Posts Tagged ‘the state’

Did the emergence of the state reduce the rate of human death from warfare? Steven Pinker’s outstanding book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surveys many reasons why you are less likely to die from violence today than your ancestors were. Part of his explanation is that warfare was constant in stateless, anarchic societies, but the emergence of the state, beginning about six thousand years ago, helped reduce this problem. He has nice things to say about Thomas Hobbes’ thesis in Leviathan, that a powerful government is necessary to rescue people from their natural state of constant warfare.

In my most recent Learn Liberty blog post, I question this finding of Pinker’s. I argue that the evidence he presents for the claim does not suffice to prove it, because there are other factors that could explain declining rates of war death. Moreover, even if the state reduced war death somewhat, we can’t necessarily infer from that fact alone that the state increased human welfare. From the post:

[T]here is an important conceptual problem for the claim that the rise of the state improved human welfare by reducing violent deaths.

After all, early states arose almost exclusively out of conquest, as Pinker concedes. They started as roving bands of armed robbers, who eventually found that converting robbery into regularized taxation would destroy less wealth and generate more revenue over the long run. Autonomous peoples do not go into “subject” status willingly.

More at the link.

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“The state,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, “is a relation of men dominating men.” I agree. Furthermore, no human being should dominate another human being. Therefore, the state should not exist.

But I’m not an anarchist. How can that be? We have to distinguish between “governments” and “states.” Anarchy is the absence of formal government, and I do not advocate the abolition of formal government.

Governments of all sorts are all around us. Companies and nonprofits have boards of directors with the authority to decide policies for their organizations.

“Very well,” the anarchist may say, “but they do not have direct coercive authority over their members, which is what I oppose.” Yet other “private governments” do have coercive authority of some kind: private security and arbitration companies.

“Very well,” the anarchist may say, “but they do not have a territorial monopoly over the legitimation of the use of coercion, which is what I oppose.” Yet any kind of supposedly private security and dispute resolution system will end up having a territorial basis. Imagine that, per David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom, you and I are represented by different dispute resolution agencies, A and B, respectively. We end up in a dispute, and we call in our agencies. How will they resolve the dispute? By themselves settling on a third arbitrator. Therefore, any competitive private justice system will end up becoming a single, connected network, with a definite process for appeals beyond a single agency. That network is a territorial monopoly over the legitimation of the use of coercion: a formal government.

“But then what if two networks come into conflict?” the anarchist may respond. “Then you are committed to a global network, a global government, which is obviously undesirable.” Actually, a global government of this kind already exists to some extent and seems obviously desirable. Global governance includes organizations adapted to serve specific dispute resolution functions: the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism, various international investment tribunals, United Nations peacekeeping (which the evidence suggests works very well when invited by both sides in a dispute), and so on. Global governance does not constitute a world state, because it exists at the pleasure of the contracting parties: any government may secede from the WTO or the UN whenever it wishes. Yet it is a kind of highly decentralized, functionally differentiated “world government.”

“Very well,” says the anarchist, “I may concede that a loose governance network is necessary, but I still think that membership in the `primary’ dispute settlement agency should be non-territorial. You shouldn’t automatically have to deal with a particular court because of where you live.” Yet territorial exclusiveness is the way that dispute settlement has always evolved historically. There must be a reason for that. If nonterritorial coercive governance has never been stable for long periods (e.g., medieval Iceland and contemporary Somalia), then on what basis can anyone confidently predict that nonterritorial governance must be superior to territorial governance? Only a constructivist rationalist, Adam Smith’s “man of system,” who thinks he can design a new society from scratch, could be confident that some idealized legal system could efficiently replace the only one any of us have ever known. And if we are men of system, then we might as well design a centrally planned economy while we are about it. You can’t confidently claim that anarcho-capitalism will work, while sneering at the idea that socialism ever could.

So if government refers to some kind of integrated, territorially exclusive system by which security can be provided and disputes settled, I advocate government — of a particular kind. But what then is a state, and how does it differ from a government?

If government can be a (more…)

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This term I have been teaching a new seminar entitled, “State Making and State Breaking.” It’s basically about state formation and capacity building from medieval Europe to contemporary Africa (“state making”) plus secessionism, irredentism, de facto statehood, and other challenges to sovereignty (“state breaking”). We’ve now reached about the halfway point, having dealt with the “state making” component of the class.

Here are a few evocative quotations from the authors we have read on state making.

“Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.” – Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” (1919)

“The larger the state and the greater the discrepancy between the [geographic] distribution of coercion and that of capital, however, the stronger the incentives to resist central control.” – Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, p. 24.

“The transition to direct rule [after the French Revolution] gave rulers access to citizens and the resources they controlled through household taxation, mass conscription, censuses, police systems, and many other invasions of small-scale social life. But it did so at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining, and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens. Both the penetration and the bargaining laid down new state structures, inflating the government’s budgets, personnel, and organizational diagrams.” – Tilly, p. 25.

