What is the State? What is Society?

Last Saturday’s column distinguished between two strategies for achieving personal freedom from an invasive state: “Gulching” and “Going Galt.” Gulching, named after Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, means withdrawing from society into an isolated community. Going Galt, named after the early strategy of John Galt in the same novel, means removing your support from the state without leaving society.

For example, a businessman might retire rather than deal with ruinous taxes, a maze of regulations and bureaucratic paperwork.

Two words are key to either strategy; they are “state” and “society.” Definitions may seem to be dusty things but they offer the incalculable benefit of clarifying your thoughts so that you better understand the ideas that deeply impact your life. Defining “the state” and “society” allows you to know where the line is drawn that separates one from the other.

One of the clearest presentations you can find of these two terms comes from the classical liberal Franz Oppenheimer in his brilliant and very readable book, The State (1914).

He defined the state as “that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power.” By “extra-economic” he meant the institutions and people with power that did not come from the act of creation or from free exchange. In short, they were not productive.

Oppenheimer defined society as “the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man.” These institutions included the free market, churches, the family, charities, and the arts. In short, society is what is often called “the private sphere.”

Springboarding from these definitions, Oppenheimer contrasted what he called “the political means” with “the economic means” of acquiring wealth or power.

The state uses the political means — in other words, it uses force — to acquire wealth and power. It neither produces wealth nor trades for it on the marketplace. Instead, it takes wealth from the productive people who constitute society. It takes riches directly through such means as taxation and indirectly through such means as regulation. The ultimate source of the state’s power is the use or threatened use of force.

By contrast, society uses the economic means — in other words, it creates and cooperates — to produce wealth and social dynamics. Any power acquired by those within society is the result of earned wealth or reputation.
Because the state drained society for its own enrichment, Oppenheimer considered the two to be in basic conflict.

The American individualist Albert Jay Nock was one of the main conduits of Oppenheimer’s thought into the United States. Nock captured his mentor’s political philosophy in a book entitled Our Enemy, The State (1935). He wrote, “Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators, and beneficiaries from those of a professional criminal class.” Both stole wealth from productive people and both were willing to use force to do so.

At this point in his argument, Nock introduced a third concept: government. To Nock, government, unlike the state, provided a valuable service. It protected the individual rights of society, presumably in exchange for a fee, such as that embodied in a reasonable tax rate.

Nock was not alone in distinguishing between government and the state, and in giving a nod to the former while frowning upon the latter. Ayn Rand also embraced a limited government that would function as a night watchman who unobtrusively protected the person and property of those within his territory.

We now live under a state, not a government. And true to the title of Nock’s book, the state is the enemy of our rights and property. Unlike the government envisioned by Rand, it is not a night watchman but a prison guard both day and night.

An effective path to personal freedom is to withdraw from the state as much as possible while continuing to live in and embrace society. A problem immediately arises. The line between the state and society keeps blurring. What should be a private business, like the post office, becomes a state agency instead. What should be a family matter, like the education of children, becomes the public school system.

Highly personal decisions, like medical choices, are turned over to a bureaucratic process and lodged in an official database. As the state expands, society contracts; the public sphere thrives while the private sphere withers.

Why not just leave and “gulch” instead of “going galt”? After all, a cabin deep in the woods offers unbridled individual freedom whereas in society there is always the threat of violence. Why run such a risk? I believe the answer lies in the reason people form societies in the first place.

Society offers tremendous benefits, including friendship, expanded knowledge, culture, a division of labor, the free market of exchange, family and romantic love. Society can maximize your range of choice because many of your decisions require the presence of other people; for example, the decision to have a child. The maximization of choice is itself a form of freedom.

And, yet it is possible to imagine a society from which some people would gladly flee into solitude; for example, in antebellum South, slaves fled from plantations. The point at which reasonable people flee is when the state is so totalitarian that being within society no longer maximizes their choices but minimizes them. They can no longer benefit by trading with others because the trade is taxed too highly or choked by regulations. Their life savings is stolen by currency inflation, bailouts for miscreants, senseless bureaucracy and projects, or by wars and policies that affront their morality.

If they exercise basic rights as such freedom of association, which includes non-association with anyone for any reason, then all of their rights can be stripped away through imprisonment. Or their wealth can be dissipated through lawsuits.

It takes a great deal of theft and corruption by the state to outweigh the extraordinary benefits of society. Whether or not we are at that point is a judgment call. My judgment is that we are not there yet. The tipping point may be perilously close but the state has not yet succeeded in reversing the advantages of being in society.

In pursuing those advantages and avoiding the state – in “Going Galt” – the first step is to ask yourself where and how you co-operate with and, so, support the State. Try to support society instead. Rather than making phone calls for a candidate, donate those hours to a private charity. Maintain whatever privacy you can. Never invite the state into your home even when it offers you advantages to do so.

The foregoing are vague suggestions that I will be unpacking to provide specifics in future articles. Meanwhile, as the Amish sometimes say, “Be safe out there among the English (non-Amish).”