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A Summary of Murray Rothbard’s "Anatomy of the State" by Derrel Walters

Anatomy of the State is a brief but revealing literary expose of government by the famed Austrian economist - Murray Rothbard. The State is examined from a perspective not typically touched upon by mainstream authors concerning such matters. An introductory page adorns the quote:

“The greatest danger to the State is independent intellectual criticism.”
~ Murray N. Rothbard (1926 – 1995)

The following is a summary of Anatomy of the State. Italicized portions that appear in block quote are either direct quotes from the book or from the citation specified in the text.

What the State Is Not

In the most basic sense, the State is an entity that sustains itself by maintaining a monopoly of force over a geographical area and uses that monopoly to extract sustenance from the productive individuals under its rule. The government is not “us.” This is a widespread misconception regarding the nature of the State. “We” are not the government. If “we” were the government, it could be justly rationalized that – “Government debt doesn’t matter because ‘we’ owe it to ourselves” – or – “If the government kills a portion of the population, it is actually an act of suicide. After all, those people were the State.” In a representative democracy, does the tyranny of a majority implicate the minority in the consequences of its actions? For instance, were casual drinkers responsible for the creation of Al Capone and the heinous acts he committed? Presently, are U.S. anti-war activists responsible for the deaths that resulted from the Iraq War? Absolutely not! The State is an organization independent of the individual. The People are not the State! The State is not the People!

What the State Is

The State is nothing more than a caste of robber barons that have realized that more wealth can be plundered from the defeated over a long period of time rather than robbing them blind immediately. The inherent nature of man leads him to mold resources into useful goods through his creative prowess and his desire to survive. Man trades these useful goods voluntarily for other goods or services created similarly by others. Through this mechanism – the free market – man has found with experience that more primitive means of survival can be avoided. Man can focus on the lines of production where he is most productive rather than building his own home, growing his own food, sowing his own clothes, etc. As a result, the overall productivity of such an interacting society is greatly increased. On the other hand, thievery goes against the nature of man and only serves to subtract from productivity. The thief – by definition – is not productive, and even more unfortunate, his actions tend to decrease the productivity of the victims. Why produce beyond personal necessity when the surplus will likely be plundered? Production and predation are the only two avenues to gain wealth. The collection of robber barons that has been dubbed “The State” survives through predation and, as a consequence, is parasitic to the productivity of individuals and society at large. The State is a scheming long-term pillager of production.

How the State Preserves Itself

Whether democratic or despotic, all flavors of the State must maintain the approval of a majority of their subjects. Once a State is established, the looming question turns to the issue – how can the State make its rule endure? How can the State pacify a majority of the public? Activism by a majority of a population spells bad news for the stability of a State. It turns out that absolute loyalty is not required, but at minimum, passive resignation will due. How is this achieved?

“For this essential acceptance, the majority must be persuaded by ideology that their government is good, wise and, at least, inevitable, and certainly better than other conceivable alternatives.”

To widely convey their desired ideology, the State requires the complicity of a particular portion of the population – the intellectuals. Intellectuals have traditionally been considered the “opinion-molders” of society – hence the time tested, but often glazed over, alliance of State & Intellectual. This assortment of intellectual ideology purveyors includes historians, theologians, traditionalists and, more recently, scientists and economists. Widespread criticism by the intellectual class poses the greatest threat to the State. The storylines to maintain power are spun with respect to two basic mantras:

1. The State rulers are great and wise men, much greater and wiser than the good but rather simple subjects.
2. [The State rulers] rule by the extent that government is inevitable, absolutely necessary, and far better, than the indescribable evils that would ensue upon its downfall.

In some cultures, the ruler is portrayed as a god or a divinely sanctioned prophetic human. In others, citizens are duped into thanking the kind oligarchs for their protection of the citizenry against unspeakably nefarious outside forces or interior forces that would rape them of the fruits of their labor – annoyingly eating into the potential bounty of the State. State sponsored or biased intellectuals serve to legitimize the rule of the State. Religious or technically elaborate arguments quell most dissent. As a result, the ideology is accepted and majority compliance is maintained – thereby preserving the long term existence of the State.

How the State Transcends Its Limits

Attempts to place limits on State authority are not only American phenomena. In the past, kings were to be bound by religious philosophy only to later adapt this perceived limitation into the king’s divine right to do as he pleased. Thus far, history has not been able to provide an example where supposed limits on the State did not eventually transform into a method used to legitimize otherwise forbidden actions. What then is the most prominent constitutionally provided tool that has been perverted for the use of the United States Central Government to legitimize otherwise unconstitutional actions? Answer: The Supreme Court.

“…if a judicial decree of ‘unconstitutional’ is a mighty check to government power, an implicit or explicit verdict of ‘constitutional’ is a mighty weapon for fostering public acceptance of ever-greater government power.”

