Libertarian Transitions Part I: The Frodo Myth

[Note: This post represents the first in a series that will deal with the problem of how to transition from the current political order to a more libertarian future. The topic of this first post is aimed primarily at younger readers, as they are generally the ones who most commonly adhere to the myth mentioned in the title. However, it never hurts to give a topic a second look, even if one has already arrived at the same conclusions for himself. There is always the possibility of coming across some small bit of nuance that may have been overlooked and from which it is possible to improve or broaden one’s understanding of a topic. The same goes for myself, of course. So, as always, comments are welcome. – Tormod]

Quite frequently in conversation with other libertarians I encounter a certain perception of the State, which I believe is misconceived. This view holds the State to be a more or less unitary entity, unalloyed in its composition and inflexible in its cohesiveness. The implications of this misconception are most apparent in a popular libertarian myth, which offers an attractive, but unlikely solution to the exercise of State power. I refer to it here as the ‘Frodo Myth’ for its similarity to the role of Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. As libertarians, I believe we would do well to dispense both with the myth and the false premise upon which it rests.

With the aforementioned qualities of the State taken as a given, it is understandable how this myth might have come about. If the State is understood to be a single organism, the body of which receives and carries out commands originating from a single brain without hesitation, it makes perfect sense that in order to paralyze that body in the most efficient possible manner, the point of attack ought to be the central nervous system. Accepting this false premise at face value for now, it is clear that two obstacles must be overcome before the State’s vulnerability can be exploited.

The first obstacle is the resistance sure to be put up by the State when confronted with a potential saboteur, whose intention is to gain access to its levers of power. In some systems of government, this difficulty is practically insurmountable. To get that far under a dictatorship or despotism might already require some form of military action, and an individual who sincerely wishes to see an end to Statism and the violence inherent within it is unlikely to have at his disposal the sort of coordinated, destructive capability  normally required for that type of action. In a democratic system, however, the State itself presents an avenue through which command of the vessel might be attained. Such a State’s ability to offer resistance is constrained by the democratic process and, should it attempt to go beyond the self-imposed limitations thereof, it does so at the risk of undermining its own legitimacy.

This brings us to the second obstacle – Lord Acton’s observation that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” Before the aforementioned vulnerability can be exploited, someone with the resolution of purpose and incorruptibility of character requisite to the task must first be found. If such a man or woman, capable of assuming such awesome power yet stoic enough to resist the temptation to exercise it, could be identified and placed at the head of the State – the State might be successfully neutered. If the paralysis were sustained long enough, society might just be able to slip out from under its yoke and find, by the time our man could be wrested from the controls, that they don’t miss the State and don’t wish it to return. As you might of guessed, this is the Frodo Myth.

The myth was quite widely held at the time I first became interested in libertarianism, as it was during Ron Paul’s 2008 candidacy for president of the United States. When Paul ran a second time in 2012, as I recall, the myth was still quite potent. Because he never succeeded in either case, the strategy has never been fully tested and the myth therefore persists. I confess that at the time I was a firm believer in the fable, and truly thought that much could be accomplished in this way. I even recall that when confronted by a friend’s argument that Paul was too old to be president and might have a stroke or something that left him incapacitated in the White House, I joked that being a libertarian, Paul’s greatest obstacle as president would be in resisting the urge to make use of his authority – therefore, any form of incapacitation would only serve to cement his resolve.

Jokes aside, while such a course of action might garner us some benefits, many of us seriously overestimate their extent. Others have tempered their expectations for what is likely to be achieved in pursuance of this strategy, but have not yet abandoned the premise. Since any false assumption about reality may give rise to ineffectual courses of action, it is worth taking the time to reexamine our premises so as to improve the quality of our solutions.

The fact of the matter is that the State is not an unalloyed, single, fully cohesive entity. Rather, the State is an amalgamation of influential, resourceful, and powerful actors, whose interests are best served by engaging in a certain degree of cooperation and coordination of effort. The most obvious benefit accruing to such actors for their willingness to work together is legitimacy. Legitimacy is attained by their sharing of formal institutions, seals, symbols, forms of behavior or ritual, and other outward appearances in keeping with long-held customs which hold some deeply ingrained significance for the populace which is to be exploited. Increased stability, predictability, security, and concealment are also welcomed returns on their joint investment. Lastly, the formal rules by which the State operates and the informal balance of powers less visible to the public act in tandem as a restraint on the individual actions of each group from which the State is composed and prevents, from their point of view, a tragedy of the commons.

However, as with any cooperation between groups of actors, there are limitations. There are those with relatively greater convergence of interest, and those with relatively less. The level and extent of this convergence directly correlates with the scale of cooperation between these actors and gives rise to factions. These relationships fluctuate over time as interests, circumstances, and involved parties change. As can be seen when comparing different States around the globe, the final forms of cooperation reached also have varying results. Some are more cohesive than others, some more or less exploitative. But the fact of the modern State’s composite character is to be found everywhere.

