The State’s Double Standard

All that which is immoral for men acting individually is equally immoral for men acting in association.

Jarret B. Wollstein, Society Without Coercion
The Destruction of Leviathan, by Gustave Doré

The State’s Double Standard

A great variety of political philosophies, libertarian, anarchist, pacifist, and even leftist, are essentially animated by some sentiment like Mr. Wollstein’s above. The appeal is obvious: a separate morality for collective action is rather inconvenient for a mind driven to consistency. More practically, to affirm the opposite would seem to license state actors to do virtually anything within their power. Holding state action to the same moral standards as the rest of us individually follow seems like a straightforward way to keep the state from exploiting its advantage in physical force.

It’s also dead wrong – or at least, it’s not compatible with the large-scale anonymous cooperation we enjoy in the modern world.

The Emergence of Cooperation Under a State

In the beginning, humans were able to come together in groups ranging from a couple dozen to a couple hundred for the joint provision of certain resources. It was, in retrospect, a remarkable feat of self-restraint. In such an environment, without any organizations, permanent bodies, or formal governance structures, individual morality was all there was to coordinate them.

In order to protect against free riders and defectors, this morality had to include a strong vindictive element. Everyone is jointly responsible not only for taking up arms against external threats, but also for bringing pressure to bear on lazy or recalcitrant group members, or expelling violent or exploitative group members. This is Boehm’s reverse dominance norm which appears to be more or less innate to humans.

Following the simultaneous development of agriculture and political centralization, human cooperation took on a somewhat different character. The development of money made it less necessary to resort to direct pressure against the indigent, who now no longer have a direct claim on a common pool of food. And because violence is more disruptive to agricultural than to hunter-gatherer life, states – whether from public or venal motives – took over the business of retribution for violent (and later, property) crimes. Some were, of course, more successful than others, but a primary goal of all new states has been to suppress blood feuds and centralize retribution.

Importantly, however, state capacity was extremely weak for most of the state’s existence. Its “infrastructural power“, to use Mann’s terms, was very low, meaning it had very little power to actually impose its will upon people in a systematic way. So, in order to maintain cooperation at all, individual morality had to retain a strong vindictive element, at least in certain arenas. If the state can’t or won’t help you recover your losses when your neighbor reneges on a deal, social pressure remains very important.

In addition, the state itself was essentially lawless throughout most of its history. Though it was relatively weak in an infrastructural sense, it was overbearingly powerful in a “despotic” sense: though it was a simple matter to evade the state, it was altogether impossible to restrain the state.

In this sense, the state operated in a setting much like pre-human (non-)cooperation. With no one willing and/or able to punish violations of propriety, cooperation remained stunted and the more powerful party typically exploited the weaker. As was the case for pre-humans groping toward cooperative arrangements, there existed the possibility for a morality of the state, but one did not yet exist in fact.

How The Nation-State Shaped Individual Mores

Beginning with England in the 17th century, Western societies began to develop effective restraints on the state, and a clearer distinction between the official and the office. For this reason, various actors also acquiesced to the dramatic expansion of the state’s infrastructural power. It is now nearly impossible to evade the state, but compared to the premodern era, the state is very well restrained.

At this point, with mechanisms in place to punish and restrain the state, we begin to be able to speak of a proper morality of the state – norms that ensure some consonance between its own interests and those of its subjects: enforce order, provide public goods, redistribute, promulgate general laws, etc.

The effect on individual morality of this shift was immense as well. The Christian ethic of forgiveness and unconditional cooperation, impracticable for most of history at a society-wide scale, suddenly became not only practicable, but utterly dominant. Love, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness are no longer optional “counsels of perfection“, but – following Luther – incumbent upon every Christian, and later, upon every member of society.1

Reinhold Niebuhr once noted critically that “there is an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups.” Whether or not this has made them more ethical, it certainly has changed the character of their ethics. From our modern vantage point, having so delegated, we can now look back on the vindictiveness of premodern mores as barbaric or inhumane. The set of immoral behaviors for men acting individually has expanded to include many forms of punishment. But this is precisely because we rely on an effective state for that punishment. An ethic of charity, forgiveness, and unconditional cooperation can only exist under such an umbrella.

The Morality of the State

If the era of state capacity has given us ideologies of unconditional cooperation, the age of participatory democracy has given us “monistic” ideologies, such as Wollstein’s, that strive to apply personal mores to state action as well. The libertarian says, if I may not initiate violence, neither may the state. The pacifist, to the extent that he recognizes the violence inherent in the state at all, goes a step further and says: if I may not act violently at all, then neither may I support the state applying violence. If I may not kill in vengeance, then neither may the state execute its violent transgressors. If I forgive those who trespass against me, the state also ought to prefer rehabilitation to punishment.

The leftist, though less scrupulous toward violence in principle, does feel ill-disposed to brand anyone a free-rider, and so demands that the state pool the nation’s resources into a pot from which anyone may unconditionally draw. The state must exhibit the compassion and charity incumbent upon each of us as individuals. If pacifists are bent on undoing the moral advances that state capacity made possible, leftists are bent on undoing the moral advances that money made possible.

