[Excerpted from "If Men Were Angels," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2007.]
In The Federalist No. 51, arguably the most important one of all, James Madison wrote in defense of a proposed national constitution that would establish a structure of "checks and balances between the different departments" of the government and, as a result, constrain the government's oppression of the public. In making his argument, Madison penned the following paragraph, which comes close to being a short course in political science:
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.1
The passage that refers to the angels is a rhetorical masterpiece, so memorable that it has become almost a cliché. In Madison's argument, however, it does more than emphasize that human nature is something less than angelic. It also serves as a springboard that propels Madison directly into a consideration of "framing a government which is to be administered by men over men," which is "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature."
In short, it moves Madison directly to a consideration of government as we have known it for the past several thousand years — a monopoly operating ultimately by threat or actual use of violence, making rules for and extracting tribute from the residents of the territory it controls. Henceforth, for clarity, I refer to this all-too-familiar type of organization as "the state."
Perhaps everyone will agree that if we were all angels, no state would be necessary, and if angels were the governors, they would require neither internal nor external constraints to ensure that they governed justly. In terms of Table 1, we would be indifferent between the two cells in the first row.
In Madison's mind, the no-state option was inconceivable, for reasons he expressed obliquely when he wrote:
In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.2
Thus, Madison, apparently following Locke, believed that individuals would not choose to remain in a stateless condition and would submit to the authority of a state in order to attain greater security of person and property. Countless other thinkers over the years have reasoned likewise, as Mancur Olson did in his final book when he concluded, "If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose anarchy."3
Disorder, Liberty, and the State
Nothing is more common than the assumption that without a state, a society will fall necessarily and immediately into violent disorder; indeed, anarchy and chaos are often used as synonyms. The Random House Dictionary gives the following four definitions for anarchy:
- a state of society without government or law
- political and social disorder due to absence of governmental control
- a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society
- confusion; chaos; disorder
Suppose, however, that the situation described by the third definition were not merely an ideal, but a genuine possibility, perhaps even a historically instantiated condition.
Locke, Madison, Olson, and nearly everybody else, of course, have concluded from their theoretical deliberations that the stateless option cannot exist — at least, not for long — because its deficiencies make it so manifestly inferior to life in a society under a state. The alleged absence of significant historical examples of large, stateless societies during the past several thousand years buttresses these theory-based conclusions: just as "the poor we have always with us," so except among primitive peoples, society and the state are taken to have always coexisted.
One need not spend much time, however, to find theoretical arguments — some of them worked out in great detail and at considerable length4 — about why and how a stateless society could work successfully. Moreover, researchers have adduced historical examples of large stateless societies, ranging from the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley5 to Somalia during the greater part of the past decade and a half.6 Given the enormous literature that has accumulated on stateless societies in theory and in actual operation, we may conclude that, if nothing else, such societies are conceivable.7
In this light, both cells in the second row of Madison's model must be seen as live options, whose most likely outcomes are, I suggest, as indicated in the More Realistic Model shown in Table 2:
Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state8 and, second, by virtue of this control over the state's powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state.9 It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.
Lest anyone protest that the state's true "function" or "duty" or "end" is, as Locke, Madison, and countless others have argued, to protect individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property, the evidence of history clearly shows that, as a rule, real states do not behave accordingly. The idea that states actually function along such lines or that they strive to carry out such a duty or to achieve such an end resides in the realm of wishful thinking.
Although some states in their own self-interest may at some times protect some residents of their territories (other than the state's own functionaries), such protection is at best highly unreliable and all too often nothing but a solemn farce. Moreover, it is invariably mixed with crimes against the very people the state purports to protect, because the state cannot even exist without committing the crimes of extortion and robbery, which states call taxation;10 and as a rule, this existential state crime is but the merest beginning of its assaults on the lives, liberties, and property of its resident population.
In the United States, for example, the state at one time or another during recent decades has confined millions of persons in dreadful steel cages because they had the temerity to engage in the wholly voluntary buying and selling or the mere possession of officially disapproved products. Compounding these state crimes (of kidnapping and unjust confinement) with impudence, state officials brazenly claim credit for their assaults on the victims of their so-called War on Drugs.
State functionaries have yet to explain how their rampant unprovoked crimes comport with the archetype described and justified in Locke's Second Treatise of Government. In vain do many of us yearn for relief from the state's duplicitous cruelty: Where is the state of nature when we really need it?
