The State Essay

A state is a set of institutions and specialized personnel that regulates important aspects of the life of a territorially bounded population and extracts resources from that population through taxation. Its regulations are backed by force if necessary. It is recognized internationally as a state by other similarly constituted states.

There are four elements in this definition: the regulatory character of the state, the coercive aspect of the state apparatus, the extraction of resources from the population, and the role of the state as a unit (in fact, the basic and irreducible unit) in the field of international relations. These four elements can be considered as constants in any explanation of what the state is.

The State As Regulator

The regulation of some aspects of the life of the population living within the territory of the state through laws and norms is a permanent feature of a state’s activity. However, the scope of the activities regulated by the state has varied across history. According to Samuel E. Finer (1997), the first apparition of developed states goes back to around 3500 BCE, in Sumer. During the following five millennia, at least until the apparition of the modern form of the state in the nineteenth century, the main activities of the state apparatus were the organization of armies for conquering new territories and defending from the attacks of other states or groups of warriors, as well as the protection of public order and private property within the territory of the state. These activities of the state roughly correspond to Thomas Hobbes’s ideas about its role. As he famously claims in Leviathan (1651), in the absence of a state, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” States provide order and protect private property, making civilization possible. This is not to say that these were the only activities regulated by the premodern state. Some public goods, like roads, canals, or locks, were provided by a range of states that comprise, among others, Imperial China, the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, or the absolutist states of the modern era. The provision of these goods was sometimes connected to the military necessities of the state: Roman roads are a case in point. The state’s interests in the expansion of its tax base (in itself, also a consequence of the search for revenue to finance military establishments) led, among other things, to the involvement of the state in economic activities, as irrigation works in ancient Egypt and China or the creation of state manufactures in Colbert’s France. Actually, through its role as enforcer of private agreements and its protection of property rights, the state has been historically essential to economic growth.

After the Industrial Revolution, and especially after the Second World War (1939–1945), it is much more difficult to say that public order, protection of property rights, and organization for war are the main activities of the state. For one thing, the state, with a much-enhanced capacity to penetrate society, is now in most countries the main provider of welfare. This is an enormous change, given that in premodern states welfare provisions (such as health care, education, or poor-relief) were mainly a question of social capital: It was directly provided by local communities and private associations such as, for example, guilds.

Although the capacity of state’s penetration in society has varied through time, it is a constant that the state provides norms and regulations that make social cooperation and economic exchanges possible, at least in societies with large populations. Even though in small communities cooperation seems possible even in the absence of state institutions, in large societies the presence of a state that enforces private agreements is essential to social cooperation. Not all authors agree with that. Most of the literature on social capital, for example, claims that trust is the key for social cooperation and consider the state, at best, as unnecessary for cooperation or, at worst, as a destroyer of trust relations, and, therefore, inimical to social cooperation. There are, however, good reasons to claim that in large societies, the absence of state norms and regulations make cooperation, and even trust, unfeasible. Without institutions that enforce private agreements, untrustworthy people will be better off systematically than trusters, and, as a consequence, trust and cooperation will disappear. The resulting situation would be similar to Hobbes’s state of nature, where war of everyone against everyone prevails. Indeed, modern social science has consistently demonstrated that relatively weak states without the capacity to enforce public order are the best predictors of civil war onset and revolutions. Therefore, the absence of state’s norms and regulations make social cooperation and social peace unfeasible in large societies. However, this does not necessarily amount to say that state’s norms and regulations are neutral in the sense of favoring the interests of all groups in society.

Historically, regulations of the state apparatus backed by coercion have favored some social groups above others and have allowed the free organization of certain social interests, while at the same time forcefully repressing the organization of other social groups. Indeed, which interests are being served by the state’s norms and regulations has been one of the most controversial issues in the analyses of the state. The three traditions that can claim to have developed a theory of the state—pluralism, Marxism, and what has been called the statist approach—have different views about it. According to pluralists, the state is an arena in which different social groups negotiate. None of these social groups has power enough to control the state. The ruler is usually seen as a neutral arbiter between competing interests. This view has been much amended by subsequent neopluralist writers, recognizing that in the real world some interests have more leverage than others in the state’s policy agenda. The opposite position to the pluralists is that of the Marxists. There are various versions of Karl Marx’s theory of the state. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), the state is portrayed as an agency in the hands of the economically dominant class. This is also roughly Vladimir Lenin’s idea in The State and Revolution (1917). In posterior writings, however, Marx discussed the possibility of state’s autonomy with respect to class interests. One way for the state to develop an autonomous position, according to Marx, is to play a “divide and conquer” strategy between two opposed classes, for example, the bourgeoisie and the feudal class in the European absolutist states. Another way for the state to gain autonomy is to rest on a class numerically majoritarian but devoid of class consciousness, as the French small land-owners described in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). Recent Marxists’ theories about the state have fluctuated between instrumentalist views and further exploration of the idea of the state’s autonomy.

