Family Ties

A dialogue for Armistice Day.

“Look at this,” said the Humanitarian, and he read.

Due to family ties to both sides, Alfonso XIII of Spain kept his kingdom neutral in World War I (1914–1918).

“Imagine that,” said the Cynic. “All those millions of Spaniards pining to die on the Western Front. And one mad king goes and ruins their dreams. If only they’d had a republic. Then they could have gone to a right proper war!”

“Just think,” said the Humanitarian, “how fabulously boring history might have been if all the other monarchs of Europe had followed his example. Which they absolutely did not. I mean, it’s not like Alfonso XIII’s family tree was anything special. They were all one big family back then. Most were even more closely related to one another than he was. Alfonso was only related to the British by, I believe, his marriage.”

“Indeed,” said the Stoic, “the grandchildren of Queen Victoria and of Christian IX of Denmark – who included Alfonso’s wife – might have stopped the war all by themselves if they had so chosen. Among them they also counted the Kings of Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, and Greece, the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, and the German Kaiser. After that… what was left? And while monarchy may have been in decline, just think of it – think of the spectacle of it. The crowned heads of Europe, united by blood, determined to stop a war. It might have been enough to rescue monarchism. And if they’d said no to war, who would be left to fight?”

France and Austria both like a good dust-up,” said the Humanitarian.

“Do they now?” asked the Capitalist. “Or rather: Which parts of them do?”

“I don’t follow,” said the Humanitarian.

“Do you know the tale of the stationary bandits?” asked the Capitalist.

“Enlighten me,” said the Humanitarian.

“Long, long ago, the world had no government. Only roving bandits, who plundered whatever they could and then moved on. It was pretty awful. But then, one day a group of bandits decided that it could do a bit better: It would stay in one area and never go away. It would also keep all the other bandits out, because competition doesn’t actually pay. Not in their line of work anyway.

“Now, bandits don’t change their balaklavas, and so the raids would continue. But at least there would only be raids from one group of bandits, and not from many.

“This many people came to see as an improvement. No, the bandits’ actions were not necessarily legitimate in some grand scheme of things. And no, there wasn’t an original social contract underlying it. No subject ever gave their stamp of approval to anything. But the new setup was less bad, and that was a good thing. In time the bandits introduced other refinements, like regular raiding times, and pre-announced sums to be exacted, and violence only when the tribute wasn’t forthcoming. Never when you’d paid in time. Slowly, gradually, government was born. The costumes got fancier. The ideologies proliferated. The delusions of grandeur accreted. Eventually people came to think that these were the reasons for government. But they aren’t, and they never were.

“So government is just predation in fancy dress?” asked the Stoic.

“No,” said the Capitalist. “As Mancur Olson put it, the stationary bandits aren’t exactly predators anymore: ‘not like the wolf that preys on the elk, but more like the rancher who makes sure that his cattle are protected and given water.'”

“So what is it?” asked the Humanitarian. “What’s the proper analogy for war? Is it the fault of the rancher, who sends his cattle to the slaughter? Or do the cattle just sometimes stampede?”

“Cattle never have the bad grace to blame the rancher,” said the Cynic.


Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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18 thoughts on “Family Ties

  1. I’m not sure the cynic is right. The cattle tend to blame the rancher for all sorts of things. But since this is about armistice day, I suppose he or she is right.

    Still, if the cattle do stampede, there’ll be a lot of collateral damage to the cattle who don’t wish to stampede or just happen to be on the wrong side of the leaders of the stampede. Again, though, in the context of armistice day, I don’t think we should be praising the rancher or the ranch.

    To the extent that this dialogue is an origin story about the state and not about one of the most horrific wars ever or war in general, I think the capitalist has the better of it here. Just because the state originated in predation doesn’t mean it can’t have evolved into something good. Of course, at least one of the states in question in WWI–Germany–was of such recent enough vintage that the landlord-warrior class that ran things was still in many obvious ways a landlord-warrior class.