An Application of the Precautionary Principle
In pondering the suitability of the More Realistic Model, we might well apply the precautionary principle, which has been much discussed (and nearly always misapplied) in recent years in relation to environmental policy. This principle holds that if an action or policy might cause great, irreparable harm, then, notwithstanding a lack of scientific consensus, those who support the action or policy should shoulder the burden of proof. In applying this principle to the state's establishment and operation, the state's supporters would appear to stagger under a burden of proof they cannot support with either logic or evidence.
Everyone can see the immense harm the state causes day in and day out, not to mention its periodic orgies of mass death and destruction. In the past century alone, states caused hundreds of millions of deaths, not to the combatants on both sides of the many wars they launched, whose casualties loom large enough, but to "their own" populations, whom they have chosen to shoot, bomb, shell, hack, stab, beat, gas, starve, work to death, and otherwise obliterate in ways too grotesque to contemplate calmly.11
Yet, almost incomprehensibly, people fear that without the state's supposedly all-important protection, society will lapse into disorder and people will suffer grave harm. Even an analyst so astute as Olson, who speaks frankly of "governments and all the good and bad things they do," proceeds immediately to contrast "the horrible anarchies that emerge in their absence,"12 although he gives no examples or citations to support his characterization of anarchy. But the state's harms — "the bad things they do" — are here and now, undeniable, immense, and horrifying, whereas the harms allegedly to be suffered without the state are specters of the mind and almost entirely conjectural.
This debate would not appear to be evenly matched. Defending the continued existence of the state, despite having absolute certainty of a corresponding continuation of its intrinsic engagement in robbery, destruction, murder, and countless other crimes, requires that one imagine nonstate chaos, disorder, and death on a scale that nonstate actors seem incapable of causing. Nor, to my knowledge, does any historical example attest to such large-scale nonstate mayhem. With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man.
All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.
The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: Because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.
This article is excerpted from "If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-Government,"Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol 21, no. 4 (Winter 2007): pp. 55–68.
Table 1 — Madison's Model
Table 2 — More Realistic Model
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1. Angels are still prevalent today. Let’s start with the basics: Is there really angelic activity in a near but unseen realm? Yes. I believe angels are active in our world today — more than we realize. They were active in biblical times and there’s no indication to suggest their activity has ceased. Angels populate the Bible in vast numbers, and they were prominent in the book of Acts as the apostles began taking the Gospel to the world. Why should they cease their work with the writing of the last book of the New Testament? We know from Scripture that demonic activity will escalate as we approach the end of time. Jesus indicated in Matthew 24:12 that evil would increase, and Paul said evildoers and impostors would become worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13). He also warned about our struggle with unseen forces in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). From this we can rightly infer that angelic activity will also increase as the times progress — meaning angels are more active and important to us than ever. 2. Angels can vary in appearance. In the Bible, sometimes these heavenly creatures appeared in human form and sometimes in superhuman splendor. Sometimes they were recognized as supernatural, but on other occasions they appeared as run-of-the-mill strangers. Take, for example, the words of Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” Sometimes in the Bible angels would appear in ones or twos; other times in multitudes. Some had wings; others didn’t. Sometimes their feet were on the ground; sometimes they hovered in the sky. In Revelation 18:1, an angel descended from heaven with such sun-like brilliance that the entire earth was illumined by his splendor. 3. Believers have a number of angels watching over them. The most frequent question I get asked about angels is: Does every person (or does every Christian) have a guardian angel? In the Old Testament, there are indications that both good and bad angels were assigned to various nations. In the Book of Revelation, we have hints that good angels may be assigned to churches. In Matthew 18, Jesus said about children: “Their angels always are observing the face of their Heavenly father in Heaven.” We have biblical hints about guardian angels, but not enough scriptural data on which to base a rigid doctrine. I would say the primary teaching of the Bible is that a multitude of angels is assigned to watch over us. Psalm 91:11 says, “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” I don’t know whether we have just one angel who stays with us from birth to death, but I believe many angels are tasked with watching over us throughout our lives. 