With this view of the State, the solution described earlier loses much of its appeal. A worthy candidate may take his seat in the captain’s chair, but he has no direct access to the rudder … nor to the sails … nor to the cannons … nor to much of anything. He may bark whatever orders he wants, but our Frodo’s interests are clearly not aligned with those of the other officers, each of whom has direct access to one or another component of the Ship of State. If he is not careful, he will end up with a mutiny and be removed in short order. As long as he remains extremely modest in his goals, he might be allowed to remain in his chair and even to keep his hat and shoulder bristles. However, his command will be systematically and subtly (if he’s lucky) undermined. That this is so may be demonstrated by reference to numerous historical examples. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to just one example which I find instructive.

When the legitimizing ideology of the Soviet Union had finally withered to the point of crisis, a group of reformers came into power and attempted to cushion the fall and preserve the State while the legitimizing ideology was reformed and the structure of the State rearranged to accommodate such changes. The problem was that the convergence of interests uniting the elite had also reached a critical low-point by this time. There were hardliners who did not see the need to go as far as Gorbachev wanted to go in his reforms and who were aghast at his decision to pull out of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, there were more radical reformers who were impatient with Gorbachev’s reforms, which they did not believe went far enough. There were even those who no longer saw any benefit in the continuance of their participation within the broader Soviet State or who had already long held that opinion and now no longer feared to act upon it.

The result – entire regions, keeping their local fragments of the wider State apparatus largely intact, exited the union and struck out on their own. Within the remaining union, whole departments began acting independently. The security services, the tax collectors, the military, the service providers, industry managers, etc. all started to act according to their own whims. This progression continued to the point that Gorbachov was completely ignored, left sitting alone in the captain’s chair, muttering orders to himself that were no longer heeded until the union was formally declared dead. So much for being ‘Head of State.’

In this case, it was not just the people or even primarily the people who felt themselves relieved of a heavy and oppressive yoke, but the elite themselves. They had found the obligations and the restrictions on freedom of action incumbent upon them by the rules and structure of their partnership in the State too burdensome, and their share of the loot too scanty to make up for it. As soon as the partnership dissolved, the ruling classes launched right into a feeding frenzy. Many of them grabbed everything that could be had before making off for the safety of foreign shores. Others settled in for a more permanent siphoning of resources, while yet others hedged their bets and kept one foot in the former USSR and another in the West.

Amid the chaos, the elite exercised what tools they had at their disposal to consolidate their control over their own respective fiefdoms of varying sizes. These fiefdoms joined, broke apart, or clashed in shifting alliances and amalgamations throughout the 1990’s until a new equilibrium was reached. At no time, however, contrary to what is sometimes alleged, was the State absent from the scene. What happened was that the alloy separated into the various metals from which it was wrought. The State had first degraded into a precarious partnership of States and then disintegrated into an array of independent States. Within each State, the elite actors who controlled its components ceased to coordinate their use of those components with other actors to whom they were formerly bound in partnership.

That this period is often described as ‘Stateless’ is largely owning to the lack of legitimacy and coordination with which these actors operated. However, the actions of these ‘mafias,’ ‘gangster capitalists,’ ‘oligarchs,’ and whatever other names they have come to be known by, relied heavily on connections and mechanisms that were constructed or facilitated by the former Soviet State for the purpose of carrying out State functions. In some instances, they integrated these mechanisms with other domestic ones, or into foreign State or quasi-State machines. So rather than being joined together in a single State, there were numerous small and medium-sized States operating on the same territory. A tragedy of the commons ensued, as each tried to exploit the population to the maximum extent of which it was capable in order to squeeze out every last kopek from the pockets of the hapless citizenry before its former partners in crime made out with all the loot first.

The final equilibrium that was reached came when all parties found it to be in their best interests to (for the most part) cooperate again. This occurred once a critical mass of the elite were able to find a new captain, new rules under which they could agree to operate, and agreeable mechanisms could be designed to facilitate this. Once that critical mass was on board, those opposed to the new agreement could either be compelled to step into line, forced to flee, thrown in jail, etc.

This example is a clear illustration of my point about the composite nature of modern States. It is for this reason that I find the Frodo strategy to be an unworkable myth. The apparatus of the State cannot be used for purposes contrary to those for which it was formed, as it is not made up of mindless limbs carrying out the orders of a single brain. It is a conglomeration of individual actors grouped together in partnership for the purpose of forcing into being those patterns of social organization they find desirable and breaking up those, which they consider undesirable – all the while deriving their sustenance from an exploited populace. Attempting to use the State’s own levers of power to destroy it will be met with the same result as a pirate captain who orders his crew to forget their swashbuckling ways and take up fishing, instead.

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