what-is-the-state

If information wants to be free, why are textbooks so expensive?

Stars and Stripes, Justice Dept. Washington, D.C.  Photo © 2007 Scott Hanley

If information wants to be free, why are textbooks so expensive?

Stars and Stripes, Justice Dept. Washington, D.C.  Photo © 2007 Scott Hanley

What Is the State? (.pdf)

At the heart of the state and its government is the capacity to use violence. This makes many good accomplishments possible when force is used legitimately, but it can also be destructive when force is used illegitimately. States and government may or may not be necessary (a question we do not address here), but they are probably inevitable.

What Am I Supposed to Get Out of Reading this Chapter?

In this chapter you will learn how we define “the state,” and what government is. As well you will learn about the core of violence contained in every state, and why they must be designed so they can be controlled by the populace.  


1.  THE STATE

We can define the state from two perspectives. One is a theoretical perspective and the other is a pragmatic realpolitik perspective. The theoretical perspective is the classic definition proposed a century ago by the German scholar Max Weber.

[A] state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. [1]

Notice two elements of this definition. First, a state is a community of people located within a given territory. You can’t have a state without people or without territory. Second, the state has, as Weber says, an “intimate” relationship with violence. It is the foundation of every state, and is the distinguishing characteristic of states—states are not defined by what they do; they are defined by how they do it, as explained by Weber.  

[T]he state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand... Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.

Even democratic states, although they normally use force less frequently and less ruthlessly than dictatorships, ultimately rely on force to achieve their ends. The USA, for example, does not reward people for obeying the law; they punish people for disobeying. What distinguishes democracies from dictatorships is 1) that the country’s people have more influence on what kinds of laws they must obey, and 2) the law is enforced more fairly and less arbitrarily—sometimes!

Remember that Weber is talking about legitimate force. Not all use of force by the state is legitimate just because it’s the state that’s using it. The Constitution and in particular the Bill of Rights sets the general boundaries for legitimate uses of force by the state, but agents of the state sometimes use force outside those boundaries anyway. An important role played by our legal system is to give citizens a non-violent means of responding to the state’s illegitimate uses of force. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than civil war.

The less theoretical, more realpolitik, definition of a state is

any of approximately 190 sovereign, independent countries in the world. … By definition sovereign states have no higher political authority above them, and possess such characteristics as a specified land area, a permanent population, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within its borders, and the ability to enter into diplomatic relations with other states. [2]

This definition clearly references Weber’s definition of the state, but is also more pragmatic with its emphasis on the ability to enter into diplomatic relations with other states. What if a country looks like a state, but other countries will accept their ambassadors? There are at least two such places in the world today, Taiwan and Palestine. Taiwan, theoretically claims to be the whole state of China, although it only controls an island off the coast of the Chinese mainland. The People’s Republic of China—the big place that you normally think of when you think of China—also claims to be the whole state of China although it does not control that island. Through a polite international fiction, all other states agree that there is only one China, and for practical reasons they extend diplomatic recognition only to the PRC. And yet everyone knows that the ROC is independently governed and not under the control of the PRC, and countries like the U.S. treat it like an ally and watch out for its interests, but will not give it diplomatic recognition in order to avoid angering the PRC. Taiwan—the ROC—obviously exists, but officially it does not exist. It has no seat in the UN, and in Olympic competition its athletes march in carrying the Olympic flag, rather than the ROC flag. It is an anomaly.

Palestine is another anomaly. It also has no seat at the UN , although it has observer status. Unlike the Republic of China it does have some diplomatic recognition, from other Arabic States and a number of countries around the world. True statehood is often suggested for it, as a potential “two-state solution” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to date Israel has refused to recognize it as an independent state, and has had the backing of its ally, the USA, which is able to persuade other influential states to also withhold diplomatic recognition.

Finally, notice that this definition says nothing about size. A state can be as small as a city-state or as large as an empire. By this definition, the largest state in the world today is Russia, at 6.6 million square miles (close to twice the size of the U.S., but only ¾ the size of its predecessor state, the Soviet Union). On the small end, the city-state of Monaco covers just barely over two square miles, three millionths the size of Russia and smaller than the town of Wahoo, Nebraska.

But the smallest state in the world is Vatican City—the headquarters of the Catholic Church—which is wholly surrounded by Rome, Italy, and is less than half a square mile in size. It may seem odd that a church headquarters can be a state, but Vatican City is descended from former Holy Roman Empire, which at one point covered most of Europe, and more recently the Papal States that covered a large swath of Italy. Although it lost its independence twice—along with most of its territory—in 1929 it regained its sovereignty and independence, but not its former territory.

Vatican City highlights the difference between Weber’s definition of a state and our modern pragmatic definition. Vatican City isn’t really a community of people in the traditional sense. Nobody is ethnically Vatican, and the world’s Catholics are not citizens of Vatican City. There is no permanent population—everyone is from somewhere else and is there only temporarily. But other countries extend it diplomatic recognition and treat it as a state, so on the scale of international politics it functions like a state, so we call it a state.

