Poverty without the State

Statists on the right are perhaps most likely to oppose anarchism because they fear that the institutions of a stateless society would be unable to maintain order and resolve disputes peacefully. Statists on the left, by contrast, may object to anarchism because they are concerned that economically vulnerable people would suffer without the state to provide them with economic support and vital services. All of the following points (in making which I draw on insights gleaned from Roderick T. Long, Charles Johnson, Kevin Carson, David Friedman, and others) ought to figure, I think, in an anarchist response to this objection:

  1. States don’t treat recipients of their aid well. It’s important to avoid comparing idealized state practice with imaginary worst-case practice in a stateless society. If we focus on actual state practice, we find that poor people are not served particularly well by the state, and that states routinely intrude into the lives of recipients of state assistance, violating people’s privacy and seeking to regulate their behavior. The state’s performance sets a very low standard.
  2. States actively make and keep people poor. Licensing laws, zoning regulations, and similar restrictions make it hard for poor people to enter particular job markets and to operate businesses out of their homes. Without the state to put these kinds of restrictions in place, people would be less likely to be poor.
  3. States raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes. Some people are forced to live without permanent housing at all, while others must spend much larger fractions of their incomes on housing than they otherwise would. Agricultural tariffs raise the cost of food, the most significant portion of anyone’s budget. Without the state to make meeting their basic needs unnecessarily expensive, poor people would have more disposable income and would be more economically secure.
  4. States actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state's rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state's demand for tax money.
  5. Support for poverty relief doesn’t just come from tax funds now, and there’s no reason to think no one would support poverty relief efforts absent the state. People give money to charitable causes over and above their tax bills today, despite the huge sums the state claims. There's no reason to think they wouldn't do so in a stateless society. It is na├»ve to suppose that the wealthy and powerful are opposed to state funding for services to the poor at present; the poor have far less clout than do the wealthy and powerful, and yet the state provides minimal services for poor people. There is no reason to suppose that wealthy and well connected people willing to see the state spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services without the state. (Why do people give money to good causes, including voluntary programs that help the poor? Why do wealthy and well connected people endorse state spending on programs that provide services to poor people. Presumably for a combination of reasons, including [in no particular order] compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder. All of these reasons would be operative in a stateless society.)
  6. In a stateless society, less money would be spent obtaining key services. Without the state, there wouldn't be taxes, and what are now state-provided services would be available on the market and thus in most cases less expensively. The state does a range of things (notably requiring professional licenses, hospital accreditation, and prescriptions and enforcing drug and medical device patents, and other restraints on trade) to make particular services, like health care services, especially expensive. Without state interference, basic services would be less expensive and more available. In addition, some services (think a bloated military) wouldn't be part of the picture at all. So people would have more disposable income than at present. This means both that people with limited incomes would be better off and that people with more money would have bigger disposable incomes from which to give to support good causes (recall, again, that lots of people do this today even while paying taxes).
  7. The absence of the state would make everyone richer. The state's subsidies and regulations drive down the overall productivity of the economy. So, again, there's good reason to believe that, in its absence, people, including members of the working poor, would be wealthier on average than they are today. Again, this means both that poor people would have more money and that those in a position to help them would, too.
  8. Mutual aid networks could provide many of the services well intentioned statists want the state to offer. Societies in which people pooled risk and provided pensions, health care, and other services functioned effectively before the rise of state social services, and there's no reason to think they couldn't again without the state—and, indeed, wouldn’t function much better given that people would have access to more resources and that the state wasn’t on-hand to regulate them out of existence.
  9. Rectification for state-committed and state-sanctioned wrong-doing would significantly decrease poverty. Politically privileged elites have stolen land and resources from poor, working class, and middle class people. To the extent that land and other resources were made available for homesteading or returned to those from whom they were taken, there would be a significant shift of income to people currently limited in resources.
  10. Structural changes would make poverty less likely. Rules that made it harder for absentee landlords to sit on undeveloped, uncultivated land would open up this land for homesteading by people with limited resources and thus provide them an avenue to greater economic security. Eliminating props for hierarchical corporations would increase the likelihood that people could enjoy the job security associated with working for themselves (with less risk than accompanies being an independent contractor in a less healthy economy) or in partnerships or cooperatives and that, when they did work for others, they could bargain successfully for better compensation.
  11. Social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation. General acceptance of a social norm entailing regular contributions to a community income support fund, or leaving the edges of fields available (as in Leviticus) for gleaning, could ensure that poor people who needed it could rely on community assistance.