Each of these to a greater or lesser extent is a perfectly fine ethic under a state, and an utterly unworkable ethic for the state. Cooperation cannot exist without the punishment of defectors, including the free-riding and violent. An ideology not only of unconditional cooperation, but of punishing anyone who punishes non-cooperators, including the state, destroys the conditions under which an ethic of unconditional cooperation can exist, for it is precisely the state’s vindictiveness against the violent and free-riding that gives us the luxury of dispensing with vindictiveness in our individual morality.

A personal ethic of unconditional cooperation does not – cannot – imply the illegitimacy of the state’s punishing of non-cooperators. The morality of the state takes over certain functions of the individual’s morality, but it does not eliminate the necessity of those functions, especially in the modern era where long-distance trade depends crucially on the predictable, centralized, and bureaucratized character of state provision of these functions.

It is fine to argue for alternatives to state cooperation. Though economic development has mostly happened under the aegis of high-capacity nation-states, it would be imprudent to argue that this must be the case for all time. However, to make such an argument demands a vindictive personal ethic. If the state does not punish defectors, we must do so individually. It will not do to advocate a charitable or rehabilitative state, and it will not do to argue against the state on the grounds of its failure to adhere to a non-vindictive individual ethic. Should we succeed in holding the state as an organization again to the standards of currently prevailing personal mores, those mores will quickly begin to take on the more vindictive character of earlier ages.

Finally, the existence of a separate ethic for state action does not mean there is no ethic for state action. Indeed, the development of a separate ethic by which the state can be credibly restrained is why unconditional cooperation exists as a personal ethic in the first place. Prior to the 17th century, there was rather little question of institutional design, and more exhortation to rulers to be good people, i.e. to adhere to the standards of personal morality in their office. That we do rather less of this today is a testament to the power of the separation of office from officeholder, and the effectiveness of a separate ethic for each in restraining the former.


  1. It is significant that Christianity took root in the heart of the Roman Empire, which had probably the greatest infrastructural power in the Western world until 17th century England. It is also significant that the Roman church relegated the ethic of forgiveness to counsels of perfection following the collapse of that power.


AnarchyCooperationEthicsHistoryPolitical EconomyPoliticsDoug NorthMartin LutherMichael MannReinhold Niebuhr


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  • 1


    Feb 12, 2017 at 21:28 | Reply

    The first two problems I can state at first glance:
    1. Conceptual realism. The “state” is made up of individual actors with their own priorities, but you seem to consider the state as some amorphic blob (at least until the first few paragraphs of “how the nation state shaped individual mores”)
    2. The idea that representitive government started with the weakening of English (I mean Norman, as a proud saxon/celtic) monarchs. You implicitly overlook the republics of the merchant cities of Venice and other Italian city-states, as well as eastern considerations like the limited power of the Chinese Emperor.
    I’m sure I need to devote more time to your post, but so far I find serious issues that need consideration.

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Feb 12, 2017 at 21:47

      On 1: to be more precise, by “the state” I mean “state functionaries acting in their official capacity”. The fact that there exists an official capacity separate from a personal capacity is what the separate standards pertain to.

      On 2, a few things:
      1) You could name Rome and ancient Greece as (somewhat) credibly restrained predecessors to the English experience too, so it definitely didn’t happen ex nihilo. But, Rome (and maybe medieval Venice?) didn’t have such a strict separation between office and officeholder, which was really developed in France and England leading up to the 17th century, and is when you really start to get this separation of moral standards in practice. At least on North, Wallis, and Weingast’s telling, but let me know if there are sources that contradict that.

      2) I don’t know much about the Chinese experience, but my impression is that there wasn’t a lot of systematic restraint. Are you saying there was? What should I read on that?

      3) Does the question of who was first matter for the point being made here?

  • 2


    Feb 18, 2017 at 7:37 | Reply

    I am curious how a post scarcity society with automation handling almost all menial tasks will define a ‘free loader’. This future technological reality could bring about a wholly unseen societal structure.
    If resources are abundant and tasks of maintaining society minuscule, then the ‘free loader’ and ‘exploiter’ are inconsequential.
    Violence exists but ‘law’ enforcement activities significantly reduce.

    • 2.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Feb 19, 2017 at 2:17

      I haven’t thought much about post-scarcity since I strongly doubt we’ll ever get to the point where automation allows the majority of people to not be productive. So this will be kind of an unorganized spitball answer. But my first thought is that increasing satiety with respect to material goods means increasing competition with respect to status goods.

      So there will still be the necessity of channeling competition for status goods into socially useful (or at least not socially harmful) forms. Capitalism successfully did this for competition over material goods. In the case of competition over status goods, a successful set of institutions will have to consist in being careful what we approbate. We already know capitalism is very bad at making sure approbation doesn’t go to destructive people, even if it’s good at making sure money doesn’t go to those people. So I don’t know what a successful post-scarcity society might look like, except that something like a “thought police” might have a more outsize role to prevent the emergence of ideologies that make destruction high-status.

      In the very long run, of course, material satiety makes society superfluous, and probably burdensome. So true post-scarcity may turn humanity into a solitary species, and thought police will probably not be able to prevent this unless that progress is arrested by a breakdown of whatever automation tech is providing for us.

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