Stockholm Syndrome and the State


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One of the things most baffling to libertarians of the anarcho-capitalist persuasion is just how people can support the state when it is so obviously immoral and against the best interests of the vast majority of people. One would expect, given all the terrible things that government has done, that people would be far more receptive to the idea of shrinking the size and scope of government, but suggestions of this nature are almost universally met with scorn.

Things like propaganda, forced and compulsory education, and media manipulation can certainly explain part of it. But I’ve always noticed that when I attack the state, most people will respond as though I’ve just kicked their inner child in the balls. To most, the state takes on the role of a father figure, a sometimes stern institution that is fundamentally looking after their best interests. Propaganda in and of itself is simply not strong enough to have this kind of thought-stifling effect.

No, there is something more powerful at work here. I believe one large part of this is a kind of psychological defensive mechanism, Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages come to identify with and have generally positive feelings towards their captors. From Wikipedia:

Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

The name Stockholm Syndrome comes from an instance in 1973 where two bank robbers held several bank employees hostage in Stockholm. During the standoff, the hostages bonded with their captors, and ultimately ended up defending their actions. In fact, they came to view the police as the ones who were acting dangerously, rather than the robbers who were holding them hostage.

An even more dramatic instance came one year later, with the abduction of Patricia Hearst. At the age of 19, she was kidnapped by a left-wing urban guerrilla movement called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). They locked her in a closet, tortured, and occasionally raped her for several weeks. Just two months after her abduction, she was actively involved with the SLA and committed bank robberies with the organization. Despite opportunities to escape, she did not. For more on Patty Hearst and the implications of her experience, see this.

While Stockholm Syndrome may result in people behaving in seemingly irrational ways, it is actually a perfectly rational response to certain circumstances. When under the power of a dangerous person, there are survival benefits to developing traits that would be pleasing to the captor. A more submissive and less antagonistic attitude may result in more favorable treatment.

A study by Graham et al (1994) suggests four conditions that are necessary for Stockholm Syndrome to appear. As elucidated by Harry Elliot of the Stanford Review:

“Psychological precedent would suggest that four conditions are required for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. First, the criminal must pose a serious threat to the victim. Second, the victim must be isolated from outside influences. Third, the victim must feel completely unable to escape his captivity or to defend himself. Fourth, the victim must feel that some compassion has been shown. This does not entail a bank robber offering burgers and cookies to a hostage, but simply means that captors have not been as aggressive as they theoretically could.”

Michael Huemer adds a fifth condition (a kind of corollary to the third one above): The hostage cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

The relationship between a state and its citizens is comparable to that of a hostage and his captors, at least with regards to these conditions. Let’s look at them each individually.


Condition 1: The aggressor poses a serious and credible threat to the victim.

Governments, quite clearly, pose a serious and credible threat to their citizens (as well as citizens of other governments). Consider that the US government possesses enough military might, most obviously in the form of nuclear weapons, to kill everyone on the planet many times over.

Imagine what would have happened if the United States pushed just a little bit harder against Russia in the recent spat in Ukraine. While I hardly expect a massive nuclear war to break out (I would consider that exceedingly unlikely), it is certainly within the realm of possibility. We came dangerously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, the US government has already used two nuclear weapons against large civilian populations in Japan.

It’s not as though the whole world needs to be destroyed either. More “mundane” war crimes are committed so often it would be pointless to try and document them. Most of the victims of modern war are civilians. These civilians are not the people who decide to get involved in the war in the first place; regardless of their beliefs, their lives are at the whim of the decisions of the ruling elite.

Moving away from war, there is also the very credible threat of having legal action taken against civilians by the state. For disobeying the law, there are threats such as fines and jail time. Increasingly, outright violence and brutality are used to subdue “criminals”, which includes a huge number of people who have committed victimless “crimes”, or even nothing illegal at all. Much of this enforcement is arbitrary or directed at minorities.


Condition 2: The victim cannot escape.

Escape from a given state is costly. It requires isolating yourself from your family and friends, sacrificing your job, and needing to get used to a different society.

But even then, you are then just the subject of a different state. If a hostage has the ability to escape his captor, only to become the hostage of some other captor, is that really escape?

