Every day, I’m confronted with articles and opeds that discuss and defend an institution I don’t recognize, an abstraction projected by those who seem to be invested in convincing us that it actually exists. This institution is said to preserve law and order in society through various arms, all accountable to something else called “the people” or “the electorate.” The concept under consideration is identified as the state or government, but there are at least two ways to consider that concept.
The state as we find it in these pieces is the state of fantasy, a phenomenon we might contrast with the state of history. The state of liberal fantasy is a result of social contract, freely developed from the will of autonomous, equal citizens; it provides crucial services, protects individual prerogatives and rights, and furnishes the foundation of society. That this state has never existed is of no import to the proselytizers of statism. Because they want to believe that the state is a well-meaning quasi-charity that the social body has organized and instituted voluntarily, it matters not that the historical state is a very different creature.
Defined by war, conquest and spoliation, the state we find all throughout history has been fundamentally antisocial and antithetical to the principle of contract. Rather than dispensing necessary services and aiding the poor, the historical state has dedicated itself to establishing the preconditions for predation and for the exploitation of the laboring classes. The historical state stole and monopolized in order to make the working poor the tools of the idle rich. Were we ever to find the state of fantasy, it would indeed be inaccurate to call it the state at all. Having shed all of the definitive traits of the state — which is coercive rather than contractual, predatory rather than philanthropic — we mightn’t, as anarchists, find it objectionable at all.
The state of fantasy is in point of fact what we look forward to as proponents of a free society, a condition in which free, sovereign individuals in genuine community provide for one another through consensual trading and giving. The historical state is the foremost enemy and impediment to the emergence of this kind of society. It is interesting, therefore, to see so many apologies for the state from those whose interest in the poor and underprivileged is sincere, those who actually care about wealth inequality and social justice. But these defenses of the state make perfect sense once we understand that the state of fantasy is the one liberals see.