The Cycle of the State

“Sisyphys” (1548–49) by Titian

In Greek myth, the eternal punishment of Sisyphus was to forever push a boulder up a hill in Hades, only to see it roll down from the summit each time, and to have to start over from the bottom. This well portrays the hopelessness of striving for “limited government,” as can be revealed by bringing together the insights of two libertarian anarchist scholars.

Crisis and Leviathan

In one of the most justly celebrated contributions to the analysis of the State, Robert Higgs elaborated and empirically illustrated how public emergencies — especially wars — are easily used by states to excuse great expansions of tyrannical domestic power. Higgs thus expanded on Randolph Bourne’s insight that, “War is the health of the State.”

Even if the emergency powers are leveled down after the crisis passes, they almost never go all the way down to pre-crisis levels. Thus with every passing crisis, the State accumulates ever more power. Higgs calls this the “Ratchet Effect.”

Therefore, the more warlike and imperialistic (externally tyrannical) is a state, the more it will tend to become internally tyrannical. Higgs’s definitive book on this subject is titled Crisis and Leviathan. We may call this insight the Crisis and Leviathan Thesis (CLT).

See, for example, how especially the World Wars and the War on Terror led to huge domestic expansions of U.S. Federal power and curtailments of American liberties.

This thesis logically implies its obverse: less belligerent states will tend to have fewer emergencies. And with fewer emergencies, the state will be less able to swell itself domestically, and may even shrink.

See, for example, how the Russian economy was able to liberalize and grow after Moscow let go of its empire and dropped its side of the Cold War (even though U.S./NATO never really reciprocated).

A complication concerning this thesis is that belligerent states also export “crisis” to the lands targeted by their belligerence. Targeted states can use the chronic state of crisis that results from such belligerence to easily whip up a bunker mentality among the populace and thus to shore up and grow its own power.

See for example, the otherwise seemingly bizarre longevity of horribly oppressive communist regimes in Russia, Cuba, and North Korea under constant American threats and sanctions, especially as contrasted to the rapid reforms in communist China and Vietnam after the U.S. eased its antagonistic and murderous policies toward those countries. It is probably no coincidence that the Russians abandoned their communist regime, not during Reagan’s early saber-rattling phase, but only after the oft-forgotten U.S.-Russia detente initiated under Reagan and Thatcher was under way.

The Paradox of Imperialism

Less famous than the Higgs thesis, but equally true, is an insight of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who elaborated and empirically illustrated how less domestically (internally) tyrannical states will tend to become more warlike and imperialistic. This is because the vastly greater productivity of a populace with a high degree of liberty makes for much greater per capita tax revenue and a much wealthier state. Such a state will therefore have far more ability to project power abroad. Hoppe referred to this as the Paradox of Imperialism, and we may call it the Paradox of Imperialism Thesis (PIT).

See, for example, how the quintessential “Lands of the Free” (Great Britain and the U.S.) also became the “Homes of the Inappropriately Brave (Belligerent)”; in other words, they have been, in their heydays, the greatest, most expansionist empires. Even the dirigiste Nazis supported their aggression by expending the wealth and manpower that Germany built up in its liberalized industrialist years.

The obverse of this coin is true as well. More domestically (internally) tyrannical states will tend to be economic basket cases that are less able to afford or competently undertake foreign power projection. See, for example, how the dirigiste Soviet Union was always on its back foot vis-à-vis the U.S. throughout the Cold War.

Since the ideology of its own subjects is the only other chief constraint on state power, and since people are chiefly concerned with their own plight, and very little with the plight of foreigners, it is often only bankruptcy that will seriously limit foreign belligerence. When was the last time an economically thriving empire voluntarily contracted? Even the British Empire’s “Splendid Isolation” phase was at best a slow-down in expansionism (if that), and not a contraction.

The Paradox of Imperialism debunks the Myth of Minarchism. Ask a Cherokee woman on the Trail of Tears or a Chinese man bleeding out in the midst of the Opium War about America’s or Britain’s “era of limited government.” With the State, it’s all something of a wash. You tend to either get relatively free Americans bombing Iraqis, or enslaved North Koreans leaving the Iraqis alone. The Devil will have his due, one place or another.

Higgs Meets Hoppe: The Cycle of the State

These theses of Higgs (CLT) and Hoppe (PIT), if accepted, and when joined, imply a Cycle of the State. Light internal statism makes for heavy external statism (PIT), which makes for heavy internal statism (CLT), which makes for light external statism (PIT-obverse), which makes for light internal statism (CLT-obverse), and around we go.

Now, this isn’t some kind of “iron law” of state evolution. The Higgs and Hoppe theses only deal with ceteris paribus tendencies. Other factors always play a role and may counteract these tendencies. But the tendencies are real and knowable through reasoned incentive analysis.

The Cycle of the State shows the Sisyphean hopelessness of the minarchist quest for long-term limited domestic government. A state may reform domestically, but internal reforms tend to feed a state’s external belligerence, which generally will eventually reverse the reforms anyway. And a state will rarely turn away from belligerence unless it is forced to by the dearth it imposes on itself when it is imprudently hard and exacting on its human livestock.

There can be no stable victory in the battle for limited government. The only way to break the Cycle of the State is to break away from the State itself. Exactly how to do that is a matter for another essay, but spoiler alert, it does not involve warfare or any other kind of aggression.

Don’t be Sisyphus. Drop his boulder, walk away from his hill, and get the hell out of Hades.

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Dan Sanchez runs the Mises Academy e-learning program at the Mises Institute and is a columnist for Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, and TinyLetter.