Invincible Ignorance


Intellectually shaky positions are often set up in such a way as to make them utterly impervious to reason. Present a hardcore Marxist with a refutation of his doctrine, and he'll reply that of course you can't perceive the truth of Marxism, because you are trapped within the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. Your opposition is exactly what Marx's theory predicts, and so your attempt at refutation, no matter how well-argued, serves only to prove that Marxism is in fact true. You don't think Freudianism presents an accurate picture of the human psyche? Of course you don't, you're experiencing the very "resistance" that Freud said you would. You don't think that Freemasons are secretly controlling the world? Well, the fact that there's no evidence for it just goes to show how powerful their grip really is; how else could they possibly cover their tracks so well?

One of the principle defenses for the state is, I have realized, much the same. This was brought home to me by the tragic situation in New Orleans, which in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has descended into violent chaos. In response to this, many have said that the situation in New Orleans--looting, random violence, attacks on people attempting to bring outside aid--show the necessity of the state, because it shows us the chaos that ensues when the government is not there to maintain order.

There is just one problem with this--New Orleans remains within the jurisdiction of its government. The ruling state still maintains its claim to a monopoly on the use of force. Agents of law enforcement are still present in the city. And yet, violence and looting continues. The state has not renounced the role of maintaining law and order--it has kept its claim to that vital function, and failed to perform it. Thus, the failure of the state monopoly is held up as proof of that very monopoly's necessity!

To get a sense for how fallacious this is, consider a real-world analogy. In the 1950s, the government of communist China collectivized agriculture, effectively claiming a monopoly in food production. The government then proceeded, through its ideologically driven mismanagement of the nation's agriculture, to utterly devastate food production. In the absence of any private sector food sources to make up for the shortfall, mass starvation set in and 30 million people died. This is a chilling example of state monopoly at its worst. But, if we accept the logic of many of the commentators on the New Orleans situation, this should be taken as proof of just how essential a government monopoly in agriculture is. After all, look at the horrors that ensued when the state failed to produce food!

Thus, there is no argument against the state that can register. If the state performs its functions well, that is proof that we need the state. If the state performs its functions poorly, the resulting misery is, we are told, also proof that the state is needed. The result is a position that is as impervious to attempts at argument as Marxism, Freudianism, fundamentalism, or belief in Masonic conspiracies.

I do not think this is produced by willful intellectual dishonesty; it seems to be a pattern of thought that people easily slip into without realizing it. This may help explain why a single example of an unpleasant area with no state (which are usually themselves not anarchies of long standing, but are instead the wreckage left by failed and especially malicious states, e.g. Somalia) is often seen as an adequate refutation of anarchy, but no amount of incompetence and failure, no number of injustices and atrocities can ever shake people's trust in the state. How could they, when so many people have, without even realizing it, turned statism into a position that can never be touched by any evidence?

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John Markley's picture
Columns on STR: 13

John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.