In the US, it is particularly challenging to extricate yourself from the captors that are the US government. Even moving abroad does not exempt you from being subject to the US tax regime, one of the strictest tax systems in the world. The only other country that does this is Eritrea, a banana republic that garners little sympathy for these evil policies.

In order to cast off the yoke of the IRS, you would need to renounce your US citizenship, which is a surprisingly challenging process. In fact, just recently, the State Department increased the fee for renouncing citizenship from $450 to $2350. This would put that option out of reach for the nation’s poor.


Condition 3: The victim cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

Let me start by saying that I believe individuals have immense power to make a difference, and to help fight against the state. If I did not believe this, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

However, an individual cannot possibly take down the government on their own, and if the state singles you out, it will almost certainly win. It’s nearly impossible to successfully defend yourself against the police, for instance.

Consider Edward Snowden, who revealed some of the most damning evidence yet of how the government abuses its powers and spies on American citizens. The official reaction to this (and even much of the public’s reaction) has been extremely negative. And more than a year since these revelations, he is still stuck living in Moscow, while the American national security state has hardly receded one iota.


Condition 4: The victim perceives some “kindness” (or relative lack of abuse) from his captor.

Most people, even those who are strongly opposed to many government policies, still view the government as their benefactor.

This makes sense, because the state performs numerous functions that could easily be seen as being generous and helping people out. The police still are occasionally used to protect the rights of the innocent from other criminals, and then there are things like welfare, safety regulations, etc., which are “benefits” that people receive from government. These “kindnesses” can dupe people into viewing the state as a positive institution that actually cares for and protects people, like a captor who gives his hostage some food, or a rare liberty.

And in America, the relative freedom that we have compared to certain countries today, as well as the historical record of governments throughout time, is often perceived as a “kindness” (lack of abuse). We are like dogs who are ecstatic after getting upgraded from a five foot leash to a ten foot one.

Of course, this is just for the common people. In a “democratic” system like we have in America, powerful individuals and special interests can secure real (not merely illusory) benefits from the state’s machinery. These people (say, the Morgan and Rockefeller families) would more accurately be considered the captors rather than the hostages. The recent scandal involving Goldman Sachs being exempt from federal regulations should make this fact abundantly clear.


Condition 5: The victim is isolated from the outside world.

This condition is probably the trickiest one to understand with regards to the state. In a place like North Korea, the comparison is obvious. For a relatively free country like America, it is much more difficult to see.

I would not seriously claim that American citizens are isolated from the outside world in the same way that a hostage is. It’s certainly not the case that we can’t travel and interact with people from other cultures and other countries. In this sense, we are most certainly not isolated.

However, since “outsiders” are subject to their own states, they would find themselves largely in the same situation. It would be as though hostages of a given captor have “outside access” to hostages from other captors. Imagine that you’ve been kidnapped, and the only outside interactions you can have are with hostages of some other psychopath, likely experiencing the same kind of Stockholm Syndrome reaction.

From a game theory perspective, it would make sense then for everyone to reinforce this belief (that government is good), even with foreigners. The idea that “the state” is a legitimate entity helps victims to identify with their own particular state. If it were not a legitimate entity, then how could their own state be considered legitimate?

Finally, most people do in fact still get their information from more local sources, particularly within America. The ignorance and lack of experience with other cultures is truly astounding in today’s globalized world. And almost nobody in America actually travels to other countries in a context beyond taking a Caribbean or European vacation. It’s still quite rare (although luckily it is becoming more common) for Americans to actually experience life in a different country or culture. In this more subtle and non-coercive way, Americans are still quite isolated from the outside world.



As you can see, from the perspective of Stockholm Syndrome, the relationship between a state and its citizens is quite similar to that of a captor and his hostages. This makes it far easier for citizens to identify with their government and become emotionally attached to it. In other words, to become patriotic.

As evidence of this identification, think about how people tend to use the word “we” in reference to government actions. Most people don’t say “The US government is bombing ISIS in Syria”, but rather “We are bombing ISIS in Syria”. This is despite the obvious fact that the speaker almost certainly has no connection to the actual action of the bombing. Even little old anarchist me ends up saying things like this quite often.

The phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome goes a long way in explaining the observed affinity people have for the institution of the state in general, and particularly their own state.

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  1. The conditions also apply to the parent-child relationship. If a person is raised by bad people, then maybe the state just takes over the role of parent when the child becomes an adult.