4. Angels aren’t meant to be worshiped. Many people today worship angels, and some religions include the worship of angels as part of their rituals. Others may not consciously worship angels, but they become obsessed with angels’ alleged presence or activities. This is wrong in God’s eyes, for only He is to be worshipped. Yet, it’s understandable that we’re tempted to render worship to angels. Even the apostle John nearly worshipped an angel as he received the contents of the book of Revelation. In Revelation 19:10, John was so overwhelmed by his vision that he fell down to worship the angel. The angel quickly said, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” 5. Angels can sing. Surprisingly, one question I’m often asked about angels is whether they can sing. I think that question comes up because the Bible talks about angels speaking, but not about them singing. The verb is usually “to speak” or “to say.” But those verbs don’t rule out singing, and some translations of the Bible render it “to sing.” For example, Revelation 5 says, “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, with ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders, and in a loud voice they sang: Worthy is the Lamb who is slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.’” Furthermore, all of creation sings. God has built music and song into every part of his creation. We can sing as human beings, but so can birds and frogs and crickets. If all of the creation can sing, then we can expect that the angels could sing as well. 6. Angels have names and personalities. In the Bible, we’re given the names of only two good angels: Gabriel and Michael. But that’s enough to tell us that every angel has a unique personality. When we read angel stories in the Bible, we can easily see humor in some, anger in others, and compassion and concern in others. It seems angels have emotions not unlike those we experience. Jesus told us they rejoice when one soul on earth confesses Him as Lord (Luke 15:10). Angels have intellect, emotions, and volition. One day, we’ll have a long list of angelic names in our contact lists, but for now we’re told the names of only Gabriel and Michael. 7. An immeasurable number of angels exist. There are more angels than we can count and it would seem that the number has always been constant from creation. The book of Job asks, “Can his forces be numbered?” Jesus said He had access to at least twelve legions of angels. Legion is a military term for a division of several thousand men. The writer of Hebrews spoke of “thousands upon thousands” of angels in joyful assembly. We don’t have precise statistics about angels, but the writers of the Bible stretch their numerical vocabulary to the limits in telling us that we are surrounded by a vast, innumerable multitude of angelic hosts that no mathematician can count. 8. Angels don’t always save us from harm. Despite the existence of angles, there are times when we do suffer harm. We know by reading many stories and passages in the Bible that God doesn’t roll us in bubble wrap and pamper us all the way to heaven. The heroes of the Bible suffered, and some were slain for their faith. God’s angels don’t always deliver us in the way we’d choose, but always in the best way. We can take promises such as Psalm 91:11 literally, but we must leave the methods and means of their fulfillment to the Lord and his angelic servants. When we’re in their care, how temporary our hurts and how permanent our blessings! The sufferings of this present life aren’t worth comparing with the glory to be revealed. Our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory. Along the way, we have more protection from our angelic friends than we know. 9. Angels face resistance when delivering answers to our prayers. I’m staggered to know there is much conflict in the unseen spheres. In Daniel 10, it took three weeks for God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer to get through to the prophet. It’s remarkable to think that our prayers to God and His answers to us may pass through the territory of the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). It’s sobering to know that angels bearing the answers to our prayers are opposed and sometimes delayed by what Paul called “the rulers . . . the authorities . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). There’s an invisible grid around our planet where unseen forces deploy. But Jesus is Victor! How thankful we should be for every answer to prayer that comes to us from day to day. 10. Fallen angels are involved in current events. Are fallen angels responsible for many of the horrendous headlines that we read about in the newspaper and that we see on television? Yes. The answer would seem common sense simply by observing the goings on in the world. The director of the FBI recently said of terrorists: “It’s almost as if there is a devil sitting on the shoulder saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill’ all day long.” He was speaking fairly biblically, as the scriptures say that evil spirits and fallen angels (the demons) have a great deal to do with what is going on with our world and with evil people. We see this in the Old Testament, when there were certain world rulers who came under the influence of evil spirits. The Bible described them as “deceiving” spirits, who lied to them and led them into wars and all kinds of atrocities against the people of God. In 1 Kings 22:22, for example, a deceiving spirit caused King Ahab’s advisors to recommend going into war, one which took the king’s life. Even King David was deceived when Satan incited him to conduct an unwise census of his kingdom (1 Chronicles 21:1). Yet the Bible also tells us we shouldn’t be afraid, that we should resist the devil and he will flee from us (James 4:7). When we receive Jesus as Savior, we are covered in his blood and protected by his love. We’re safe in His keeping — and in the care of His angels.