This idea is also central in another stream of studies of the state that tried to “bring the state back in” during the 1980s. These authors generally claimed that the state should be treated as an agent with its own interests and preferences, independent from those of elites and social classes, and that, under certain circumstances, the state can achieve autonomy from society to carry out those interests and preferences. Certainly, the state can have preferences and interests of its own, although it would be more accurate to consider them the interests and preferences of the rulers and the people who occupy positions in the state apparatus, instead of the interests of “the state” as such. This is the approach followed by studies of the state from a rational choice perspective, as those of Douglass North (1981), Margaret Levi (1988), and Barbara Geddes (1994). From a rational choice approach, it can be claimed that rulers certainly have their own interests and pBibliography: They can be portrayed as revenue maximizers or as maximizers of their probability of remaining in office. However, they do so subjected to constraints. In Levi’s view, these constraints are constituted by their relative bargaining power vis-à-vis social agents and by how much they value future payoffs. Insights from the Marxist theory of the state also could be inserted into this rational choice framework, in the sense that to remain in office or to maximize revenue, the ruler is subjected to the constraints imposed by the necessity to ensure future investment by private capitalists. This imposes a limit on what state agents can regulate. This theory of the structural dependence of the state on capital has been sophisticatedly analyzed by Adam Przeworski and Michael Wallerstein (1988).

The State And Coercion

States’ norms and regulations are backed, if necessary, by force. This leads us to the second characteristic of the state: its coercive nature. It is one of the main elements of Max Weber’s famous definition of the state: “a compulsory political organization with continuous operations will be called a ‘state’ insofar as its administrative staff upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order” (1978). In this definition there are two characteristics of coercion that vary in time and are, therefore, problematic in any general definition of the state: the state’s monopoly of force and its legitimacy. It can be argued that both are aspirations of the state, given that the monopoly of force as well as its legitimacy both make the rulers’ policies easier to attain by increasing cooperation with rulers’ decisions. However, this aspiration, in many cases, falls short of the state’s realities.

In premodern states, private violence was pervasive, in the form of banditry or private resolution of feuds. It is notorious, for example, that in the Roman Empire, away from the imperial roads guarded by soldiers, lawlessness and violence prevailed. This must have been the case in most polities until the extension in the modern state of what Michael Mann (1988) calls the state’s “infrastructural power,” its capacity to penetrate civil society to a point close to the monopoly of the use of force. Legitimacy must have been also variable through history. One possible explanation of this variation can be the type of political regime. Some contemporary analyses of revolutions and rebellions claim that the openness of the political system increases the state’s legitimacy and therefore decreases the likelihood of revolutions. Therefore, we should expect more legitimacy in democratic regimes than in what Finer calls “palace” and “nobility” polities, where the decision-making process is exclusively in the hands of a relatively small elite. The prevalence of certain ideological frameworks in a society also can have an impact on the state’s legitimacy. Nationalism is a good example. The idea that the population of the state forms a community of feeling that shares common interests as a nation should have a positive effect on the legitimacy of the state that claims to represent that nation. Indeed, nationalism has been actively promoted by the state from the nineteenth century onward, through the creation of national symbols as well as public education in a national language and a national culture. However, modern democratic regimes and nation-states are quite recent nineteenth-century phenomena, and during the previous five millennia (and indeed also during the past two centuries) states have existed that were neither democracies nor nations. What is clear is that although coercion is a characteristic of all states, its monopoly and its sources of legitimacy have varied through time.

The coercive nature of the state is directed inside and outside the state’s boundaries. Within the state’s boundaries, violence is applied to enforce norms and regulations and, historically, to protect private property and eliminate internal threats to the ruler in terms of dissent, rebellions, or terrorism. The intensity of the violence applied by the state to eliminate internal threats to the ruler has varied across time and space, depending on a range of variables, including the infrastructural power of the state, the type of political regime, and the size of the threat to the rulers’ position. The lack of infrastructural power severely limits the options available to rulers to cope with threats to their rule. Given that a ruler lacks information about where these possible threats are, violence in these cases will be either minimal but brutal (compensating the lack of accuracy in identifying potential culprits with the severity of the punishment), as in many premodern states whose penal codes included extremely cruel forms of punishment, or indiscriminate. In the Chinese empires, for example, the difficulties in the monitoring of corruption of public officers were partly compensated by extremely severe punishments. The type of political regime frequently is related also to the degree of violence applied by the state. A well-proven fact in modern political science is that democracies apply lower levels of violence than authoritarian regimes. This has to do with the formal checks that democratic regimes impose on the ruler, including electoral accountability and the presence of institutional veto points. Finally, another determinant of the variation in the levels of violence applied by the state is the importance of the threat toward the rulers’ position: Higher threats usually will be followed by higher levels of violence by the state.