The lesson you should take away from this is simple: We use definitions to try to make sense of a complex world, but reality always resists our efforts to simplify. It’s enough for us that the definitions cover most cases, enough for us to know what we mean when we’re talking to each other.



2. GOVERNMENT

People often use the term “the state” to refer to government, and while it is difficult to understand one without the other, they are not quite the same thing. Fortunately political scientists do not disagree much when it comes to defining government, and almost every standard textbook says something like the following:

Government is … the formal political arrangements by which a land and its people are ruled. [3]

To connect this back to Weber’s definition of the state and to emphasize the distinction between the two, the government is that part of the state that actually deploys the legitimate violence that the state claims to have a monopoly on. Government is a mechanism of the state, and you can change that mechanism—change the government—without changing the state (for example, if in the U.S. we had a constitutional convention and adopted a new system of government).



3. STATES AND VIOLENCE

A state’s authority to use violence, and its government’s institutional capacity to do so, makes many things possible that would otherwise be hard to achieve. Collective action problems, for example, can be resolved by forcing potential free riders to contribute. If we want to build a sewer system so people don’t just fling their poo out the window, it’s rational even for people who want it to try to avoid paying for it, so making people pay taxes is one way to solve that problem. But remember that Weber said that states don’t do anything that other types of political associations don’t do. This means that government may not be necessary if we want to things like build sewer systems, but their ability to force people to pay may make it easier to do so. Some people object to viewing government in terms of violence, especially democratic government. But even in a democracy people do not always behave voluntarily, and enforcing compliance with the law—whether it is speed limits, paying taxes, or hiring only licensed electricians to wire your house—requires the force of the state, and what makes that force effective is the threat of violence that can be brought to bear against the offender.

The violence that makes government effective is also what makes government dangerous. The violence of the state is always available for use, and it may not be used in wise ways. And while the state may only claim the authority to use legitimate violence, the capacity to use violence is not based on whether or not the violence is legitimate. Violence is an exercise of power, and most people have heard the words of the English historian Lord Acton that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” American political scientist Rudolph Rummel has an even gloomier claim: “Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely.” [4]

Violence is the origin, foundation, and still today a primary activity of government. The historical record is filled with examples. The Mongols “possibly slaughtered around 30 million Persian, Arab, Hindu, Russian, Chinese, European, and other men, women and children,” [5] and in 1099, when European Crusaders took Jerusalem, “40,000 to possibly even over 70,000 men, women, and children were butchered. [6] The modern world has been no better than the ancient world, because technology amplifies the capabilities of force. In addition to the 34 million people who died in battle in the 20th century, over 150 million civilians were killed by the governments that controlled their territory. [7] The Nazi regime in Germany murdered an estimated 21 million people, [8] the Soviet Union killed almost 58 million of its citizens, [9] and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in China killed 10 million people between 1927 and 1949 [10] before losing the civil war to Mao Zhedong’s Communists, who proceeded to kill as many as 76 million more people. [11]  And in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia killed nearly 2.5 million people out of a population of only about 7 million—over one-third of the population—in just about three years. [12]

We can compare this to what non-governmental actors do. The worst industrial accident in history was the 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, which killed up to 11,000 people (about 3,000 died almost immediately, and possibly another 8,000 over time from chemical related diseases). The worst terrorist attack in history, the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda against the U.S., killed around 2,750 people. Even in the decade that included the 9/11 attacks, more Americans were killed by police than by terrorists. Businesses and terrorists aren’t necessarily nicer than government, but when it comes to killing they’re slackers.

Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay explains how the organization of people into a group that has a distinct identity is itself a factor leading to state-violence. He explains how one of the advisers to British King William III could recommend that the king slaughter Scottish highlanders who opposed his rule.

The most probable conjecture is that he was actuated by an inordinate, an unscrupulous, a remorseless zeal for what seemed to him to be the interest of the state. This explanation may startle those who have not considered how large a proportion of the blackest crimes recorded in history is to be ascribed to ill regulated public spirit. We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or to avenge themselves. At a temptation directly addressed to our private cupidity or to our private animosity, whatever virtue we have takes the alarm. But virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is in his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.  [13]

Of course that’s not what we want government to do, or at least it’s not what most of us will admit to wanting government to do. But the power we give to the state when we agree to its claim to have a monopoly on violence, is a tradeoff.  

At best [governments] do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis.  At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring wealth from commoners to upper classes. These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of one function than the other. [14]

Remember Yeroen’s leaf sharing (from the previous chapter). This provided a public benefit by minimizing conflict over the leaves while ensuring that each chimpanzee got a share. But it was also a way for him to assert his dominance and demonstrate his control over the group.



4. The Inevitability of Government

The danger of state violence should cause us to be more wary and cautious of government. Government may or may not be necessary, may or may not be worth the risk, but that is a philosophical question beyond the scope of this book. But certainly government seems to be inevitable.

