Huemer: Problem of Political Authority
State Is Not a “Protection Agency”
Libertarian political philosophers make this mistake, i.e., that the state can be likened to a security firm, all the time. Thus, Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority examines the idea that it is a basic mission of the state to “protect the citizen from criminals and hostile foreign governments.” (31) He finds the state guilty of dereliction of duty from the US courts’ invocations of “the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen.” “The government’s duty, the court explained, was only a duty to the public at large, to provide a general deterrent to crime.” (33)
This is entirely correct. It is not the task of the state to protect anyone by any means at all or to assist the victim in self-defense during the commission of a crime.
Protection, from locks to bulletproof windows to bodyguards to a concealed weapon to karate expertise, is a market service, provided by private firms. It always has been so provided and always was meant to be. It would be a very bad thing if the state concerned itself with “protection.” It would ruin the free market and the safety and security industry.
Instead, the state indeed supplies “general deterrence” by promulgating a penal code and threatening potential criminals with punishment after they commit a crime, perhaps long after their victims are dead, after an exhaustive investigation has concluded, after due process has been observed, after the judge has pronounced a sentence, and so on. The fear of punishment permeates society as a whole. Every potential evildoer willy-nilly takes the cost in the form of possible capture and punishment of his contemplated crime into account. As a result, some marginal criminals are deterred by this incentive of servile fear, though they care not for justice, and are redirected into legitimate occupations.
All people benefit from this deterrence. That includes the criminals, such as thieves, themselves. Without it, crime would skyrocket, and (1) undeterred thieves would face greater competition in their line of “work,” and (2) production would suffer as (2a) otherwise decent people decide that theft beats honest work, and (2b) decreased security of property rights scares off savers and entrepreneurs. Even thieves would be worse off without the state. “Smart” thieves have a vested interest in vigorous theft deterrence: it keeps society rich and ripe for the plucking and keeps their “dumber” brethren in prison.
Huemer then proceeds to argue that “if the [social] contract somehow holds only between the state and the public at large, then perhaps ‘the public at large’ owes something to the state, but no individual does. If, on the other hand, the social contract holds between the individual and the state, then the state must have an obligation to the individual.” But he imagines that the state has repudiated the contract (to protect the citizens), which means that “individuals cannot be taken to be obligated under that contract either.” (34)
Now the “social contract” is not so much between the individual and the state as between the citizens who, presumably unanimously in some town meeting, agree to commission the state and grant it certain powers and responsibilities. One such responsibility may be to punish condemned criminals. As long as the state executes this function with a measure of competence, it may be considered to have fulfilled its contractual obligations. As a result, since deterrence is a costly public good, the citizen body owes to the state, as a logical deduction or praxeological necessity, some financing. Perhaps taxes are the only feasible way to keep the government running. Who should pay how much is of course debatable. But in this case one can no longer dismiss the idea that a citizen can have obligations to the state on the grounds that the state has no obligation to the citizen.
As for the state’s alleged duty to protect folks against “hostile foreign governments,” Rothbard disposed of it long ago:
Especially has the State been successful in recent centuries in instilling fear of other State rulers.
Since the land area of the globe has been parceled out among particular States, one of the basic doctrines of the State was to identify itself with the territory it governed. Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identification of that land and its people with the State was a means of making natural patriotism work to the State’s advantage.
If “Ruritania” was being attacked by “Walldavia,” the first task of the State and its intellectuals was to convince the people of Ruritania that the attack was really upon them and not simply upon the ruling caste.
In this way, a war between rulers was converted into a war between peoples, with each people coming to the defense of its rulers in the erroneous belief that the rulers were defending them.
This device of “nationalism” has only been successful, in Western civilization, in recent centuries; it was not too long ago that the mass of subjects regarded wars as irrelevant battles between various sets of nobles. (“The Anatomy of the State”)
The very idea of “foreign policy” is a despicable fraud: the only proper attitude of one state toward another is unconditional pacifism.
In short, the state very properly has no duty to protect anyone from anything and therefore cannot be charged with viciously abdicating this duty. Hence, the argument against social contract theories based upon this charge cannot get off the ground.