What additions to the list do readers think would be appropriate?


Mike Gogulski said…
- State-dominated education produces a majority population prepared merely to serve bosses, and serve bosses in an economy which seems to be becoming increasingly obsolete. Entrepeneurship and self-sufficiency are not part of the primary school curriculum for all but the top students, and both of which are fields of knowledge which would help some pull themselves out of historical poverty.
Chris said…
Mike, one nitpick, I was a top student but was never given the slightest bit of exposure to entrepreneurship or self-sufficiency. State schooling fails the "best and brightest" just as much as it fails everyone else.
johnaman said…
Good points. Not only that, the state ensures that entry into entrepeneurship is exceedingly difficult. The phrase, "It takes money to make money," has never been more apt than today. Mega corps, with Congress (Parliament ... name yours) in their back pocket, continue to grab more power to destroy any lower competitor. Not even technical superiority can fly in such an environment.

Get rid of the state without complete takeover of corporations will only allow the corporations to further consolidate and control, subcontracting to firms like Blackwater to commit the violence required to enslave people.

As an anarchist, I firmly believe that in today's (unholy alliance between corporations and the state) world, we must first tear down the corporations, starting with internationals. The bigger they are the harder they must fall.


A nice personal insight that affects me too. BTW, your blog is fantastic. I have spent many hours there myself. Maybe in your lifetime, you will have the opportunities that are now denied. The only thing you have going for you is a piece of paper which can be forever denied its advantages by the state (e.g. if you have a drug conviction/DUI/terrorist checkmark, most companies will never hire you)
IWW said…
As an anarchist, I organize in my community for social and economic justice when I am not at work. I try to help workers demand their share of the fruit of their labor and help others stay out of jail. If we win consistently in our organizing, the current owners of wealth will have to immediately start sharing it, or face a labor movement that would no longer be hamstrung by labor law that currently makes strikes nearly impossible and makes general strikes illegal.

I would be curious how the author would encourage other anti-statist capitalists to relate to movements for social and economic justice who take the food, housing, medicine, and clothing that we need to live without paying the current owners for those things. I hope the capitalist libertarians will join us, not shoot us or join with the state to defend the property of the rich. What do you all think?
Trifith said…
The one item I would add to this list is that a stateless society would doubtless have a sound money. This stops the inflationary theft of savings, making it even easier to store wealth for retirement. Factor in that increases in productive efficiency are likely to have a slow deflationary effect and retirement saving becomes that much better.
johnaman said…
A point of confusion - strikes only work in a GROWTH economy. We are now in decline - a SHRINKING economy.

In this land of lawlessness (see Iraq war, Goldman Sachs, Haliburton, etc), we can expect to see all the usual tactics (police, violence, new laws like Free Speech Zones). This time, however, a new tactic will gain rapid application. Go on strike, owner closes plant.
Baus said…
My left-statist friends say two things: 1) give historical/concrete real-life examples;
2) show that state oppression and poverty-making/keeping is more significant than non-state oppression & poverty-making/keeping.

They're so duped into thinking the state is weak or benign that you have to work pretty hard to show this is a real problem and that ending it will help the poor. They can't believe it!
Anonymous said…
"States actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state's rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state's demand for tax money."

Well, we had better make the tax system more progressive than it is now (regressive, thanks to the flat capital gains tax) and ensure that there are robust social programs to help the poor, rather than the rich, which are the sole benefactors of U.S. tax policy at present.

In all, I find very little evidence actually presented in this article. Many of the points can be boiled down to platitudes such as "a rising tide raises all boats," which is not only facile, but unrealistic. I would challenge you to provide some evidence against the plainly obvious idea that deregulation has led to an increase in wealth disparity and wage stagnation for the poorest individuals (wages have no even kept up with inflation in recent decades).
IWW said…

I know what you mean about capitalists relocating factories to avoid unions, and that has been the main way workers have been threatened into passivity over the past 30 years.

