What Trump Reveals to us About the State

This piece was originally published at the Texas Millennial Institute blog, where I serve as chairman of the board of directors.

Cato Institute Vice President David Boaz recently posed a question asking who libertarians would prefer in a Trump and Hillary contest. Will Wilkinson, Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center, made the point that “Trump has PROMISED to send armed government stormtroopers to round up MILLIONS of innocent people and throw them out of the country at enormous expense. That’s not simply disqualifying? He’s more or less promising mercantilist trade war.”

Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda would likely degrade liberty less than Trump’s. There’s not much solace to be found there, though. The political process routinely yields this scenario where we may pick our poison. Therein lies the more important takeaway from Boaz’s thought-experiment: While Donald Trump should be viewed as repugnant by all well-adjusted, morally upright people, he is not an aberration of the political system. Instead, Trump personifies – raw and naked – the essence of state power.


The State was defined by Max Weber, the preeminent 19th century social theorist, as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The cliché is that government is what we choose to do together. That’s, of course, demonstrably false; I don’t, nor do many of you, choose together with others to unjustly go to war, cage drug users, tax unduly, and forcefully uproot innocent homeowners for purposes of private development. The market, on the other hand, is that institution where we interact with others, buying and selling, on a mutual, consensual basis. We don’t vote to maintain operations of Apple or IKEA; we exchange with them voluntarily, if they meet our needs. Markets compel us to help others in order to help ourselves. That’s why we get up everyday to exchange our labor for wages. The political system turns these incentives on its head, where we enter into a dog-eat-dog, zero sum game in which we can pursue our own interest only at the expense of others. In politics, when one policy prescription wins, we must all accept it, without recourse to other options.

The 19th century sociologist Franz Oppenheimer identified the principal difference between political and market institutions in his preeminent book The State: “There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man…is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others…I propose…to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’…while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’”

Oppenheimer goes on to describe the distinctions between the state and society: “[A]lways, in its essence, is the ‘State’ the same. Its purpose…the political means…its form…dominion. Wherever opportunity offers, and man possesses the power, he prefers political to economic means…By the ‘State,’ I do not mean the human aggregation…as it properly should be. I mean…that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought in to being by extra economic power.”

Society, according to Oppenheimer, is “all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man.” Whereas the state “is the fully developed political means, society the fully developed economic means…in the ‘freemen’s citizenship,’ there will be no ‘state’ but only ‘society.’ The ‘state’ of the future will be ‘society’ guided by self-government.”

In Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy the State, these arguments are carried further: “There are two methods…whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth…the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others…the political means. The State…is the organization of the political means…[which] stands as primarily a distributor of economic advantage, an arbiter of exploitation…an irresponsible and all‑powerful agency standing always ready to be put into use for the service of one set of economic interests as against another. The State is not…a social institution administered in an anti‑social way. It is an anti‑social institution…State power has an unbroken record of inability to do anything efficiently, economically, disinterestedly or honestly; yet when the slightest dissatisfaction arises over any exercise of social power, the aid of the agent least qualified to give aid is immediately called for. Under a regime of actual individualism, actually free competition, actual laissez‑faire–a regime which, as we have seen, cannot possibly coexist with the State–a serious or continuous misuse of social power would be virtually impracticable.”


The State propels its worst actors into power concomitant to how few limitations of power there are. Friedrich Hayek wrote a chapter in The Road to Serfdom titled Why the Worst Get on Top where he explains that “It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough to ‘get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal.” Enter Trump on the right. On the left, Matt Yglesias lauds Hillary Clinton for her willingness to act as an elected monarch, praising her for “profligate use of executive authority” and often “operating in legal gray areas.”

Neither Trump nor Clinton nor any other politician would be of concern to us were they not seeking elected office. If they were businesspeople, then we could decide whether or not to associate with them. We cannot ignore politicians who wield political authority. The anti-social State foists itself upon us, empowering bad people to do great evil. The market, on the other hand, limits the reach of bad people with bad ideas.

