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On States, Markets and Morality 

Photo by Steve Snodgrass | CC BY 2.0


During the Reagan presidency, philosophers began to challenge the normative assumptions that political theorists provided about states and their interactions with one another. The turn philosophers were making was at least twofold. They argued states should move away from the realist prescriptions for state-to-state interactions, which some theorists offered relative to the securing of ever greater amounts of power. Also, the philosophers in question felt that states should adhere to the kinds of moral considerations that were more or less analogous to what individuals adhered to while on their best behavior.

Sure enough, critics handily dispensed with the idea that states should be moral actors just as individuals are. Moreover, they argued that even though states might have moral obligations to those living under their administrations, state-to-state interactions are better understood as geared toward the pursuit of both power and order. So, whereas individuals might concern themselves with social “golden rule” standards of “treat thy neighbor as thyself,” states mostly act strategically and consequentially.  

Of course, this is not an exhaustive review of the history. But pondering what the world might be like if the golden rule informed international relations as it can and does the lives of millions of people globally is hardly farfetched. In fact, it might prove a worthy philosophical exercise. There is little reason, however, to pursue this further here; one need only sample a facet of, say, US intervention abroad to discover the readily apparent consequences of applying this moral axiom to international state endeavors.

On the other hand, and albeit controversial, defining what constitutes a state is key to understanding at least one apt tension involving government and morality which has not shrunk by any means since the 80s: liberty under global capitalism and national rule.  

Some consider states to be organized, coercive, law-implementing, territorial, and monopolistic relative to the harm (i.e., potential and actual) that gets inflicted on the political body—including everything from the violation of civil liberties to police brutality to capital punishment. Typically definitions of what makes a state will include eventualities such as threats (and implementations) of force or violence against individuals who do not abide by state authority. Yet another idea is that a state governs when individuals living under its legal code fail to govern themselves.  

Commonly, states require obedience and largely monopolize threats of violence, which prohibits vigilantism, for example, without state-sanctioned authority. For some, the consent of the governed indicates state legitimacy, which is not necessarily the same thing as authority. For instance, whereas some may accept the state’s making of threats and using of force as endogenous to legitimacy, they may consider authority as stemming from the moral duty that folks living under a given jurisdiction have to obey laws. Ultimately, the distinction may be hard to suss if a state’s legitimacy is accepted even though its authority is not.  

These possible descriptions of what a state is, or can and may be, rightly entail questions of legitimacy and authority. Nor is it any wonder that controversy should arise in debates surrounding attempts to define what qualifies a state as a state. And it is further imperative to consider what often goes missing here, which is namely an element comprised of politically charged constituents who seek to redefine (and reorder) the state relative to finance and economics, economic power, libertarianism (the American species), and to some extent states’ international political economy. Although in some seriously misguided cases this contigent fancies itself a discipleship of anarchism, it is a simple task to illuminate their self-deception and disingenuousness while bringing into sharper relief the debate on states and morality broached above.

Firstly, anti-government extremists who consider themselves “sovereign” despite living under the rule of US law (significantly as the benefactors of a tax system that contributes to the social creation of wealth) might fancy themselves “anarchists” because they seek to do away with the state and instead live according to the dictates of markets. However, the evident failure in the philosophical underpinnings that order their cries for such an existence are too glaring to ignore.

Since Thomas Hobbes, economists have clearly understood that markets do not exist in nature but instead require that governments create them. Robert Reich, to give a contemporary example, is mindful that today’s democracies—specifically their legislatures, agencies and courts—are precisely the social laboratories where markets get concocted. These state instruments are responsible for what many libertarian-leaning Americans think about when thinking about the free market.

Secondly, free market extremists are further defeated in the irony that marks their nonsensical inferences about any increase of liberty given an absence of government and virtual rule-by-market mode of existence. There is no free market outside the government, or the state. For actual anarchists, though, this is a tension that signals true problems and inconsistencies with liberty, authority, power, control, coercion, oppression, the state, and liberty and freedom.

Noam Chomsky reminds fellow anarchists that markets do not offer choices but individual consumption. This is partly due to the fact that states create rules for markets that are hyper-focused on individual consumption—not choice. Thus, despite that markets cannot exist without government, there is no further extension of liberty offered by markets as they happen to exist. What is more, even if markets were to exist as any other natural phenomenon (an impossibility), it would still be delusional to think markets might additionally offer greater, or more profound, liberty than what already exists under the governance of coercive and imposing states and their market mechanisms.

Thirdly, it comes as no surprise that individuals who cannot grasp that markets do not exist without government should think that an economic system like capitalism would be a suitable, if not, a welcome, substitute for the state. Again, any benefits people surmise to be the fruit of capitalism are necessarily, if syllogistically, the products of government.  

In fact, at least in the case of the US, the state is willing to allow free market enterprises and agents to break laws, crash the economy, and imperil the lives of all citizens so long as the state is able to profit from such transgressions (i.e., imposing financial penalties and collecting hefty fines). And because so much of the US economy is predicated on consumption (71% according to the World Bank), it is no wonder that free market warriors should perceive capitalism (as the US government allows it to operate) to be morally good; they likely cannot fathom life without it!

Clearly, instrumentalizing an economic system like capitalism against the state in order to unleash “the power of markets” to increase freedom and liberty is so flawed an idea that no one can be taken seriously who espouses this approach as a viable alternative to the reality at hand. Nor is this paradigm the rightful successor to Enlightenment thinking. Instead, consider what Chomsky has to say on the matter: “With the development of industrial capitalism, a new and unanticipated system of injustice, it is [anarchism] that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order.”

American free market extremists and other libertarians would not only be wrong to assume it viable to replace the state with unfettered capitalism (as means of generating the utmost freedom and liberty possible), but also their philosophy would not have its root in the treatment of liberty developed under Enlightenment thinking. Moreover, as Chomsky also argues, anarchists will find social relations under capitalism to be unacceptable for the same reason that classical liberalism opposed government intrusion into social life.  

Any actual anarchist will take issue with the kind of productive relations, competition, alienation, wage labor, consumption, and “possessive individualism” generated under capitalism, which could not exist as it currently does absent the state. And finally, because capitalism possesses all the markings of an economic system that is fundamentally anti-human, no actual anarchist could be for it.

Ultimately, as the anarchist Bakunin famously writes in his 1899 work La Commune de Paris et la notion de l’éta, liberty is a condition neither state nor capitalism (i.e., “the privilege of some founded on the slavery of the rest”) can guarantee. For Bakunin, liberty is rather “the full development of all of the material, intellectual and moral powers that are latent in each person,” and this liberty  observes “no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot properly be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator beside or above us, but are immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being…” These, moreover, are not limiting agents but simply “the real and immediate conditions of [human] freedom.”

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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