Home > A Theory of the State > The Nature of the State

The Nature of the State

                If the state is going to be of any use, it must have the ability to protect property rights and enforce contracts.  This means that it must be powerful enough to impose penalties on individuals or small groups of individuals.  If an individual doesn’t fear the state, his actions will not be restrained by the law.  The role of the state therefore requires that it wield significant physical power.  As Mao put it “all political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”  To put it another way, the whole purpose of the state is to make people do things that they would otherwise not do.  No enforcer is required to make someone do what they believe is in their individual self-interest.  The state is only necessary to make them do something that is not in their own interest. 

In many cases this is not a bad thing.  It may be in my interest to go to my neighbor’s house and take his things but I am willing to give up that right in exchange for all my neighbors giving up the right to do the same to me.  This right can only be effectively taken away by the threat of physical force in retaliation if I (or my neighbors) commit such an act.  This means that in order to have an effective government, each citizen must be individually put in a position of such inferiority that the state is physically capable of disposing of their very life against their will if it deems this necessary.  It is because of this fact that liberty is so precarious and must be guarded so carefully. 

Most governments in the history of the world (with some notable exceptions) have been essentially totalitarian.  That is, they have been characterized by a ruler or ruling class that has more or less absolute power over the governed.  It is worth noting that this is the situation in which we left our primitive society of hunters and foragers.  The ruler allows the subjects only as much freedom as he wishes.  This may be the amount which is most profitable for him or he may be a “benevolent dictator” who genuinely cares about his people and allows them much more than that.  Either way, though, they are subjects, willing or not, of some higher power.  We may consider this a sort of natural state of society in the sense that there are many forces pulling society toward this state. 

The great contribution of the political philosophers of the enlightenment was to recognize the proper role for government, realize that it was necessary for any degree of prosperity and try to find a way to manifest this power in a form that could achieve its purpose and also be controlled collectively by the governed.  This is the key to maintaining a free society and it allows the prosperity which is enabled by well defined and protected property rights to be captured by the public rather than the ruler. 

Now, when we want food we go to the supermarket not the vine or the bush.  Nonetheless our food still comes from the vine and the bush.  We have just created a distribution system which allows us to acquire it more efficiently.  Without the vine, there is no food.  Likewise, in America (and most western countries), when we want to manipulate political power we go to the ballot box but we must not forget that this power still grows from the barrel of a gun.  If there were no men with guns willing to enforce the wishes expressed in the ballot box, our votes would be meaningless.  The mechanism that translates peaceful expression into political power is the object of political philosophy.

The American founders clearly recognized this as can be seen by examining the language of the second amendment to the constitution.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Notice that it doesn’t say “Hunting and sport shooting, being entertaining hobbies, the right of the people to bear Arms shall not be infringed.”  Bearing arms was not just a thing people wanted to be able to do, it was “necessary to the security of a free state.”  This is because once you have created an apparatus for wielding coercive power against individuals, there is a natural tendency for it to morph into a totalitarian government.  The protection against this is the threat that the people collectively will rise up against it and wield some physical power sufficient to prevent it.  A power that grows from the barrel of a gun can ultimately only be controlled by an even greater power of the same nature.  Knowing this, free people should be wary of any attempt by such an authority to reduce their collective military power.  This is the reason for the second amendment. 

                In fact every amendment in the bill of rights is designed to protect specific freedoms that are essential to the preservation of freedom.  The more trivial rights are all covered by the ninth and tenth amendments.  The first eight all deal with free speech, the right to bear arms, and protection from being disposed of or threatened by government troops or officials without just cause and due process.  All of these rights are especially important to liberty because without any one of them, the ability to protect all other rights is in jeopardy. 

                In this way a system was created in which every individual is subject to the power of the government but the government is subject to the power of the people collectively.  Unfortunately over time this system has suffered much abuse and neglect and it is now time to reexamine these issues.

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  1. January 18, 2012 at 1:13 am
  2. July 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

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