“Except for the relative urbanization of Muslim lands, the correlation between size of states and density of cities was negative [in the Middle Ages]: where cities swarmed, sovereignty crumbled.” – Tilly, p. 40

“[K]ings generally sought to limit the independent armed force at the disposition of townsmen, for the very good reason that townsmen were quite likely to use force in their own interest, including resistance to royal demands. . . By the nineteenth century, states had succeeded in arming themselves impressively, and in almost disarming their civilian populations.” – Tilly, pp. 55-56

“Europe’s bottom-up [commercial] hierarchies long remained more complete, connected, and extensive than its top-down structures of political control. That was a major reason for the failure of the many post-Roman attempts to build empires spanning the continent.” – Tilly, p. 129

“[In the eighteenth century,] the British state governed by means of a relatively small central apparatus, supplemented by a vast system of patronage and local powerholding. . . [B]efore the Napoleonic Wars, only customs and excise had substantial numbers of regularly appointed officials. Until then, Britain did not maintain a standing army. . . While Britain maintained local authorities to a larger degree than many of its continental neighbors, during the nineteenth century national officials involved themselves as never before in policing, education, factory inspection, industrial conflict, housing, public health, and a wide range of other affairs. Incrementally but decisively, the British state moved toward direct rule.” – Tilly, pp. 157-8

“Bishops, kings, lords, and towns all signed treaties and waged war [in medieval Europe]. There was no one actor with a monopoly over the means of coercive force. The distinction between public and private actors was yet to be articulated.” – Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, p. 12

“[T]here are three main reasons why states survived and displaced other forms of organization. First, the internal logic of organization of the sovereign state had less [sic] deficiencies than its rivals. Sovereign, territorial states were better at rationalizing their economies and mobilizing the resources of their societies. Second, state sovereignty proved to be an effective and efficient means of organizing external, interunit behavior. Sovereign states could more easily make credible commitments than their nonsovereign counterparts. Third, sovereign states selected out and delegitimized actors who did not fit a system of territorially demarcated and internally hierarchical authorities.” – Spruyt, p. 28

“[T]he issue of relative efficiency and effectiveness is actually one of efficiency of institutional makeup rather than size. For example, the revenues of some Italian city-states were equivalent if not higher than those of rival states. The Netherlands and England managed to defeat far larger and more populated enemies by virtue of their ability to raise revenue, stemming from well-defined property rights, and their overall economic strength. Size is an imperfect predictor of success in military competition.” – Spruyt, p. 84

“Aside from having to pay the taille, rural laborers [in France] were also subject to other taxes and feudal exactions. The ability to evade such forms of taxation, by moving to a chartered town and by paying a fixed taille to the chartering king or lord, must have seemed attractive. . . The towns were eager to capitalize on this newfound opportunity for freedom. Because of their growing importance and because of the competition between rival lords, they could make considerable demands. They often formed communes, sworn associations of equals. One of the most important demands of the communes was the decrease in burdensome taxes and exactions. The privileges granted in the Charter of Lorris by King Louis VII in 1155 were imitated throughout northern France. . . The [taille] became a fixed incidence rather than an irregular levy. . . [T]owns would negotiate for the right of self-assessment. The distribution of the tax burden would lie with the town leadership.” – Spruyt, pp. 90-1

“Since German towns were of intermediate size and wealth — Lubeck and Cologne to some extent being the exceptions — they could not survive on their own. They needed some form of authority to help pool their resources. And indeed, we will see that one of the main objectives of the city-leagues was mutual defense.” – Spruyt, p. 112

“French towns sacrificed full independence because sovereign kingship provided them with many benefits. The German towns, by contrast, had no such incentive to sacrifice their liberties.” – Spruyt, p. 120

“The development of [Italian] cities toward oligarchical republics or despotism proved [in the late Middle Ages] another barrier to league formation [in Italy]. . . The turn to more despotic regimes reflected a move toward a greater reliance on landed interests as compared to the mercantile interests of the republics, such as Lucca, Siena, Florence, Genoa, and Venice. Among the towns of the Hansa, by contrast, there was a stronger political and social homogeneity. In all towns a mercantile patriciate dominated.” – Spruyt, p. 144

“[T]he Hansa proved to be less efficient in reducing transaction costs and providing collective goods than the sovereign state. It did not manage to provide standardization of weights and measurements, enforce centralized justice, establish a general system of coinage, or establish a regular means of raising revenue for a general fund. The confederated nature of the Hansa led to continuous freeriding and defection. . . Defection from international agreements, for example, by engaging in piracy, led to deterioration of relations with trading partners such as England.” – Spruyt, p. 163

“Due to low population densities and the large amount of open land in Africa, wars of territorial conquest. . .have seldom been a significant aspect of the continent’s history. In precolonial Africa, the primary object of warfare, which was continual in many places, was to capture people and treasure, not land which was available to all. In contrast to European states that, at least at some points in their histories, needed to mobilize tremendous resources from their own populations to fight wars and were therefore forced to develop profound ties with their own hinterlands, precolonial African leaders mainly exploited people outside their own polity because the point of war was to take women, cattle, and slaves.” – Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, p. 20