As Nock said, the State is an anti-social institution. It requires that the most important decisions of our lives be made on a collective basis. Imagine for a moment that we go to the grocery store, and rather than having the option to peruse the store according to our whim, we are instead given the option to choose basket A with three apples, a bag of potatoes, and ground beef with basket B which has five microwave dinners, a carton of eggs, and a candy bar. This is the difference between markets and politics.

In practice, we hear two proposals from the Democratic and Republican candidates. We may have policy bundle A or B. In a market, there are many choices from which individuals may choose. The market’s freedom of choice is undermined in proportion to the degree of government policy in a given area whether that is in education, healthcare, banking, etc.

For example, were education markets free, conflict about various curricula and other decisions would be minimized as parents could choose a school that meets their priorities. There would be no overarching curriculum centrally imposed. There would be no national arguments about common core or traditional math, creationism or real science, etc. Conflict arises when education is subject to political decision-making, where the majority dictates outcomes for the minority. If education were privately administered, parents could simply choose which school and which curriculum they preferred most.

Likewise, were health care markets free (which requires a little imagination given the highly constricted and distorted market that currently exists) we would have a multitude of options from which to choose, not just the government approved versions today. A little economic theory and historic example suggests that prices would decrease as firms would move to undercut others where there are expectations of lucrative gains (see all recent technological innovation where this rings true today). Instead, today, we have Obamacare, a single policy which limits options and has caused a great deal of social strife.

Peter Jaworski recently framed the matter rather succinctly: “Markets empirically make us more fair, trusting, and trustworthy. Markets improve our character. Politics makes us more anti-social and unfair. Politics undermines trust. Politics corrupts. It makes us hate one another, and lump one another into ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ When we go to an actual market, we learn about win-win relationships. We discover that we are inclined to say “thank you,” while the proprietor of the business also says, ‘thank you.’ We learn gratitude and empathy. We enlarge the scope of those whose interests matter to us. We turn strangers into friends, and we wish them well. We discover that we can get along with people who don’t share our religious views, who don’t agree with us when it comes to political philosophy, who live with a different set of values from our own. When we engage in politics, we learn about zero-sum relationships. We discover that we hate people who disagree with us about politics, and that they hate us. No one learns gratitude. Instead, we learn that people with a different opinion are a threat to us. We learn to think of the other side as idiots and evil scoundrels. Partisan politics is social poison. Instead of participating in partisan politics, consider going to the mall instead. Instead of reading about Bernie Sanders and Tom Mulcair and Elizabeth May, read some reviews of XBox, the latest robotic vacuum, or just go to the local Wal-Mart with $100 and spend it all on gizmos and wazoos. Go sell your blood or sperm. Or go get the latest Apple toy. Whatever. You’ll be doing the world a whole lot more good than carrying about a placard for some douche or some turd. It’s true, you won’t get credit for it. People think politics is good, and markets are icky. But people are often wrong. And they’re wrong about this. Be moved by what is in fact good. Don’t be moved by what merely symbolizes the good.”

Donald Trump is grotesque and abominable, and that’s especially problematic now that he is entering the political arena. Bad people and their bad ideas, if given political power, have far greater potential to metastasize. When Trump is bad as a private actor in the market, we can disengage from him. As president, we are beholden to his whim, and this should give everyone – left and right – pause. That is why we should fight to limit the power of government, and support those with the fewest plans, with the least bravado, and with a promise to empower you as a private individual. Those with promises for more government are promising more conflict. The common theme between Trump and Hillary is that they’re both vying to control the levers of power to impose their own visions, rather than attempting to return power to the people. With his crude campaign, Trump exposes the state for what it truly is, a vicious, anti-social institution that undermines social cooperation, making enemies of groups who would otherwise be friendly or at least indifferent towards each other. So, in this election cycle, as each politician continues to tout their plans, let us choose consent over coercion, liberty rather than power, and market choice instead of state compulsion.

Recommended further reading: Politics Makes Us Worse, By: Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus

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