Finding the State’s Achilles’ Heel
By Duncan Whitmore
One of the consequences of the state’s insidious corruption of truth and knowledge – and, thus, a stumbling block in our efforts to make sense of the world – is the failure to identify relevant causes.
Causation is a difficult subject in both the natural and social sciences. For any one event there are thousands of preceding events that could be labelled as possible causes. Take, for instance, the falling of an apple from a tree so that it hits the ground. This would not have occurred without the ripening of the apple, the onset of summer, the watering of the tree, the planting of the tree, nor without the fertility of the soil. Technically, the creation of the universe is a cause of absolutely everything that has ever happened. But which of these, if we wish to understand the event, should be regarded as the relevant cause, the one from which we could truly deduce the existence of a relationship of cause and effect? Such difficulty can be compounded when there are multiple relevant causes, as is often the case with transportation accidents such as plane and train crashes – an unthinkable, but lethal combination of circumstances that unite to produce a catastrophic effect.
For humans, our understanding of cause and effect is praxeological, i.e. is intimately connected to our role as actors. Whenever we investigate causation, our primary interest is in what we would want to do in order to divert the course of history towards either bringing about or preventing a given event, and how such actions would affect the satisfaction of all of our ends with available means. As such, the identity of a relevant cause is heavily tied to the costs and benefits of a given action.
If, for instance, a person wished to act so as to cure an itch on his leg, he is unlikely to have the leg amputated. Such a drastic action would come with an obviously enormous downside, and, thus, the existence of the leg should be regarded as a necessary precondition for the existence of the itch rather than a cause. The latter is more likely to be some kind of more localised irritation – perhaps an insect bite or sting – that can be resolved far more economically with the application of an ointment or cream. We can see also that a cause is likely to be specific and categorical whereas a necessary precondition is more likely to be general and contingent. The existence of my leg is a general condition which may lead to the presence of an itch, but need not necessarily do so. An insect bite on the skin of my leg, however, is particular and will almost certainly lead to irritation in need of treatment. Similarly, the manufacture of a knife does not necessarily lead to a death by stabbing, whereas plunging it into someone’s breast almost certainly will.
When costs and benefits are assessed by the state rather than by freely acting individuals, then relevant causes will be identified in a way that suits the state. In particular, there will be a marked tendency to shift from specific and categorical causes (which neither tend to affect the state nor come within its purview) to general and contingent causes (which can more easily be enforced upon everybody with the kinds of blunt “one-size-fits-all” tools that the state can command). With mass shootings in the US, for instance, we are told that the relevant cause is not the fact that these events often occur in gun free zones, or that the perpetrators are often undergoing psychiatric treatment; rather, it is the fact that the general population may legally own firearms, thus leading to the demand for the confiscation of all guns, everywhere. With COVID-19, the relevant cause of disease in need of treatment is the pre-existing health and/or age of the infected individual, a realisation which would have lent justification to a programme of focussed protection as advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration. Instead, governments have told us that the cause is direct transmission of the pathogen through general social contact, leading to the demand for national lockdowns so as to “avoid killing Granny”. Needless to say, such overreach tends to suit wider state aims for regimentation and control.
The need to identify relevant causes is also a pressing concern for political movements. For libertarians, we want to know which avenue will deliver freedom from state bondage in the quickest way possible for the least amount of effort, especially as our resources are few. This, in turn, requires us to understand the relevant causes of the sustenance of state predation.
In light of the dramatic increase in state power throughout the course of 2020, the role of conspiracies in this regard is all the rage at the moment – a role we examined by weighing it against that of incompetence as a driver of state growth. While I stand by this analysis, it would still be helpful to identify the relevant cause of that growth, the one true factor on which we can focus if we are to make a difference. After all, to the extent that the world’s powerful elite is plotting and scheming in private clubs darkened by clouds of cigar smoke, they are but a tiny minority who cannot implement their plans unless they secure the willing co-operation of the state apparatus – an apparatus which, as we explained recently, in essentially anarchic and also relies, in turn, upon the tacit acceptance of the population. Moreover, the fact that the state is incompetent and that every intervention will produce a distortion that must be met with even more interventions (repeated ad infinitum) may provide the impetus for states to grow, but in and of itself this does not explain why such growth will be tolerated.
Thus, the relevant cause of state growth is neither conspiracy nor anything evil that the state actors may wish to do directly. Rather, it is something much more basic: the belief amongst the populace that the state’s ultimate decision making authority is legitimate. For as long as that premise remains accepted – conspiracy or no conspiracy – the state’s continued growth will encounter minimal resistance. Indeed, one does not need to have the state controlled by evil people hell bent on microchipping everybody in order for this to be true, even if it is so controlled. So long as people continue to believe that it is the state’s role to solve certain societal problems, then they will willingly hand over to the state whichever tools the latter feels it needs to accomplish that role. Given that state actors are a minority with an inability to comprehend specifics, by necessity such tools will be blunt and of “one-size-fits-all” nature: general rules, blanket controls, mass surveillance.
Where, then, do libertarians concentrate their resources if they are to put an end to the statist nightmare? Clearly, focussing on trying to “bring down” specific individuals and plans – or, rather, painting the impression that all of the world’s problems owes itself to specific, malevolent actors – is likely to be a waste of time save for drawing people’s attention to the nature of their rulers. While it always satisfying to see someone like Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, Anthony Fauci or now former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock ousted from their pedestals, if they were to vanish from the scene then the vacuum they leave would be filled soon enough by others with an equally amoral disposition. The real problem – the formal apparatus of state power – will still be there.
Instead, we need to focus on what we have identified as the relevant cause of state power: the acceptance of the population that continued state growth is legitimate. Accomplishing this, however, does not require the active conversion of the entire population to Rothbardian zealots. For a start, the majority of people will always be passive followers rather than influencers of the direction of the prevailing wind; changing that direction is achieved by motivated, vocal minorities who are able to influence the narrative. Second, most people do not occupy strategically helpful positions in which to make a difference. As I have argued previously, lockdown could have been defeated if those upon whom the state relies to serve as its mascots and enforcers – e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers and the police – refused to support it. Had they done so, the majority would have felt comfortable in rejecting lockdown also. Moreover, while we have all had enough of Hollywood celebrities spouting left wing platitudes, we have to acknowledge that well known figures can be influential. Just this past month, for instance, footballer Christiano Ronaldo has said that the Portugal team is “tired” of COVID-19, having previously rubbished PCR tests as “bullsh*t” as well as “forgetting” to wear a face mask. Meanwhile, tennis star Novak Djokovic has spoken out against mandatory vaccination. In sum, our focus should be on creating this active, vocal minority through strategic outlets in order to change the narrative.
One purpose of this short essay is to dispel the clouds of despair that are gathering amongst those who are committed to freedom. While understandable, we need to ensure that it does not shatter our resolve. The repeated narrative of conspiracies, of the awesome wealth of the world’s elite, and of the control of the “deep state” – however accurate it may be – is able to instil a feeling of hopelessness against a mighty enemy, a feeling that we might as well just give up. How relieving it is, then, for our analysis of relevant causes to reveal to us that this need not be the focus of our efforts. But it is also reassuring to know that we do not have to directly influence 65 million people in order to change attitudes towards the state: that we are looking only for a small number of sheep dogs rather than a giant flock of sheep. At the very least, we need to stop thinking of the state as awesome and almighty; it is not omnipotent, and is devoid of power that we refuse to lend it.
This does not mean to say that this will be easy, and different strategies towards different, particular aims will be necessary in different situations. But in terms of providing a practical focus for our precious few resources, this perspective is likely to be the most motivating and effective.