“Migration to escape from social or political problems was also common among the Yoruba, the Edo, the Fon, and many others. A.I. Asiwaju notes, for example, that the reign of Oba Ewuare of Benin, in the mid-fifteenth century, was so unpopular that it generated, ‘waves of protest migrations which ostensibly led to the foundation of many communities of closely related groups.’ Similarly, Thomas J. Barfield notes, ‘the powers of the Dinka chief were weak. . .because rather than submit to his authority, dissident groups could move to a new territory if they were dissatisfied.'” – Herbst, p. 39

“[R]oads were vital to the exercise of formal authority because they allowed for the quick movement of troops and bound the territory into a relatively coherent economy.” – Herbst, pp. 41-2

“The common colonial failure to extend the infrastructure of power probably outweighs whatever differences in colonial practice suggested by the different theories when it comes to the spatial reach of the state.” – Herbst, p. 87

“Africans continued to subvert the [colonial] state for many years by simply moving. . . [T]he presence of open land and weak administrative structures outside the cities made it only natural that many Africans responded to abuses by simply escaping to an area that was not under the direct control of the European power.” – Herbst, p. 88

“Domestic security threats, of the type African countries face so often, may force the state to increase revenue; however, civil conflicts result in fragmentation and considerable hostility among different segments of the population.” – Herbst, p. 126

“[T]he presence of a palpable external threat may be the strongest way to generate a common association between the state and the population.” – Herbst, p. 127

“In an extraordinary use of diplomacy, African leaders were able to arrange a state system that reinforced their own biases to retain the states that the colonialists had demarcated. This success in preserving units and boundaries has been phenomenal from the perspective of leaders. . . The international system tolerated, and to a limited degree even encouraged, a particular political economy that was biased in favor of providing revenue for patronage and funded the political perquisites of leaders rather than consolidating the state apparatus.” – Herbst, p. 135

“[T]he type of decline experienced by small countries is different from that of large countries because even in decline, small countries can exercise considerable authority over their populations.” – Herbst, p. 155

“[S]tate consolidation is not necessarily a good thing for the population in the short-term. Rwanda’s exceptionally high road density. . .undoubtedly made the quick killing of almost eight hundred thousand Tutsi in 1994 possible.” – Herbst, p. 169

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Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics
Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades by Andrew A. Latham (Routledge, 2012) offers a constructivist interpretation of late-medieval European states and warfare. Latham describes his approach as offering an “explanation-what” or “property” theory rather than an “explanation-why” or causal theory. He is interested in clarifying the nature of the medieval “corporate-sovereign state” and the ways in which medieval European societies conceived of and legitimized war. Rather than studying the late-medieval period merely as a staging ground for the development of the modern state, as Hendrik Spruyt does in his interesting book The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Latham explores the logic internal to the late-medieval system, perceiving the transition from high-medieval feudalism to early-modern absolutism as a gradual one. (He therefore rejects what he calls “the Westphalian rupture” and explicitly endorses both the stateness and non-feudality of pre-Westphalian polities, whether city-states, empires, or kingdoms.)

Constructivism in international relations refers to a broad research paradigm emphasizing the roles of shared international culture, ideas, and values in constraining state actors. It rejects both the “power politics” theorizing of neorealism and the materialism of Marxism. Of course, in one sense the late-medieval period is a “most likely” case for constructivism, as one could hardly deny the role of ideas in buttressing the power of the Catholic Church or provoking the Crusades. But apparently some have tried. Latham successfully shows that realist views prioritizing interests over ideology in explaining the Crusades (e.g., opportunities for looting) are inconsistent with current historical knowledge.

At other points, though, Latham’s obdurate refusal to consider the role of interests annoyed me. In explaining why the medieval kingdom came to prevail over the city-state, the principality, the bishopric, and the city-league, his account boils down to the claim that medieval political philosophy viewed the kingdom as “more legitimate” (90-91). Technological change plays no role in the explanation, and power politics is only begrudgingly and indirectly acknowledged (96).

Latham could also be clearer about the role that his ontology of war can play in general causal theories of international relations. Defining war as an “institution” composed of “deeply embedded intersubjective beliefs” (48) does nothing to bridge the distance between this kind of project and rationalist approaches to war. Why aren’t “norms” (or if one prefers, “deeply embedded intersubjective beliefs”) best thought of as variables in a utility function? (Realists would still not be happy with this, of course.)

The first 50 or so pages of the book bog down heavily in the IR literature. For someone like me largely uninterested in the paradigm bun-fights, the more interesting part of the book comes later. I learned something about the demise of feudalism (it was remarkably early, 13th century at the latest) and something about how Thomist and other late-medieval political philosophy differed from the prior Augustinian tradition (more optimistic about the state’s ability to promote the common good). Medieval historians are unlikely to find much new here, but for political scientists, Latham’s book does a service in synthesizing the up-to-date historiographic literature on the diplomacy and warfare of the period.

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