Book Summary: Anatomy of the State by Murray N. Rothbard

A book summary of the key ideas from Anatomy of the State by Murray N. Rothbard, along with informal book notes and favourite quotations.

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The Book in a Nutshell

Murray N. Rothbard was an economist from the Austrian School and is considered one of the leading figures of the libertarian movement of the 20th century. In Anatomy of the State, Rothbard sets out his views on the role of the State in societies, how the State preserves its power and transcends its limits, how States relate internationally, and the historical context of State power vs. social power. The central conclusion of this short text is that the State serves to seize wealth, distort incentives and monopolize the use of force, undermining the long-term prosperity of citizens.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: What the State Is and Isn’t. The State is an organization that systematically acquires wealth through “political means”, seizing goods and services and undermining prosperity.

#2: Tools of State Preservation. The State preserves its powers through four main tools: ideology, fear, guilt and tradition.

#3: History’s Race Between State Power and Social Power. Throughout history, great technological leaps forward have propelled greater power for individuals, only to later be seized upon as an opportunity to return power to the State.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

The below book notes expand a little further on the above key ideas from Anatomy of State by Murray N. Rothbard, as well as calling out some quotations that caught my eye. These notes do not by any means cover the full breadth of ideas within the book. They are instead intended to serve as an introduction to some of the key ideas, from which to decide whether the book is worth further attention.

Key Idea #1: What the State Is and Isn’t

“We must emphasize that “we” are not the government; the government is not “us”.” Failing to separate ourselves from the State, Rothbard suggests, means that one would interpret everything the government does to us as voluntary. There would be no such thing as tyranny or unjust policy, because by extension we would have decided it.

Instead, Rothbard defines the State as follows:

“The State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion.”

We can cast a useful distinction here by using two classifications of wealth acquisition highlighted by Franz Oppenheimer: “economic means” and “political means”.

  • Economic means: Where we use our minds and energy to produce and exchange goods and services. This approach is additive and should result in everybody benefitting.
  • Political means: Where we seize another’s goods or services through force. This approach is reductive and distorts incentives.

In Rothbard’s view, the State represents a legal and systematic channel for the second of these means of wealth acquisition. By definition, then, it is anti-capitalist:

“Since the State necessarily lives by the compulsory confiscation of private capital, and since its expansion necessarily involves ever-greater incursions on private individuals and private enterprise, we must assert that the State is profoundly and inherently anti-capitalist.”

Key Idea #2: Tools of State Preservation

In order to preserve its position of power, the State uses several important tools.

“The chief task of the rulers is always to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority of its citizens.”

Governments use ideology to convince the majority that their actions are good, right and just, and most importantly, superior to the available alternatives.

Governments attempt to instill fear of alternative systems of rule or non-rule.

Another effective tool is the inducement of guilt. Attempts to increase or preserve ways or standards of living can be labelled “greedy” or materialistic. Capitalistic profit making can be dismissed as “exploitative”.

The State also uses the notion of tradition as a weapon. The State often labels threats to its power as threats to the traditions of a country. The aim here is that they mitigate the threat of reducing their State power.

Key Idea #3: History’s Race Between State Power and Social Power

Rothbard contrasts two types of power: social power and state power.

Social power, Rothbard says, is power over nature. It is man’s creative ability to transform nature into resources and insight, for the collective betterment of society.

State power, in contrast, is power over man. It is “a draining of fruits of society for the benefit of non-productive (actually anti-productive) rulers”.

Throughout history, there have been times where social power has seized the lead through innovation and creativity. However, the State has consistently entered these new innovative arenas to confiscate that social power.

Rothbard suggests that the 17th through the 19th centuries were moments of great acceleration in social power. At the book’s time of writing in the 20th century, Rothbard suggests that the pendulum is swinging back to State power.

You can buy the book here or you can find more of our book notes here. For further related reading, try The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz.

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