    The humanitarian is a bit naive in insisting on family ties. The Kaiser had a lot of power to make decisions in Germany. The Tsar, too. The English monarch not so much (not sure about Spain and Austria-Hungary because ignorance). Still, as the Stoic said, they might have done something.

    Great post!

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  2. The capitalist is wrong when he says ” like the rancher who makes sure that his cattle are protected and given water”. The state IS a predator and does not protect the “cattle”. It just camouflages it’s predation by using words like “social contract” and “democracy”. But the worst of it is that the “cattle” BELIEVE the lies of the bandit.

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  3. The Capitalist is wrong — assuming his just-so story is right in the first place — to ignore the evolution of the means of attaining power that history has left us.

    Power was, perhaps, originally simply imposed from atop by force and without pretense of legitimacy or moral right. This changed over time as the bandit leaders became kings and claimed to wield authority by the blessing of the gods, and then stopped being kings and became Presidents and Prime Ministers and claimed authority and moral legitimacy from the selection of the people and the requirement that over time, they step down and peacefully allow others to succeed them, thereby rendering themselves subject to the rules they created when they were in power.

    The Capitalist ignores that the government’s of the modern industrialized west, at minimum, spend most of their effort redistributing tax dollars to the populace in the form of social welfare, education, and infrastructure. He focuses much by implication on the part that is used to pay for the government itself and — given the solemn commemoration of the day — to create violence.

    Better, I think, to examine why the violence is made, given that the leaders of the industrialized west are not bandits anymore but instead charged by law, culture, and political pressure with promoting the welfare of the people they govern.

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      • That’s where I am (insofar as I get that really cool sentence). I prefer the stationary bandit theory of the origins of government since it’s not only more plausible than the Hobbesian social contract theory, but because even tho it’s the worst case starting point in terms of legitimizing government, it can still be done. And Burt pretty much outlined how it happens: as social institutions become more complex the power which was once held by perhaps a single individual (literally!) unilaterally evolves into shared domains of power and protection extending to every citizen within that society.

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    • I get into these considerations in my book.

      The origin story is mostly correct, I think, in that today’s states are the successors to tribute-based empires. I could however tell a somewhat different and less meliorist story about the change from the one that you’ve just told: Tribute-based empires made few demands on subjugated peoples other than paying tribute and behaving meekly. Modern nation-states (heck, even feudal states) demand both loyalty and physical services, as perhaps they did in the Great War. (We’ll bracket the question of whether they were only responding to the people’s demands for now. That’s certainly true for volunteers but only questionably true for conscripts.)

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  4. As much as I like the romance of the tale of the bandits, my thoughts on the evolution of government has them growing from some vague amalgam of some sort of meritocracy (the best hunter is going to have a seat at the table of decision makers which includes the best warriors) and some sort of religious leadership (the shaman as tribe leader sort of thing).

    Some weird high trust relationship has to exist between everybody for this to work.

    The whole bandits narrative doesn’t really include a mechanism to move from low trust/collaboration to high (or higher) trust/collaboration.

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    • This is a racially biased tale, biased against magical thinking and toward a more functional perspective. As such, it is much more valid with some peoples than others.

      You may look to the Magyars in how they encouraged trust in a multifaceted, multiethnic environment. Not everyone managed that, of course… Arthur killed the death cults, didn’t he? Sometimes beating people into submission isn’t the optimal solution.

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  5. A few random thoughts:

    Many of Queen Victoria’s descendants were linked by blood in more ways than one.

    Rulers being related doesn’t prevent wars: it causes them. The 100 Years War began because Edward III of England had a claim to the French throne through his mother. James I of England had the sense to stay out of the 30 Years War, but there was real temptation to do otherwise, because his son-in-law was the most aggrieved party.

    In principle, capitalists should oppose wars that are bad for business. The only example that comes to mind is the shipping interests in New England opposing (and almost causing secession because of) the War of 1812. Far more often, they see war as a business opportunity.

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