    • I would say it applies to BAD parents, as you’ve mentioned, but I think there are different parallels to draw with a generic parent-child relationship.

  2. Silver Fang says:

    War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery.

  3. “an individual cannot possibly take down the government on their own” – This thought is what paralyzes most people into thinking that there is nothing they can individually do and therefore keeps them from realizing that the State/Government is maintained by the threats and actual physical force of individual Enforcers, policing agents and members of the military. Without these Enforcers, policians are but wordmongers, ignorable by all those who think the words are without value, and even harmful, to their individual lives.

    The State will begin to wither away when the majority of individuals refuses to contribute to/support the State by being an Enforcer or having any voluntary association with those Enforcers who reject the reasoned logic of their harm-doing. Secondarily is the need to concurrently use alternatives to the State wherever possible including employment – provide as little support to the State as possible.

    There is in actually much individuals can do against the State. Have NO voluntary association with its Enforcers – NO sales, NO service, NO camaraderie, NO anything, including NO violence. When few people will associate voluntarily with those who are Enforcers, few will want to be or remain Enforcers. This “reduction in force” is possible but must start with individuals understanding the “power” of their voluntary association choices – social preferencing, both positive and negative.

    • Hey Kitty, thanks for the comment! I agree with you completely that there is much that individuals can do. I love this article by Wendy McElroy about the power of individuals. That being said, an individual simply CAN’T take down the government, and your average person can’t reasonably defend themselves against a government determined to silence them either. I think the saga of Edward Snowden is a great demonstration of all of these concepts.

      • Obviously one individual alone “simply CAN’T take down the government”, something I made clear in my comment. A concerted effort by many individuals doing as I recommended is necessary. I’ve written and commented on this subject many times over the past many years. From 5 years ago: Tax/Regulation Protests are Not Enough: Relationship of Self-Responsibility and Social Order

        While Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers garner the attention of media and seekers of “heroes”, it is strengthening to the State to accept/promote the idea that a move away from that form of society is dependent on such individuals. While they may be helpful, they are not necessary/essential.

        I am familiar with Wendy McElroy’s July Daily Bell article and previous ones there and elsewhere, having engaged her in this and related discussions online and in email. We mostly agree but there are a few fundamental philosophical areas in which we do not. The power of voluntary associational actions of individuals – preferencing for and against depending on one’s value structure and the behavior of others – is an area that Wendy shys away from despite having this brought to her attention in the past by both me and my husband Paul Wakfer.

        Please keep in mind that “a government” comes into and remains in existence because of Enforcers, those human beings willing to threaten and physically coerce others to do what they do not want to do, something that politicians/judges/bureaucrats decide is to be done and formulate laws/regulations/decrees/mandates/rulings/etc. Government Enforcers are the key to both maintaining and withering away the State. When few individuals are willing to be Enforcers, the State will have begun to wither.

        • I find myself agreeing with everything you’ve said here – I’m just not sure the relevance exactly. I’m getting the impression that you are disagreeing with things that I’ve said, yet I can’t seem to pinpoint where or why 🙂

  4. I’m happy to see that others actually put thought into this topic. I look at what freedom means to me and how we lack it in so many areas. The recent presidential election cycle made me dig deeper into our lack of actual choice. The high number of police brutality cases and the excuses given to back the actions even when video clearly shows the actions weren’t warranted immediately made me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Then I look at the USA Freedom Act and all of the other laws which limit freedom in the name of freedom. We’re granted enough privileges only to seem as if we’re free. We face more threats from our own government than we do from any other entity. The Stockholm bank robbery of 1973 may have been when they first gave it name but it’s always been around. House slaves often sided with their masters. A free person or a person who longs to be free can’t understand the mindset of how anyone who’s being oppressed can side with their captors. I hear it all of the time in certain forums about certain discussions. When people suggest that you should be okay with being arrested and going to jail when you’ve done nothing wrong is one that always bothers me because to me if I’ve done nothing wrong, why should I be put through that in the first place. The fact that a person hasn’t violated the freedoms of another individual but still gets arrested and is taken to jail already shows the justice system is broken whether they’re able to get out later or not. There’s no discussing the topic with those who have sided with the government because they get upset that you’re breaking their belief system and it quickly turns into an argument where no ground can be gained by either party regardless of any logical points that could be made.

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