Libertarian Book Review: The State, by Franz Oppenheimer

The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically
Franz Oppenheimer

At the heart of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, or NAP. It states that no person may initiate force against the person or property of another, nor may he threaten to do so. I encountered it when I read Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty when I was 17 or 18, and immediately thought and felt this to be axiomatic—self-evidently true. Any person or society that wishes to live by the Golden Rule must start by respecting everyone’s right to control his own person and property.

Once you get the NAP, so many of the things that were once assumed to be essential to society are now seen for what they really are. Chief among these is the state itself, and any belief system used to justify its existence: democracy, socialism, communism, monarchy, and every other statist political ideology—including monarchism—all have as their foundational principle the belief that, under certain circumstances, it is morally acceptable to do something to a peaceful person without his consent. The ubiquity of this belief among all political catechisms suggests that the violation of individual rights is, if not the state’s raison d’être, at least one of its essential ingredients, and that a sober look at historical fact ought to show this.

German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer did just this in The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically, a truly seminal work that was a foundational text for 20th-century libertarian giants like Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard. The State was published in Germany in 1908; the English translation in 1922.

“This treatise,” Oppenheimer writes, “regards the State from the sociological standpoint only…sociology, as I understand the word, being both a philosophy of history and a theory of economics.” This approach leads him to this definition:

What, then, is the State as a sociological concept? The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.

Teleologically is the key word in Oppenheimer’s definition—his aim is to explain how the state actually came about and to determine its essence. All the great political theorists—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Plato—ignore how the state actually came about in order to justify its existence and rationalize its abuses with contrived thought experiments. Oppenheimer regards these fictions as mere “weapons in the contest for material interests” and instead gets down to the business of offering a rather elegant explanation of how the state—as opposed to other forms of government and leadership—came to be, along with an analysis how the state perpetuates itself.

The conditions necessary for the state to arise lie in the nature of humanity, that there are two ways to satisfy ones wants and desires: use of the economic means, or use of the political means. Oppenheimer explains the difference:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to 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! These words convey to us ideas of crime and the penitentiary, since we are the contemporaries of a developed civilization, specifically based on the inviolability of property. And this tang is not lost when we are convinced that land and sea robbery is the primitive relation of life, just as the warriors’ trade—which also fora long time is only organized mass robbery—constitutes the most respected of occupations. 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.”

Oppenheimer thus shows that history is indeed the story of class struggle, but not in the Marxist sense of capital versus labor. Marx does not account for the observable fact that people and groups whom he would classify as either “capital” or “labor” do not always use the same means to get what they want out of life than others in their same classification. Some “capitalists” use the power of the state to secure for themselves favorable legal measures that they hope will make them more money. Other “capitalists” are hampered by the state, often at the behest of other “capitalists.” Many “capitalists” do both at the same time, simply because the circumstances imposed on society by the state dictate that, in order to stay in business, principle must be abandoned. The same differences can be found inside the “labor” class. Because of state intervention, some workers are paid more than they would be worth in a free market; other works are paid less or are unemployed because of those same state interventions. And because the state is so pervasive, any person or firm, regardless of his Marxist classification, may find himself a victim of the state on one day, and its beneficiary on the next. Because of the state, everyone believes that the other guy is getting preferential treatment, and everyone is right.

That’s why different groups—historical schools of thought, interest groups, and voters within the same political unit—often see the same set of facts but come to different conclusions—they are looking through different lenses, each shaded with enough statist tinge to obscure the truth.

This can all be cleared up if we look through Oppenheimer’s lens, namely that, “All world history, from primitive times up to our own civilization, presents a single phase, a contest namely between the economic and the political means.” History is indeed a class struggle, but a struggle between the economic class and the political class. (Or as Albert Jay Nock would say, between social power and state power.)

Society preceded the state, Oppenheimer argues, because mankind first began to work and live together as hunter-gatherers, who did just enough hunting and gathering to sustain themselves from day to day—there was so little, if any, left over from this basic economic activity that no one had recourse to the political means—there simply was nothing that was worth stealing. But when agriculture—both farming and animal husbandry—began to take hold, people now had time to do things other than roam around looking for food. They settled down and made dwellings, clothing, and other products—the economic means were now making enough stuff for people to covet. This, according to Oppenheimer, is when herdsmen on horseback began to steal from farmers. Herdsmen had the advantage of mobility. On horseback, they could travel far and quickly, and the most valuable things they owned—livestock—were not rooted to one place the way a farmers’ crops were. Herdsmen could raid several farming villages on a regular basis and with impunity. “Thus the herdsman gradually becomes accustomed to earning his livelihood through warfare, and to the exploitation of men as servile labor motors. And one must admit that his entire mode of life impels him to make more and more use of the “political means,” Oppenheimer writes.

The next step is, of course, military organization, which leads to differences in rank, which lead to stratified classes in that warrior society. The warriors become more efficient in their plunder by arranging for their victims to pay regular tribute—taxation. To protect their sources of plunder, the warrior-plunderers provided for their victims protection from other threats, as well as basic services and “public works” that allow the economic production to continue and to expand. That’s the genesis of the state and also its genius—even though the political class is exploiting everyone for their own benefit, they do enough to make a plausible claim that everyone’s standard of living is stable or improving, which is usually enough to make it less likely for the oppressed classes to opt for resistance or revolt. From there, Oppenheimer shows quickly and clearly how this herdsmen’s proto-state developed into monarchical, feudalist, and constitutional states, simply through refinements and codifications of the political exploitation of economic activity.

Now, just because the state did originate in conquest and exploitation, it does not necessarily follow that it can exist only by perpetuating those functions. But, thanks to Oppenheimer and those he has influenced with The State, it is easier for we libertarians to insist that advocates of the state be continuously held to account for the violence that institution does to peaceful society and relentlessly challenged to offer ways in which it could provide its purported blessings without its obvious and hateful flaws.