The first societies that organized themselves under formal governments, with their capacity to use force to organize their people, were better able to compete for territory and resources than those based simply on family relationships. So the only effective way for other groups to effectively defend themselves would be to also organize, and once started down that road there is no turning back: the larger, better organized, group that can command more soldiers and more resources will most often (but not always) win. And groups could keep getting larger for two reasons: 1) One group could conquer and absorb another group, increasing the conquering group’s population and territory; 2) Two or more groups could voluntarily join together to improve their defensive capabilities against larger groups.  

This has probably been common throughout the history of human civilization, and we have some clear examples. The cantons (provinces) of Switzerland (the Helvetic Confederation) were originally independent principalities that voluntarily joined the confederation in part for mutual defense. And in the late 19th century the multiple independent Germanic states combined to form Germany as we now know it, with a distinctly militaristic purpose, and the independent states on the Apennine peninsula combined to form modern Italy.

The Constitution of the United States was written partly for the purpose of ensuring coordinated self-defense against other, more powerful, countries, because after they won their independence the states were only loosely joined together under the Articles of Confederation. As John Jay wrote in Federalist Paper number 4,

One government…can apply the resources and power of the whole to the defense of any particular part and that more easily and expeditiously than [individual] State governments or separate confederacies can possibly do, for want of concert and unity of system. …

Apply these facts to our own case. Leave America divided into thirteen, or if you please, into three or four independent governments—what armies could they raise and pay—what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor and spend their blood and money in its defense?

This may seem like a dismal view of government, but as James Madison said in Federalist 51;

[W]hat is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?

Government may be necessary, and it certainly appears to be inevitable, but it always will be “a Faustian bargain in which human beings have recourse to instruments of evil to do good.” [15]



5. Controlling Government

The potential for illegitimate violence is why citizens so often demand that their state be constituted so that there are controls on the government. Of course the governors often want to go beyond those controls, whether we are talking about the government of the whole state (country), a province, or a local town. There is often a continuing conflict between some parts of the citizenry that view a particular use of state violence as illegitimate, and those who view it as legitimate, such as in the current American debate over the war on drugs.

The American Revolution was a response to a British government that many colonists thought they had no control or even influence over. In drafting the Constitution, the Framers of it kept in mind their concerns about an uncontrolled government, as they tried to frame a government that would have enough power to be effective, but not enough to threaten citizens’ rights. But even so, many people opposed the Constitution because they saw it as creating a too-powerful government that posed an imminent threat to its own citizens. We’ll see more about this in a subsequent chapter.


Summary

Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Government is “the formal political arrangements by which a land and its people are ruled,” and is the effective arm of the state, employing the monopoly on legitimate violence claimed by the state. However the capacity for legitimate violence creates the potential for illegitimate violence by the state. To limit this risk, democratic countries look to constitute governments that are controllable.


QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT

  1.  According to Weber, what is the important distinction between governments and other forms of human organization?
  2.  Why is violence the core characteristic of the state? Could there be a government without the capacity to use violence?
  3. C an we control the power of government to use violence and be sure that it is directed only to good public purposes? If so, how can we do that?
  4.  Can you think of any instances in which government has used force illegitimately? The American Federal Government, your state government, your local government?
  5. In the next chapter we will consider how the American Revolution involved conflict, coordination and collective action problems; before reading it can you figure out some of the ways in which that was the case?


Notes

  1. Weber, Max. 1919. “Politics as a Vocation.”
  2. Smith, Raymond A. 2013. American Anomaly: U.S. Politics and Government in Comparative Perspective. Third edition. Routledge.
  3. Lowi, Theodore J., Benjamin Ginsberg, Kenneth A. Shepsle, and Stephen Ansolabehere. American Government, Power and Purpose, 11th ed. New York: W. W. Norton. p.6.
  4. Rummel, R. J. 1994. Death By Government. New Brunswick and London: Transactions Publishers.  P.1.
  5. Rummel, P.51.
  6. Rummel, P.47.
  7. Rummel, P.4.
  8. Rummel, P.111.
  9. Rummel, P.79.
  10. Rummel, P.123
  11. Rummel, R. J. n.d.  “China's Bloody Century.” http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE2.HTM.  Accessed October 11, 2010.
  12. Rummel, 1994. P.160.
  13. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. 1068. The History of England (1848-61), abridged edition. Edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper.  New York: Penguin Books. p. 418.
  14. Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.  New York: W. W. Norton. p. 276.
  15. Ostrom, Vincent. 1999. “Cryptoimperialism, Predator States, and Self-Governance.” In Polycentric Governance and Development: Readings form the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, edited by Michael D. McGinnis, 166-185. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. Originally published in Vincent Ostrom, David Feeny, and Hartmut Picht, eds., Rethinking Institutional Analysis and Development: Issues, Alternatives and Choices. (1988; rpt. San Francisco: ICS Press, 1993), 43-68