Rothbard footnotes a passage from The People and the Court by Charles L. Black, Jr.:

“The prime and most necessary function of the [Supreme] Court has been that of validation, not that of invalidation. What a government of limited powers needs, at the beginning and forever, is some means of satisfying the people that it has taken all steps humanly possible to stay within its powers. This is the condition of its legitimacy, and its legitimacy, in the long run, is the condition of its life. And the Court, through its history, has acted as the legitimation of the government.”

With educated foresight regarding the placement of ultimate judgment in the hands of the level of government to be itself checked, John C. Calhoun expressed that it was unwise to leave those to be protected by the supposed limits in a position unable to enforce their grievances against potential violations by the State. This analysis by Calhoun suggests the right of the States to “nullify” measures they deem to be unconstitutional. Although superior to the checks of the Court, the nullification principle still has flaws. For instance, who is to protect the individual from alliances between the federal and a state government? One could extend the idea to the level of individual nullification, but such a form of government may not have the characteristics of what is currently defined a State, and so, is beyond the scope of Anatomy of the State. Secession also follows from Calhoun’s argument. The struggle to successfully limit government continues. Meanwhile, the State’s predation continues to compete with the productive nature of man.

What the State Fears

The State’s ultimate worry is its own demise. This demise can come in one of two ways: revolution or war. Resisting these two situations motivates the State beyond the levels caused by any other concern. The preservation of power is dear. These occurrences prompt the State to invoke personal passion in its subjects to the effect that it is each individual under attack rather than the State itself. But, who defends the dissenting individual in the event of a draft? Who defends such an individual from the State? As stated previously – “We” are not the State. Revolution is typically always to the detriment of existing State rulers, but war is a mixed bag. War allows the State to widen its authority over its subjects and, potentially, over individuals of other lands. War was said to be the “health of a State” by Randolph Bourne, but the State’s health doesn’t necessarily reflect the health of the People. The State always looks after its own well being more so than that of its subjects. Not paying a credit card bill doesn’t garner the same severity of action as tax evasion. The murder of a policeman is always more serious than the murder of a civilian. Espionage against the State is met with death, but espionage against a neighbor in service to the State is met with reward. The State takes action to nourish itself with only the necessary regard needed to pacify its subjects. Revolution must be stopped, and war is better kept abroad.

How States Relate to One Another

Since no one State (yet) rules the entire globe, the existence of many States mandates that much of a particular State’s effort be directed toward foreign policy. Since it is the nature of a State to lust for ever-increasing dominion and the fact that no two States can control the same territory, war will continue to be a common undertaking. Before the advent of modern international law overseen by bodies such as the U.N., international law was once confined to limiting the damage inflicted by war to only the State apparatuses themselves. Private commerce was to remain neutral and unharmed – even among private interests of the warring nations. For a short period war became less intrusive to civilian individuals. From War and Human Progress by Nef:

“Even postal communications were not successfully restricted for long in wartime. Letters circulated without censorship, with a freedom that astonishes the twentieth-century mind… The subjects of two warring nations talked to each other if they met, and when they could not meet, corresponded, not as enemies but as friends. The modern notion hardly existed that… subjects of any enemy country are partly accountable for the belligerent acts of their rulers. Nor had the warring rulers any firm disposition to stop communications with subjects of the enemy. The old inquisitorial practices of espionage in connection with religious worship and belief were disappearing, and no comparable inquisition in connection with political or economic communications was even contemplated. Passports were originally created to provide safe conduct in time of war. During most of the eighteenth century it seldom occurred to Europeans to abandon their travels in a foreign country which their own was fighting.”

However, the destructive nature of modern warfare has rendered limiting the damage caused by war to State apparatuses even more obsolete than the binding of the federal government by the Constitution of the United States.

In the interim between wars (does such a thing exist?), modern States have adopted the idea of the “sanctity of treaties” to reduce peacetime friction which is supposed to reflect the “sanctity of contracts” in the private sector. In reality, treaties and contracts are entirely different; where contracts entail a transfer of the title to private property, governments own no property properly. If Texas were granted to Mexico through treaty by the United States Central Government, would the landowners of Texas have no right to recourse? Does the United States Central Government own Texas? No. Further, treaties die with the State. A State that follows after another cannot be thought to be bound by the treaties agreed to by the former rulers. Peacetime treaties are a curious modern phenomenon with respect to interactions between States.

History as a Race Between State Power and Social Power

Historically, production and predation have always been in competition. At times, the rate of human progress has allowed production to outpace the predation imposed on it by the State, but sooner or later, State predation inevitably overtakes it once more. Eventually, the State leaves no line of production unmolested for the benefit of the rulers. Eventually – slavery, war, and destruction always return.

