electronic copy]. Ludwig von Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama.

Spooner, L. (2004). No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. Kessinger Publishing: Whitefish, Montana.

Woods, T. (2011). Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse. Regnery Publishing, Inc.: Washington, D.C.