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Ryan McMaken on Non-state Civil Governance

In pursuit of precision, I have time and again aimed to differentiate between civil government and the state.  Unfortunately, many in the Austro-libertarian tradition have not been quite as precise but Hans Hoppe (and his disciple Stephen Kinsella) is an exception, and so is the later Rothbard.  In summary, the state is an institution that has, over the course of modern times, monopolized the role of civil governance. There has been civil governance without states historically but there has never been a state that did not first take up the role of a civil government.  Some might dismiss this as a meaningless distinction. But in fact, without this distinction, one easily forgets that there is indeed civil laws and civil order without the state.  That this is a historical observation, not merely a linguistic one, is vital.

In as succinct a blogpost as possible, I attempted to move beyond the anarcho-capitalist/minarchist problem by pointing out that the former does not reject law and order as the latter claims it does; but rather, ancapism merely claims that law and order must logically be handled by “civil government” agencies that are specifically not states.  Of course, one should read the previous linked article to understand why I am completely dogmatic about my rejection of the word “anarchism;” primarily because it falls on ears that have not considered a difference between state and civil governance.

Well, Ryan McMaken uses this same distinction in a recent blogpost when he comments on a historical book on the development of the “competitors” of the state. First, McMaken writes:

While many writers on the state have noted the coercive nature of states, few have taken the time to really explore the distinctions between the type of civil government known as “a state” and other types of civil government. Critics of anarcho-capitalism often wrongly assume that the absence of a state would mean the absence of civil government, but serious proponents of anarchism have never claimed that civil government can or should disappear. Opponents of the state merely assert that a civil government that relies on a monopoly on coercion is illegitimate. This is of course different from asserting that all types of civil government are illegitimate.

Indeed, every society has had some type of civil government, but not every society has used states as part of its system of civil government. Law can exist in an anarchic system, and we see this everyday in the international sphere which is anarchic and yet also governed, however imperfectly, by law and third-party arbitration.

In reading Martin van Creveld’s magnificent history of the institution of the state, I was intrigued by all the examples that are used to explain non-state justice and court systems.  But Creveld mainly focuses on tracing the rise and decline of the state itself, per the book’s title. However, Ryan McMaken cites another book which has at its focus all the civil governance “competitors” with the state, and traces their developments.  This book The Sovereign State and Its Competitors by Hendryk Spruyt, argues that:

Those who are unfamiliar with the literature on the middle ages rely primarily on what they see in movies to lead them to the conclusion that everything about the middle ages must have been awful. But, we know at least that the lack of sovereign states did not prevent economic growth since, as Spruyt notes, “in the later stages of the eleventh century, the economy began to expand dramatically” and that towns and trade began to expand quickly as well.

Spruyt notes that states were not necessary to protect these new sources of capital, and the Hanseatic League, for example, which was non-territorial, had no system of centralized hierarchy, and was based on a defense-for-members model that led to a high degree of prosperity and economic success for its members. Conflict between members were not decided by any state that enjoyed a monopoly on coercion, but on negotiation and arbitration.

The Feudal system was similar in that power was decentralized, and conflicts were resolved through complex systems of contracts and arbitration. Warfare was expensive and depended on valuable and highly-specialized knights whose terms of service were restricted by private agreements.

Of course, we aren’t trying to “bring back feudalism” (can’t wait until the New York Times gets ahold of this one); the point is that not all civil governments and civil orders rely on the state.  That is, there really is a difference between governance/law/order and the state as an specific type of institution.

I will try to get to this book sometime this year.


By way of historical interest for my Reformed readership, one of the things I have noticed in learning the history of the state is the mistake that some of the Protestants made in their positive goal of removing civil duties from the Church’s jurisdiction.  While it is completely understandable given the context of persecution against the religious dissenters from the Roman Church’s iron fist, the Protestants took refuge in the –at the time– young state which promised protection against the Church.  There was a mighty battle for power between the Roman Church and the various states, as Rome still at the time considered it her role to exercise authority over both the ecclesiastical and civil needs.  The states, desirous of power as is always the case, reached out to the Protestants– that is, they sought more support from a then powerless group.  This is how states tend to grow and permeate throughout society.

The Protestants, very rightly claiming that the Church should not oversee civil affairs, clung to the state for protection. This is why John Calvin wrote his forward in the Institutes as a letter to the Prince.  While they were right to reject the church as the proper agency of overseeing civil affairs, they did not foresee the dangers of statism– of embracing an agency with the monopoly use of coercion.  It was not until much later with the rise of separatism and the English Independents and the particular Baptist dissenters, that the context was ready for the American experiment of complete individual liberty.

And here we are 500 years later in our post-“Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” years, still learning about the dangers for the church when we get too cozy with the state.  The temptation is always before us.

While Charles Hodge was not familiar with the more modern expressions of precise libertarian formulations of political theory (and therefore does not make a distinction between civil government and state), his historical insights on the development from Constantine to the American experiment are interesting and helpful.  And Sam Waldron’s history of the development of a Christian political theory is relevant here as well. Especially in comparing Calvin’s understanding of the relationship to church and state with the much later advocates of the separation of church and state (which is the Reformed Libertarian view, dissenting from Calvin’s).

For more on the nature of the state, please consider Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State.

Published in C.Jay Engel