I guess what I am really asking is would anti-state capitalists be any less ruthless than pro-state capitalists in suppressing workers organizing in anarchist ways (decentralized democratic unions that are not seeking state power or supporting political parties, like the IWW). My fear has always been that the anti-state capitalists would simply hire Blackwater or mercenaries to stamp out unions like the capitalists did with Pinkerton, private gun thugs, or through bribes to corrupt public police forces.
Gary Chartier said…
This is an op-ed, not a careful scholarly analysis. Its purpose is to marshal a set of ideas of which readers are likely already to be aware and to point out their relevance to the issue of poverty. I’m not trying to argue for anarchy, per se. I assume here that readers already buy what seem to me the basic arguments for anarchism:

1. the state is illegitimate
2. the state is positivelyharmful
3. people engaged in voluntary cooperation can do things more efficiently, effectively, and peacefully than the state can

Obviously, you’re free to dispute these claims, but that’s another conversation. If you think they’re basically correct, then, this post is designed to show, you can be confident that the problem of poverty will be dealt with in a stateless society at least as well as it’s dealt with given the operation of the state, and probably a lot better.

I don’t think the bulk of the piece is devoted to offering vague platitudes about rising tides lifting all boats. For instance: (1) I think, and say, that there are specific things the state does that make and keep people poor. If you can’t think of examples, check out the link to Charles Johnson’s “Scratching By” I provide in the first paragraph. (2) I mention the importance of remediation here—for instance, the reversal of large-scale land theft—as well as the provision of widespread opportunities for homesteading that would result from changes in rules about land tenure.

The notion that the state is likely to function as the savior of economically vulnerable people in our society runs up against the obvious problem that the state is controlled by the wealthy and well connected, who seem largely to use the state to tilt the playing field in their favor. I wouldn’t count on them and their lackeys for much.
Chris said…
Echoing johnaman, prohibitions on drugs and prostitution seem to be most harmful to the poor due to the fact that the prohibitions are enforced disproportionately on the poor. And those who go to jail or are arrested are automatically at a disadvantage when trying to get employment.
Gary Chartier said…
Completely agree re. the especially intense impact of drug and prostitution laws on people with low incomes.

Johnaman, my view is that corporate power is dependent on the ability of corporations to capture the state apparatus. Without the state to enforce patent and copyright rules, to collect tariffs, award subsidies, and so forth, corporations are likely to be a good deal less powerful, for all the reasons Kevin Carson has very helpfully elaborated in Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory. At the same time, I certainly do think some seizures might well be appropriate; I'm inclined to agree with much, though not quite all, of this piece:

Anonymous said…
"this post is designed to show, you can be confident that the problem of poverty will be dealt with in a stateless society at least as well as it’s dealt with given the operation of the state, and probably a lot better."

But it fails to do that. I'm not an anarchist and never will be, but even from the perspective of an anarchist, this article, and your post, beg the question: why not reform the state and allow it to actually function as a social safety net for the poor? Are there people who still honestly believe that private charity will be sufficient to keep the poor and unemployed from dying? How? Why? There is nothing here to make me believe that the dissolution of the state will do anything to remedy the extreme wealth disparity in the U.S. (which, yes, has been caused i part by the state, but only because it is thoroughly compromised by capitalist interests, which would not evaporate in an anarchist system, especially one instated in 2010 without massive prior wealth redistribution).
Anonymous said…
My understanding is that power held by a minority is the cause of poverty and organised violence on an horrifically massive scale. The state is one example of this concentration of power.Capitalism is another. Anarcho capitalism is as nonsensical as as capitalist statism or for that matter state capitalism. The freedom of capitalism is the freedom of a property owning class to exploit those whose only resource is their labour. Relying on capitalists to amass wealth at the expense of working people in the understanding that they will, by charity and the goodness of their hearts "take care" of those who are vulnerable whilst not recognising that it is in the interests of profit that these people are kept poor in the first place is nonsense.

Expropriation of the mechanisms of wealth creation and distribution is the only way that communities can guarantee their own welfare and economic security.

Capital has repeatedly shown that where it can it will co-opt any and all mechanisms in order to protect it's interests, including cooperating with fascist regimes.