All the previous discussion about coercion applied by the state to people within its boundaries does not mean that ruling is based just on violence. It is true that in The Prince (1532), Niccolò Machiavelli claimed that, for a ruler, it is better to be feared than to be loved. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Machiavelli was discussing how a new prince can consolidate power. Old dynasties, Machiavelli also claims, have other forms of legitimacy that make the use of extreme violence less necessary. In modern democratic states, that is precisely the case: Ruling is usually based more on consent than on coercion. This does not mean that coercion is absent in democratic regimes. Democracies also apply violence toward dissent, especially during national emergencies such as wars and terrorist threats, but, more importantly, the enforcement of the state’s norms and regulations rests always in coercion as the last resort.

Violence also is applied by the state outside its boundaries. Indeed, during most of its existence, the main activity of the state has been the organization for war. Actually, there is a scholarly consensus in claiming that war was decisive for the creation of the modern state in Europe between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The territorial state triumphed because of its superior organization for war. Wars were the necessary incentive for rulers in sixteenth-century Europe to improve the state apparatus, its centralization, its capacity to extract resources both from peasants and from the new urban wealth created by commerce and trade. The political landscape at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe was highly fragmented, containing about one hundred or so polities. Four hundred years later the number of political units has been reduced to about thirty states. War has been the driving force that made some states survive and others, like Burgundy, to perish. The particular type of regime adopted by the state (absolutism, like Bourbon France and Habsburg Spain, or constitutionalism, like Britain and Poland, for example) depended also on other variables like, according to Thomas Ertman (1997), the presence in Britain, Hungary, Poland, and Scandinavia of participatory patterns of local government and their absence in Germany and Latin Europe. These participatory institutions blocked the way to absolutist forms of government.

However, it has to be stressed that this model of state-building based on war is circumscribed to the European state system, and it is difficult to export to other continents. Although the model of the modern state is European, state-building has followed different avenues in other places. In Africa, for example, contemporary states are a product of the process of decolonization from the European empires, not of interstate wars. Indeed, although African states have been plagued with civil wars, interstate wars have been much less frequent and the boundaries of states have remained remarkably stable since decolonization. However, it is also the case that the African pattern of state-building has frequently led to failed states or, in any case, to very weak states dependent for their income to a large extent on foreign aid. The great difference of the environment in which European states developed is that, while from sixteenth to nineteenth-century Europe the international system of states punished weak states even to the point of allowing them to disappear, in the modern international system weak states are legitimized and protected. This is one of the reasons for the subsistence of weak states such as those of sub-Saharan Africa.

The State As A Collector Of Taxes

States have to extract resources from society to finance their activities. This is another characteristic of the state: It extracts resources from the population through taxes. It is in exchange of these resources that the state provides laws and regulations, social peace, and public goods such as roads and education. All these things make civilization possible. However, as North noted, there is frequently a contradiction between the action of the state as an extractor of resources and as a provider of laws, regulations, and public goods. Historically, most rulers have tended to maximize their revenues at the cost of providing inefficient laws and regulations. This means that they extract more resources than it is needed to guarantee law, order, and provision of public goods, but also that they design property rights and regulations that promote their interests but not the general interest of sustained growth. This tension between maximization of the rulers’ revenue and creation of the necessary framework for the economy to flourish is the reason why most states, although indispensable for economic growth, have been unable to guarantee vibrant economies. In any case, the extraction of resources from society is at the very core of what a state is. It implies at least the development of a minimal amount of infrastructural power and the employment by the ruler of specialized personnel, a bureaucracy. This bureaucracy reached its full development in the modern state, where, according to Weber, administrative personnel are hierarchically organized and selected on the basis of technical qualifications, and each office has a clearly defined sphere of competence in the legal sense. Nevertheless, although not as rationally organized as in the modern state, bureaucracies have been a permanent characteristic of the state from the scribes in ancient Egypt onward, and in certain premodern states, as imperial China, it reached a remarkable degree of sophistication. The intimate connection between the organization of a bureaucratic structure and the collection of taxes is seen in the case of certain African states. In many cases, the failure of the state in Africa to develop a proper administrative apparatus is due to the fact that rulers have alternative sources of revenue—as for example, income from exports of raw materials and mineral concessions—and, therefore, they do not need to build elaborate bureaucracies to enforce taxes on the population.

The State And International Relations

Another characteristic of the state is that it is the most important unit in the system of international relations. This means that states are recognized as such in the international arena by other states. This is a notorious feature of the state since the apparition of the modern state in Europe. Absolutist states in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries developed an increasingly sophisticated diplomacy that included permanent embassies in other countries. Indeed, recognition of states by other states through treaties and temporal embassies seems to have been a feature of the state since its very apparition, with remarkable early examples such as the peace treaty between Egypt and the Hittite king at the end of the second millennium BCE. It can be argued that the insertion of a state in the international system of states has had an increasingly important effect on the probability of a state’s survival. While in previous centuries the weakness of the state and its inability to wage war, as we noted before, led in most of the cases to its destruction at the hands of more powerful states (as the fate of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century illustrates), in the contemporary world weak states have a good chance of survival through the fact of being recognized as legitimate states by the international community, as is the case in many African states.


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