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The State: Consent or Conquest?

Posted by Orrin Woodward on March 26, 2012

The State

There are two main theories of the State – 1. Consent or 2. Conquest. Wendy McElroy wrote an excellent summary of the two types in this article. I love studying history to identify how the various theories stand up to the test of historical evidence. Which theory of the State do you believe is more historically accurate? What are the true roles of the State in society? The more leaders lead within a society, the less need there is for bureaucrats; sadly, however, the reverse is true as well. Chris Brady and I wrote Leadership & Liberty several years back to address the need for leaders to arise to maintain liberty. Enjoy the article.

Sincerely, Orrin Woodward

The Consent Theory of the State

John Locke’s The Two Treatises on Government is a pivotal document in the history of individualism. In his Second Treatise, as Karen Vaugh observed, “Locke argues the case of individual natural rights, limited government depending on the consent of the governed, separation of powers within government, and most radically, the right of people within society to depose rulers who fail to uphold their end of the social contract.” The Second Treatise, from which both the French and American revolutions drew heavily, remains the touchstone for consent theory within the classical liberal tradition.

Locke believed that God had given the world in common to men for their use and he justified private property — the appropriation of a common good for personal use — by arguing that each man had an ownership claim to his or her own person. Based on this self-ownership, Locke argued,

“The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

The need to protect the property of ‘life, liberty, and estate’ led men to form a Government.(7) In other words, the institution arose as a shield against the conflicts that naturally occur when individuals accumulate property in a world of scarce resources. It arose through an explicit contract by which men relinquished to the State the right to adjudicate their own disputes. For its part of the social contract, the State or Government pledged to rule in order to secure men’s claim to their property. For example, it was obliged to regulate property so as to safeguard it, e.g. through inheritance laws. Thus, the existence of private property could be said to be a cause of the Lockean State, or Government.

In the Second Treatise, Locke attempted to counter some of the arguments of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who also believed that the State, or commonwealth, arose through what he called ‘mutual covenants’ aimed at subduing man’s natural tendency toward constant warfare. In particular, Locke rejected the Hobbesian contention that the initial consent to the State rendered by free individuals could bind their children and succeeding generations to that State. Instead, Locke developed a doctrine of tacit consent which bound even those people who did not explicitly consent to Government. In essence, each person who lived within a community and accepted its benefits was said to tacitly agree to the rules by which that community was governed.

Withdrawal of such tactic consent was always possible. A man could relinquish his property (his ‘estate’, not the property that resided in his life and liberty) and leave the community, thus putting himself back into a state of nature in relationship to it. However, as long as you occupy the land over which the Government has jurisdiction, you are tacitly accepting that jurisdiction. After all, Locke would argue, the ‘good title’ of any property you have inherited comes from the Government who has protected that wealth and regulated its just transfer to you. A similar argument could be made concerning wealth accumulated through contract: that is, your contracts had validity only because of the regulatory benefits provided by the Government.

In essence, Locke believed that a civilized and satisfying Society could not exist without Government to adjudicate con- flicts and to provide a legal context for property. Only when Government ceased to fulfill its part of the social contract were the citizenry justified in rebelling against it. Otherwise, Government (or the State) and Society were engaged in a co- operative endeavor.
Whether or not Locke actually believed there had ever been an original Government formed with the explicit consent of every- one over which it claimed jurisdiction is a matter of debate. Clearly Locke used the concept of such a contract as an analytical tool to explore the circumstances under which civil government could be justified. His theory can be critiqued or embraced on either level.

The Conquest Theory of the State

The conquest theory of the state stands in sharp contrast to the preceding Lockean model, and attempts to ground the primitive State in historical fact rather than political conjecture. A common expression of the conquest theory runs as follows: originally there were agricultural tribes who settled in certain areas where they became dependent upon the land. Roving nomads, who were perhaps herders, waged war on the more sedentary tribes for the obvious economic benefits to be gained. At first, the nomads killed and pillaged, but they discovered it was in their long term economic interests to enslave and exact tribute from the conquered populace instead. This is used as the basic model for how the institution of the State arose.

Thus, the more extreme versions of conquest theory conclude that all states — that is, the State — originate in conflict, not consent. More moderate forms of the theory argue that warfare plays a defining role in the formation and continued sustenance of the State. But war is not the only factor. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the emergence of the State. Other conditions — such as the inability of a conquered people to migrate — must be specified.

Albert Jay Nock in his book Our Enemy the State defended the conquest theory of the state on an historical basis. Murray Rothbard in For A New Liberty advanced a modified version of the theory which conceded that some states may have evolved in a different manner, but contended that the conquest theory was the typical genesis of the State. Thus, down to its foundation, the State was never meant to preserve justice, property rights or the peace. The motive behind the State was and is the desire to establish sovereignty and achieve wealth through the use of force. Any benefits that a state provides are tangential and non-essential to its nature.

In arguing for the conquest theory, both Nock and Rothbard relied heavily upon Franz Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer argued for what he called ‘an economic impulse in man’. He believed that material need was the prime motivator of human beings and that progress is produced by economic causes, not by political ones. As mentioned earlier, Oppenheimer’s classic The State sketches the two basic means by which men satisfy their material needs: through their own labor or through expropriating the labor of others. The former is the economic means: the latter is the political means.