There can be no compromise with capital. There can be no reform of capital. There can be no place for capital in a world where the pursuit of happiness is seen as a human right.
Gary Chartier said…
I can't speak for everyone, but C4SS, the anarchist organization with which I'm associated, is staffed predominantly by people who are opposed to "capitalism." These pieces might be particularly good examples of the position many of us endorse:


In light with people like Benjamin Tucker, our view would be that what needs to happen is precisely to remove a broad range of privileges from the members of the power elite, not to treat those privileges as given or as in any way acceptable.

The view I think most of us at C4SS tend to share is that the continued impoverishment of large numbers of people in the world is incomprehensible without reference to persistent, ongoing, aggressive violence that has dispossessed people from their land in the interests of well-connected elites and to a range of legal rules, largely underscoring the privileges of those same elites, that make and keep people poor. Addressing these structural issues is central to our agenda, as is (note my earlier post) allowing for the homesteading of many large corporations by their workers.

Of course, you may really believe that the state is essential to dealing with the problem of poverty. I'm skeptical, in part because I think the state is unavoidably the agent of the power elite. But if you think it is, that's fine--let's have a conversation about that. But please don't misrepresent out position as one in which the status quo is simply assumed, when in fact we're committed to dispossessing the power elite of its privileges.
DaveDoggOwns said…
"Why not reform the state and allow it to actually function as a social safety net for the poor?"

Let's ignore the fact that the state has done everything in its power to
1)Make people poor
2)Subsidize poverty

The state is not subject to the factors of profit and loss that the ordinary person who decides to give private charity. When the ordinary person commits to charity, his/her charity is limited, so they will try to make sure that the charity ACTUALLY HAS A LONG-TERM BENEFIT FOR THE COMMUNITY! If the person they are trying to help doesn't change their habits, or provides for the community, get a job, etc then charity to that person will be stopped and no more resources will be wasted. The state doesn't do this. Its funding is virtually unlimited since it can extract taxation and print money. None of its money is actually its own. Combine this with the fact that is also has a coercive monopoly on the legal use of force and we know a priori that state "charity" is by far the worse mechanism of helping the poor.

Second of all, no legitimate right should be based on another human being's production. The right to a social safety net immediately requires that either
1)some people are forced to give up some of their wealth
2)some people are forced to work in order to provide for your right to a social safety net
Now Mr ianjohnson, I can expect you to say that "nobody in this day in age will be enslaved in order to provide for social safety net", but you see that would be completely missing the point. If people merely have to give up a portion of their income in order to provide for a safety net, IT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE LUCKY THEY AND THEIR ANCESTORS DIDN'T HAVE TO PROVIDE FOR A SOCIAL SAFETY NET EARLIER. Clearly you can agree that if people did not have as much savings and we lived in an earlier time period than obviously your right to a social safety net would require the ENSLAVEMENT of some individuals in order to provide for that right.

a)No legitimate right is based on another human's being production
b)No, legitimite right pops into existence because time has passed.

So Mr. ianjohnson, you are wrong on two accounts. You are wrong that the the right to a social safety net is even a philosophical sound right to begin with and you are wrong that the state is the best way of helping poor people. No one will seek to help a poor person better than someone who has scarce funds and a demand for results. The state has niether of those things.
Gary Chartier said…
I would add two brief comments here:

1. The odds of somehow reforming the state seem very low, for familiar public reasons: people who want to become politicians and senior bureaucrats tend to like power more than the average, so they're not overly trustworthy; the state works for the wealthy and well connected, and they're likely to use it to their advantage; while many people who enter politics aren't principled, those who are can frequently be readily subverted; and even well-intentioned, decent people are likely to cause serious mar with the kind of power the state provides.

2. There are good reasons, quite apart from issues related to the problem of poverty, for getting rid of the state. That's why this op-ed presupposes the goal of getting rid of it. (a) The state doesn't rest on the consent of the governed. If people are equal in authority, then it's not clear what other than consent could give one person authority over another, and if consent is lacking, it seems that no one has the right to assert authority over another. (b) The state is destructive at home and abroad--wars are the most obvious examples. (c) The state is inefficient, wasteful, and inflexible. Peaceful cooperation beats the state at efficiency every day of the week.
lumnicence said…
Don't the "instutions of a stateless society" form a de facto government?

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