Is The State A Neutral Tool?
It is a common response to libertarian, anti-state sentiment to claim that the state is a neutral tool. It’s an argument that tends to be used by those who think that what the state is currently doing is awful, but are not anti-state. "It's not that the state itself is bad," the argument goes, "it's just that bad people are currently in control of it." I think there are two major things wrong with this response.
The first mistake is the very phrase "neutral tool". Tools are not neutral, as is clear from the idiom "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Different tools have different functions and limitations, and so will facilitate some purposes better than others.
To bring it back to the state, the state is an agency of legitimized coercion. Possibly the most commonly proposed definition of the state is "a monopoly on violence" or at least "an organization that attempts to maintain a monopoly on violence". I don't quite agree with this definition, and perhaps I'll elaborate my disagreement further elsewhere, but I will certainly agree that using violence to coerce people is the primary function of the state. Taxation is the threat of violence used to make you give up your wealth, drug prohibition is the threat of violence used to prevent you from using certain drugs, etc.
The fact that the state's primary function is violent coercion means that tasks which involve violence and coercion will be facilitated by the state better than others. If I am trying to use the state to improve the economy of the country I will fail, as has been demonstrated by all attempts at state run economies. If instead I am trying to use the state for violence and coercion, perhaps by starting a war, I have a much better chance of success, as has been demonstrated by all the wars throughout history.
The second mistake is the idea that "bad people are just in control of it". It's not that this is false, it's that this isn't a coincidence. The skills necessary to rise to the top in an organization depend in part on the nature of that organization.
For a private company, those skills must be oriented around the goal of serving the public, because the public are its customers. Any company that does not tend to hire and promote those who successfully serve customers will tend to lose in the marketplace to companies that do. In other words, the kinds of hierarchies that companies can have are limited by their need to serve customers.
The state does not have this limitation. The state "taxes" (steals) its revenue, and so it does not need to serve its customers. As a result, the prevailing incentives favor those who are the most adept at social climbing—irrespective of any actual function they may provide. If you want to go far in the government, you needn't worry about serving those who provide you with revenue, they don't have a choice but to pay. Instead you need to worry about positioning yourself such that the media, lobbyists, and other political insiders are incentivized to back your rise.
Sometimes good social-climbing within the halls of power will require the same actions as serving the public. Often it will not. There is no reason to expect that those two goals will always coincide. When they don’t, those who are willing to engage in the collusion, corruption or whatever other evil that advances their political career will be naturally selected for over those who choose to do the right thing.
Alternatively, you can go the populist route and appeal directly to a large pool of voters, but with the media and the other institutions against you, this will be a much harder road. Even if you are successful you will probably fail to actually get your policy positions through, even when in power (do I need to mention that I'm referencing Trump here?)
You might think that at least the populist needs to provide benefit to the voters, who are to some degree the taxpayers, and so some of their money will need to spent wisely. This is false because of standard public choice issues1.
Like with social-climbing, sometimes populist grandstanding and serving the public will require the same actions. Often they will not. When they don’t… well, you know where this is going.
This adverse selection problem does exist elsewhere in life. However in contexts where consent of those involved is required (the market, for example), that requirement creates a contrary selection process. In an organization of coercion, consent is not required. That’s pretty much what coercion means.
All this is to say that the fact that the state is staffed disproportionately by bad people is just what we should expect. The internal incentives of the state selects for bad people. Not to mention that those who want to rise within an agency of legitimized coercion are likely to be unsavory people anyway, meaning that this evil-selection process is operating on an already disproportionately evil set. Those who remain after this selection process will be the ones in charge of an organization whose primary function is violent coercion.
The fact that State power is not unlimited shows us that something is limiting it. One such thing is the general public’s reticence to accept tyranny. As we’ve seen throughout the Covid regime, this reticence is rather delicate. When you break people’s aversion to a certain level of tyranny they pretty much just accept that that’s what they have to live with, and adjust expectations accordingly. Essentially, the door is opened for that level and type of tyranny. Consequently, any advocacy for increased state power is advocacy for state power that isn’t going away.
The final defense for the “the state is a neutral tool” argument might be that sometimes, violent coercion is exactly what we need sometimes. Sure, it’s unseemly, but sometimes it’s necessary, right? But remember, your advocacy is marginal. You won’t be personally in control of the new government department, you won’t personally be drafting the laws, you won’t personally control that power. All you will do is be an a small additional piece of support for some new state power. That power will be wielded by the people that the system of government naturally selects for.
I get it. You see your enemies using the state against you, and you want to fight back with the same weapon. But tools are not neutral, and it’s no coincidence who controls this one.
If you do manage to create some state power to use against your enemies, then your enemies had better be in line with the enemies of some the worst people in your society or else the internal incentives of the state will turn that power against someone else in short order, and if you stand in the way, that someone will be you.
Video version of this article here.
Unlike an individual consumer, whose decisions about what to buy determines what he gets, an individual voter has nearly zero chance of determining the outcome of an election. Therefore the consumer's incentive to purchase a product that will serve him well is strong, while the voter's incentive to vote for a politician who will serve him well is weak.
The much stronger incentive for the voter is how his vote itself affects him, rather than how the outcome of the election affects him. Who you vote for and the beliefs you form to inform that vote will affect what your friends think of you, how you feel about yourself, and how pleasant the ideas involved seem to you.
For example, let's say that the minimum wage actually hurts low-skilled workers (which it does, but even if you disagree, pretend it does for a moment). If the vote of a low-skilled worker determined whether he would live in a society with a minimum wage law or not, his incentive would be to find out whether that law would help him or not. However, his vote does almost nothing to determine that. He's one of millions of voters and votes aren't the only thing that affects which policies are passed.
However, if he doesn’t support the minimum wage, and at least say he voted for it (which is easier to stomach if he did actually vote for it) then his friends will think he’s callous. Also, he might worry they’re right. Also, the sheer idea that the government can just pass a law and make the poor wealthy is pleasing to him, so since he pays no price for being wrong, why not believe it?
If he had made his decision solely on those bases in the market, he would get a bad product. If he makes his decisions solely on those bases in his voting habits, he gets exactly the same government he would have gotten either way.