Oppenheimer discovered the origin of the State within the ‘economic impulse of man’ — or, rather, within those men who wished to satisfy this impulse through the political means. He posited six stages through which a conquering group typically passes in order to become a State. At first, a warlike group raids and plunders another vulnerable one. Second, the victimized group ceases to actively resist. In response, the raiders now merely plunder the surplus, leaving their victims alive and with enough food to ensure the production of future plunder. Eventually, the two groups come to acknowledge mutual interests, such as protecting the crops from a third tribe. Third, the victims offer tribute to the raiders, eliminating the need for violence. Fourth, the two groups merge territorially. Fifth, the warlike group assumes the right to arbitrate disputes.

Oppenheimer described the last stage in which both groups develop the ‘habit of rule’:

“The two groups, separated to begin with, and then united on one territory, are at first merely laid alongside one another, then are scattered through one another…soon the bonds of relations united the upper and lower strata.”

Thus the State that originated from external conquest evolves into one of continuing internal conquest by which one group — or a coalition of groups — use the political means to attain wealth and power at the expense of those who actually labor. The State arises and maintains itself as the enemy of Society.

Although the conquest theory has much greater historical validity than the consent theory, debate continues as to what implication the origin of the State has upon the legitimacy of current states.

7 Responses to “The State: Consent or Conquest?”

  1. james pyka said

    Amazing post Orrin, can not wait for the new book to come out..

  2. Orrin,

    Great thought provoking article, and I am inspired to read more on the subject. You asked in your article, which theory of state do I believe is more historically accurate? As I look at our nation, I clearly see the blessings and benefits of the Consent Theory instituted by our founders. I, like Locke, believe that God gave men dominion over everything in the Earth except for other men. And it is to our mutual benefit to submit some of our personal freedoms for the betterment of the society that we all might prosper. Herein lies the problem…there will always be evil men(domestic and foreign) that will try to forcibly wrestle that dominion from others for personal, political and financial gain (Conquest Theory). In America, we were birthed in theory and some practicality on a Consent theory, while exercising a theory of Conquest upon The American Indian, African slaves, and many others.

    I believe that history has shown that most Nations have evolved and are still evolving somewhere between these theories. In a perfect World without evil, greed, malice or prejudice, the Consent Theory of State better serves humanity than the Conquest Theory, but the necessity of the State to protect its citizenry from the economic impulses of man is very relevant. Our challenge is to keep the monster(The State) small enough to properly protect and provide, but not so large that it eats it children.

    Thanks for causing me to think… it hurts : )

    • Raymond, Well done! Jean Bodin, a 17th century writer believed sovereignty should be united in one person, while Althusius believed sovereignty ought to be divided between various political associations to ensure sovereignty doesn’t become tyranny over time. We will be studying these aspects in further post; however, you have already anticipated this by thinking clearly on the subject. I am impressed! God Bless, Orrin

    • Ray, I am glad the thinking hurt because I was trying to summarize my thoughts and I read yours and said Amen! So thank you. I love copying, didnt quite work well when I tried that in school.

      Orrin, As usual you continue to blow our minds, in a good way.

      God bless you both.

      • Kevin Hamm said

        Great stuff all of you! Of course the perfect government is what Jean Bodin was on to, but it requires a perfect Sovereign. Oh, what a kingdom that will be! May our work in this present day ensure that our entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ be abundantly supplied to us. Along the way perhaps we can play a role in maintaining as much liberty as possible within our realm. Looking forward to more Orrin,

        Kevin Hamm

  3. André DeGrâce said

    In trying to answer your question, I do believe we can find a bit of both in the developing of our modern society. I believe M Abernathy nailed it on the head when he said:

    ” I clearly see the blessings and benefits of the Consent Theory instituted by our founders. I, like Locke, believe that God gave men dominion over everything in the Earth except for other men. ”

    Within man, there’s this constant struggle of good and evil and I believe that the Consent Theory reflects a certain part of the good – man himself realizes he has a darker side so he needs to quell this by submitting ” …some of (his) personal freedoms for the betterment of the society that we all might prosper. ” It’s a societal contract that allows maximum liberty and gives us the confidence to move forward, where the primitive state only allows fear (it doesn’t matter how big you are, the little guys knows you have to sleep at some point).

    That being said, where man exists, there will always be some form of conflict. Looking back at history it’s difficult to deny the validation of the Conquest Theory. Where our early ancestors lived in family tribes, they slowly became what we see as our nations today, through a combination ‘conquests’ and alliances. So, it is difficult to argue against the origins of a State as being by non-conquest.

    On the other side, the identity of a State reflects the thinking of its citizens. Although it is likely that a majority always seems to willingly or unwillingly crush a minority, with a well cultured and independently thinking citizenry, a State can take the Consent thinking ‘high road’ by asking themselves what is right and what is wrong – then acting on the good although it may bring no apparent bonuses. The foundation of the American State, in my honest opinion, is probably the best example of this – Making into law what’s right in order to protect all, not just the majority. Thus, as Locke says, the people have the right to depose rulers who fail to obey the law.

    I believe in what Oppenheimer says, that we’re motivated by economic impulses, but these impulses are regulated by the fear of loss in which creates the willingness, as mentioned earlier, to part ways with certain freedoms in order to enjoy life and its economic bounties.

    My 2 cents!🙂

    André DeGrâce

    • Andre, Excellent thoughts! It seems that some countries can start with consent, but must be on guard vigilantly or the conquest method will take over and imperil the people’s freedoms. Keep the great thoughts coming! thanks, Orrin

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