Libertarians lay claim to being morally superior to, well, everyone else on account of their refusal to legislate morality. They do not demand that other people adopt their values or change their way of life, the libertarians say; they merely insist that everyone abide by libertarian norms. Within a libertarian framework all manner of freedom and diversity is acceptable.
Okay, you can stop chuckling. Such hypocrisy is at least a little bit refreshing. Would that all our enemies were so awful at disguising their aims. Libertarians want everyone to be just like them, allowing differences of opinion and behavior only in areas that don’t matter. The only reason libertarianism has had any success at all in public opinion is that it does pretend to not care about how you live your life. For the anarchist libertarians this might actually be true, but the minarchists hold in their hearts the utopian dream of the night-watchman state.
Libertarianism does have its advantages, at least on intellectual grounds, not least of which is the strong rationalist strain. This makes it relatively easy to understand and analyze. I want to use this relative clarity to look at a peculiar Leftist notion that I’ll call “state-society.”
Imagine, if you will, a libertarian state. There is a body of law—let’s call it the Constitution—that embodies libertarianism and also prescribes the various details of the government functions when libertarian theory is silent—how votes are counted, when juries are empaneled, that sort of thing. The state deploys officials to enforce this law and only to enforce this law; they abide perfectly by the terms of the Constitution. As long as people follow the Constitution, or when they don’t, their offenses are dealt with according to the terms of the Constitution, they are free to go about their business without any interference from the state.
Notice the sharp distinction between the state and the rest of the society. The state enforces libertarian norms and nothing else. The state is supposed to provide a framework within which society goes about its business without interacting with society at all. State employees have no interest beyond their Constitutional duties, and non-state agents have no effect on the operations of the state. This is state-society.
State-society doesn’t have to be libertarian. Conceivably the Constitution could have rules touching every aspect of people’s lives. The only requirement is that these norms don’t ever need to change. The state does not concern itself with changing affairs: there are no challenges to its power, no properties for it to manage, no crises it needs to address. Or if circumstances do change, the state responds in the manner prescribed by the Constitution. The state also hears no cries for help or relief, since it already aids or oppresses according to desert.
Out of necessity the state has to be manned by humans, but this is not ideal. Indeed, robots programmed to follow the Constitution precisely would probably be better. Robots have no families to care for, no religious affiliation, in general no personal attachments that might interfere with or distract them from their Constitutional duties.
Deism is the theological reflection of state-society. The state is like a disinterested god looking down upon society. Having established the laws of the universe, he simply sits back and watches everything unfold within them without interfering.
To understand just how strange state-society is we have to compare it with alternate arrangements. Start with a small tribe: you’ll have some elders and a chieftain who leads the men in war. Since division of labor is extremely primitive, you won’t have a distinction between state and society at all. The people who wield authority within the society will also be the ones who direct violence.
With larger populations and more specialization, matters change. Take a Greek city-state, for instance. Here there is an armed citizenry that controls and participates in the government of the city’s territory. In the smaller cities, almost all residents were citizens, so this was effectively a scaling-up of the tribal organization. Larger cities had substantial non-citizen populations whose opinions are not well-attested, but no one appears to have imagined the state as separate from the citizenry. The slaves and resident foreigners might have resented their rulers, but they never imagined a “state” distinct from “the Athenians” or “the Lacedaimonians.”
The tribe and the city-state are relatively demotic situations; what about a king, tyrant, or emperor? Until the modern era at least, no one would have ever separated the state from the person of the ruler. The tyrant’s word may be law but it is his word, and no one imagined that the king did not care at all for his family or his property. Indeed, these were the very things which gave him the right to rule. Though the king claimed a monopoly on violence, he was still embedded within the society he ruled.
When Louis XIV proclaimed “I am the state”, he was simply announcing that his personal authority permeated all of France; when Frederick the Great proclaimed “I am the first servant of the state”, he was inventing this “state” which belonged to no one. In actual fact, there has never been state-society nor will there ever be. It is a myth, a fantasy, albeit a distinctly modern fantasy.
There is nothing wrong with state-society beyond the fact that it can’t possibly exist. As long as you find the ideals embodied in the Constitution congenial, it could conceivably be quite nice. But it is impossible. The state is always a part of the society it rules; there is always a ruling class within a society which controls the application of legitimate violence.
A common variant on the idea of state-society is democratic society—which is different from democracy the political arrangement. In democratic society, the state is imagined to be the agent of the citizenry. In a small and cohesive society this might actually be the case, much as in a Greek city-state, but in large and diverse populations the notion breaks down. That doesn’t stop the ruling class from pretending, of course. In this world, the Constitution and the various decisions of the state are supposed to express the will of the people, but only on those matters where there is widespread agreement. You’ll usually see this version expounded by Leftists in order to justify their latest pet project, usually invoking an “evolving consensus” in which your opinion is, of course, not included.
Leftists, libertarians included, use the notion of state-society to great rhetorical effect. On its face, state-society sounds pretty good; the biggest plus is that there’s no corruption, but all other problems have been solved as well. Everything works perfectly according to the imaginer’s design. What the Leftists fail to mention is not only that their idea of perfection is probably rather different from that of a non-Leftist, but also that their current proposal will not bring about that perfection either. They’ll be back tomorrow with more demands.
The ideal of state-society allows the Left to summon hordes of imaginary hobgoblins to constantly menace their followers and keep them in a state of alarm. This confers advantages in democratic politics, as people with more mundane motivations than immanentizing the eschaton lack the same fervor and interest, but it also distracts from more practical concerns. It does not matter to the Left that introducing women into combat arms will reduce their effectiveness, nor are libertarians much concerned with demographic replacement brought on by open immigration. The Constitution must embody their ideology; the functioning of society is a lesser concern.
Unfortunately, there is no good rhetorical counter to dreams of state-society. Deconstructing it and showing it to be utopian is a good plan, but even then many will support it. Utopianism, effectively expressed, will always triumph over pragmatism in the realm of words. Fortunately, speeches and majority decisions don’t actually decide things in the long run. For that you need iron and blood.