“In this century, the human race faces, once again, the virulent reign of the State – of the State now armed with the fruits of man’s creative powers, confiscated and perverted to its own aims. The last few centuries were times when men tried to place constitutional and other limits on the State, only to find that such limits, as with all other attempts, have failed. Of all the numerous forms that governments have taken over the centuries, of all the concepts and institutions that have been tried, none has succeeded in keeping the State in check. The problem of the State is evidently as far from solution as ever. Perhaps new paths of inquiry must be explored, if the successful, final solution of the State question is ever to be attained.”

Severing the alliance between intellectual and State would be a good place to begin. Man’s struggle against the State continues.


The full text of Anatomy of the State can be found at Mises.org - http://mises.org/document/1011/Anatomy-of-the-State

I credit the user dducks for planting the seed for the idea to write this summary.

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US "State" is Deliberately Moving to a Putin Model

As you noted, governments like to keep their subject worshiping them but, when that fails, frightening and beating them into submission is a good enough fall back.

Few of the intelligent in Russia consider Putin to be anything more than a thug lining his own pockets first and foremost. However, he still has a tight and effective grip on the State and with nary a drop of blood shed. Fear and resignation work wonders -- maybe not as many wonders as conning generations into believing their cage is actually "land of the free and home of the brave" but good enough for government work!

I used to have some doubts about the US government. It seemed possible that a critical mass of the intelligentsia and minions were, honestly, blind to the consequences of their actions and the path they were on.

No longer. It is now crystal our Masters are intentionally racing the transition from a putative republic to a totalitarian dictatorship the likely "perfection" of which the world has never seen, with technological surveillance and Ponzi finance unparalleled boots for goosestepping over any population that might object (though few will because the conditioned depravity has taken root quite successfully). I honestly don't think the US government would have any real problem sacrificing 3/4 of the population to their "greater good" (only stopping at 3/4 roadkill because they would need some remaining to protect against foreign invasion and to pull their carts and clean their houses) and it is unquestionable, to any who will look, see, and think, that the two parties share this great and bloody vision. Sig Heil!

Bill of Rights /Amendment X: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Do you need a politician or judge to "interpret" those 28

Wow. Please Consider Summarizing "The Road to Serfdom"

The message and logic of Hayek's TRTS - that loss of economic freedom leads inexorably to loss of liberty; that you cannot keep personal liberty if you lose economic liberty and personal property - is incredibly relevant and valuable . However, IMO the writing is stiltedly "academic", taking perhaps a hundred times as many words to get the key points across as should be necessary. I keep falling asleep even though I am interested in the topic. I have no problem with books providing reams of backup documentation and argument, after they've made their main assertions, but effectively HIDING the key assertions inside countless pages of near irrelevancy is like deliberately putting a needle into a haystack so only the most cussedly determined will have all the buttons on their jackets.

Anyway, thank you for this excellent distillation of another book I've never yet made the time to read. I'm more inclined to buy and read it now.

Bill of Rights /Amendment X: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Do you need a politician or judge to "interpret" those 28

Moving this book up my my to-read list

tks for the summary!

oh, and stealing quotes for twitter, sorry

One day, I'm gonna' change my name to Dale Lee Paul

Great Book by Rothbard

I found it to be precise and strong both in language and logic.

The only limitation, as I can see, was that Rothbard could not present his arguments against Ayn Rand's solid logic for the necessity of a small state. For once, absense of patent law will undermine long-term investment and actually put a portion of free marker in a state of paranoia. But that is a minor hinderence that can be viewed as a virtual tax on invention. The bigger argument against anarchy was that private security, police and arbitration is fine and dandy to the point of conviction. After the conviction, under anarchism, mafia will rule how the verdict is enforced. Again, "perfect" man is Utopia.



Excellent article. May i add

Excellent article. May i add no one is better at controlling its subjects in third world countries than the IMF, World Bank and the WTO. My hope is every read passes this article on .

Bob Marshall

You are the best, dw!!

Great summary.

You are like a fine chef, you know exactly what and how much to add to an already perfect cut of meat.


Additional comments would be pure fluff.


I'm not sure how to respond to such lavish praise.

Thank you for the suggestion.

Great article

Great article

If ignorance is bliss, Washington DC must be heaven.

This one one of the most

eye-opening essays I have ever read.

Thanks for that!

Thanks for that!

Thanks for your support...

Trying to do my part.

I read the Anatomy of the

I read the Anatomy of the State a couple years ago and am looking forward to brushing up with your summary (I just noticed it and bookmarked it for this eve). I've been wanting to study some more Rothbard and stuff like this and the lions of liberty's 'Mondays with Murray' are MUCH appreciated!