Sunday, September 19, 2004

Ship of State?

What exactly is a "state"?

I submit that it is a concentration of power, of the ability to perform and to control physical violence. While there are other forms of power besides physical violence, physical violence is the form of power of last resort when those other forms of power fail to achieve their ends. That is why we have wars.

The extent of a state is always in flux. This is true in two senses, the extent within their own lives of the coercion the state exhibits over its citizens, and the geographical extent of the state.

Concerning the former, there is always a tug-of-war between the individual and the state. The state is after all about coercion, about forcing individuals to do things or not do things which they would not themselves choose. In modern Western states that tug-of-war has been increasingly pulled to the side of the state to the detriment of the individual. It's clear that the Twentieth Century has witnessed a vast extension of the realm which is deemed legitimate state business, as opposed to family business, or personal business. A century ago cocaine and marijuana were legal; being a dope addict was considered foolish but your own business. A century ago the ability of the parents to discipline their children was restrained by community mores and religious concerns; today nearly every state boasts an all-intrusive human-services department with virtually unlimited powers.

Concerning the geographic extent of a state, one may be subject simultaneously to several states and the question arises as to which of these is paramount. The power relationships betwee these various entities itself shifts over time.

For example, there was considerable disagreement in the United States in the year 1861 as to what this might be. People living in Virginia were torn as to whether they belonged to the state called "Virginia" or the state called the "United States". Which was the true state, on which lay the true allegiances, was a matter of dispute even within the consciences of single individuals such as Robert E. Lee, who took considerable time determining which way to jump. A federal system necessarily fudges the issue of where the ultimate sovereignty lies. Normally this doesn't matter but when serious undecidable disagreements arise then a choice must be made. If broad agreement on the choice then war, as the final arbiter of power, must needs be the result.

A similar event is occurring within Europe today. The seat of sovereignty of the European countries is gradually if imperceptibly shifting from their national capitals to Brussels. This won't matter as long as no serious disagreement arises. It is estimated that at present one-third of all the laws governing the British are now produced in Brussels.

States can contract as well as expand. During the 1970s the United States began to observe in many of its largest cities a contraction of the state from its traditional role as keeper of the peace on the streets. Crime rates soared and vigilantes started taking matters into their own hands.

There seems to be a certain minimal level of day-to-day state control which is necessary. When state power falls below that level new miniature states ascend to fill the market need as it were. This explains the creation of "gated communities" in the United States in recent decades. Because the ordinary state agents are unable to protect the citizens in many areas, they have taken matters into their own hands by hiring their own police. A similar phenomenon occurred at the end of the Roman Empire in the West, as groups of people who were no longer protected by the late Roman state from bands of marauders chose to form their own defensive structures which eventually became castles. The castles in turn formed the basis of the new medieval states which arose in response to the decline of the further decline of the Empire. Those who ruled such castles were the significant players in the new states, and that is why nobility was determined by how many manors or fiefs one controlled.

The expansion or contraction of the state is to some extent predicated on technical abilities. Without access to modern computer data-bases it would be impossible to enforce the level of obtrusiveness into the family exhibited by modern human-services departments. Similarly, the ability of Ulysses Grant to coordinate attacks off sufficient force so as to overwhelm the Confederates and maintain the Union was predicated on his ability to use the telegraph and the railroad to direct and move troops without requiring his physical presence in every battle theater.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the point Bernie? There has always been an organizational-size continuum on which the State is but one point. Is the current nation-state the end-state? Doubtful. One thing we can count on is change.

The ideal state facilitates the maximum liberty for its citizens commensurate with order. Of course the question is, how much order?


8:57 PM  

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