STR Column by Jim Davies, published on September 10, 2010 and marked RECOMMENDED
Is the state a fiction, a myth? How in either case does it compare to a business company, also sometimes called a fictional entity? Or to a religion?
I'm using "state" not so much to mean a particular political organization like the State of New Hampshire, but more in the sense used by Oppenheimer in The State, or by Bastiat in his famous dictum, "The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else." Bastiat was a politician, a member of the French National Assembly, so he was in a position to know. He worked in a big chamber with real people ruling (and supposedly deputised by) millions of others called "France," yet said it was a fiction. He was the 19th Century's Ron Paul in the Assemblée Nationale.
It may help to begin with a business, then see how the state is different. When William Gates and his friends programmed the Altair back in pre-history, they might have done business in their real names--and some firms, like lawyers and accountants, do just that. Dewey, Cheetham and Howe is well known around Harvard Square as one of them, and they see little need to add "mythical lawyers," because if you need a lawyer in those parts, you'll know what service they offer. But most businesses want to convey in their names something about what they do and sometimes where they do it, so whether as sole proprietorships or as groups of owners, they invent a name: Microsoft, General Electric, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Southwest Airlines. Often, they also limit their liability; ten friends join to form a business and invest $10,000 each, and so announce that if things go badly wrong, the most their company will pay is $100,000 and the friends will retain their shirts. (Incidentally, there is no need for a state or government in that arrangement. All that's needed is for the limit to be clearly stated, so that anyone trading with the company, or lending it money, can assess his risk.)
So when formed, the company (or club or charity, etc.) can be clearly identified in terms of real people. Names and addresses of owners, with percentage shares. If you have some complaint about it, you know whom to see, or can fairly easily find out. This is true even of websites, like Strike The Root. With a little searching, one can discover who is the responsible party behind the name, and mail in a large donation to help the work.
However, no state works that way. There is no person or group of persons owning the entity, being responsible for it. It has no contract with those living within the borders it claims to own; or if there is the pretense of a contract, its terms are always interpreted by the state's lawyers, in the state's interest. It is ephemeral; now you see it, now you don't. It has employees and temporary representatives and offices and guns, but as a state, it does not consist of any real people. It's a fiction, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
So when some anchor solemnly tells millions of us that "Israel and Palestine held talks this week about Gaza" or "On September 3rd, Britain and France declared war on Germany," he or she is speaking absolute nonsense. In reality, no such entities exist, as those named. People talked, yes, and those people claimed to represent others living in certain areas, yes, but all those claims were certainly false because there has never yet been a few million people who all agreed on anything. In contrast, it could be said that "GE and 3M have held talks about a possible merger" because (true or not) the owners of those companies have agreed contractually to operate on a majority-rule principle, and to appoint officers to manage each business from day to day. But in a state, no such contract exists. Today, for example, not a single one of the 300 million persons living in what is called "The United States of America" has signed the spurious contract called the "Constitution"--not one! Most of them haven't even read it, and in any case, it doesn't even have the form of a contract: Party A promises this, Party B undertakes that, etc.
So if I say, "I love America" (and I do), what do I mean? Am I in love with a myth? Not hardly. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that the land mass named after Vespucci stretches from Cape Columbia to Tierra del Fuego, I mean that I enjoy living among these 300 million characteristically positive, optimistic, inventive, hard-working, friendly and prosperous people dwelling between Canada and Mexico (plus Hawaii and Alaska), and revel in some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere on Earth, from sea to shining sea. I do not mean I enjoy living under the state that rules those 300 million, nor that I pledge allegiance to it, or its flag (in fact, I never have--not having attended an American school). Between the two kinds of affection, there is a vast difference. Similarly, if one were to say, "I believe in the US of A," what, quite, would one mean? To the extent that American society celebrates and encourages freedom of action and enterprise, I certainly believe in it--not blindly, as a patriot might with his "my country, right or wrong"--but rationally, because I see freedom as integral to human nature. It's not so much America that is the object of my faith, it is freedom that is the object of my rational choice, and America to the extent that it enshrines and practices freedom.
Blind allegiance is a deadly, anti-human trait, and when the allegiance is to a mythical entity like the state, what we have is just irrational, religious fanaticism. It cannot be rational, for rationality employs reason, and reason shows us as above that the state is a fiction. Therefore, it is religious. The US soldier who drills in perfect time and kills on command the enemies of that fictional entity is just as much a religious nut as the murderous Q'ran-chanters he is killing; for the state is just as mythical as the god, neither more nor less. Not, mind, that Islam is much worse than any other religion, because all the theistic ones, at least, spring from the same weakness--the idea that there is a supreme being who cannot be seen, touched, heard, smelled or tasted and many of whose alleged attributes contradict each other.
Early in his masterly Atheism: the Case Against God, George H. Smith perceptively writes of a conversation between Smith and Jones.
Jones: A unie exists.
Smith: Prove it!
Jones: It has rained for three consecutive days--that's my proof.
Smith notes the basic flaw in Smith's challenge: instead of demanding proof that unies exist, he should have said, "Define a 'unie'." Until we define what is under discussion, the conversation is meaningless. I'm unaware of any proof, in any religion, that such a supreme being exists--and still less of any crisp definition of what such a being might actually be! Which is, as for unies, a prerequisite for such proof and for any meaningful discussion. Likewise, with the state, or government, it is very hard, if not impossible, to define what the entity actually is; so it's no wonder that it can't be shown to exist. One can do the job partly with something like, "that which imposes unaccountable force within a stated domain,” but the best I've seen is the negative definition, "the forced absence of a market." Since the state can best be defined only by what it is not, there is no more reason to believe it exists than there is for supposing a god exists. The two are in the same category; both are figments of imagination.
Accordingly, the state takes its place in the pantheon alongside Gaea, Zeus, Neptune, Diana, Odin, Thor, Krishna, Shiva, Jehovah, Allah, and all the rest of them; it is a god, a myth, a fictional entity that distracts real people from doing real constructive work in exchange for other real and valuable goods and services and so raising the enjoyment of a full life for ever more members of our species. But for its parasitic interference during all of recorded history, mankind would long ago have attained heights of health and wealth that are beyond my ability to describe.
Bastiat's insight may have a second meaning: not only is the state itself a myth, but so is the notion that anyone can use it to get something for nothing, to live at the expense of everyone else. That so many people today should believe in and trust such an absurd, irrational and utterly destructive fairy tale just boggles the mind.