On the state

By Neil Lock

Every political philosopher worth his salt has written a book, or a chapter, or at least an essay, on the subject of the state. What is the state intended to be? What is the state, in reality? And where is it going? Today, I’ll add to this bonfire my modest contribution of kindling.

Ideas of the state

Since its earliest times, the primary model of the state has been all-but-absolute monarchy. One man is appointed by God (or the gods, or whatever passes for deities in your neck of the woods) to rule over everyone in an area. Being the representative of the gods, he is to be treated as a god. In theory, he can do anything he likes to anybody. Although he does, sometimes, have to be careful when dealing with those of his subjects who know how to wield a sword.

Plato in his Republic, after reviewing several options, came up with the idea of “aristocracy” or “the rule of the best.” His ideal state is ruled over by a philosopher-king. It is a three-class society. The ruling class (the king and his élites) have souls of gold. The enforcing class (soldiers) have souls of silver. Everyone else has souls of bronze or iron, and is subjected to the decrees of the ruling class, as enforced by the soldiers.

The first modern thinker to address the philosophy of the state was Niccolò Machiavelli. His system, like Plato’s, was top-down. He saw the state, whether monarchy or republic, as an organization of supreme political power. He thought that the prince, at the helm of his state, should seek to be feared more than loved. That the “art” of war is of prime importance. That the end of getting and maintaining political power justifies any means. That cruelty and even murder are OK. And that the prince should seek to become a great liar and deceiver.

The next thinker on the state’s bandwagon, Jean Bodin, was little better. I’ve written elsewhere about Bodin’s scheme of “sovereign” and “subjects,” in which the ruler or ruling élite has moral privileges over the “subjects” or people. And it bears no responsibility for the consequences of its actions, being accountable “only to God.” This scheme was very successful in its aim of increasing and consolidating the power of the French kings. So successful, indeed, that it is still the basis of the “Westphalian” nation-states of today. But for us poor “subjects,” it hasn’t been much of a bulwark against tyranny, to say the least.

Next, cue Thomas Hobbes. His “Leviathan” – also known as the state or the commonwealth – is also ruled over by an absolute sovereign. Supposedly, the people (or, at least, a majority of them) have consented to this. They have committed to each other, that they authorize and approve whatever the sovereign chooses to do. In essence, Hobbes views the people as a body, of which the sovereign is the soul. Once the system has been set up, there is no possibility of changing it, or of escape from it. And the sovereign may do whatever it deems necessary, including restricting free speech and censoring the press.

It fell to John Locke to introduce, at last, some rights and freedoms for ordinary people. In his First Treatise of Government, he laid to rest, once and for all, the bogeyman of the “divine right” of kings to rule. And in his Second, he outlined a new system, in which government is to be for the good of the governed.

Locke does not use the word “state,” preferring “commonwealth.” His commonwealth is a community, whose chief purpose is the preservation of the property of the people. The purpose or “end” of law, he says, is not to abolish or restrain freedom, but to preserve and enlarge it. All this is to be directed to nothing but the peace, safety and public good of the people; where “public good” means “the good of every member of the society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for.” And if in doubt, the majority should have the final say. Moreover, Locke explicitly allows the possibility of replacing a government which has gone bad.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sadly, seems to have mis-interpreted Locke’s idea of the majority having the power to resolve issues when necessary. He introduced an idea of “the general will” – that is, the will of the people as a whole. This, in effect, turned Locke’s system upside-down, by subordinating individuals to this rather nebulous “general will.”

On to the twentieth century, and Franz Oppenheimer. He was, to my knowledge, the first to write a whole book simply called “The State.” And he was very clear about what he thought of it. In looking at the ways in which people can get their needs and desires satisfied, he distinguished the political means – in one word, robbery – from the economic means – work and trade. And he said, “The state is an organization of the political means.”

Max Weber saw the state as a monopoly of “legitimate” violence in a particular area. Only it, and those it appoints, may use force in its territory. Albert Jay Nock followed Oppenheimer, but went further; his book was titled “Our Enemy, the State.” He saw the state as claiming and exercising a monopoly of crime. And every expansion of the state shrinks the power of community, or what we might today call “civil society.”

Lastly, Anthony de Jasay, whose book “The State” dates from 1985. For Hobbes, he says, the state keeps the peace. For Locke, it upholds the natural right to liberty and property. For Rousseau, it realizes the general will. But de Jasay understands the state, and calls it out, for what it has become today. The state is a power clique, that acts in its own interests, and picks winners and losers. The winners, of course, being its supporters, and those from whom it wants support. Thus, its acts often go against the interests of ordinary individuals in its territory, or even against the needs and desires of “the people” as a whole. And the modern state relentlessly seeks to maximize its power, by taking away the property and the liberties of its subjects.

What binds a state together?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the binding forces, which hold together communities of human beings. The people who reside in a state’s territory are, indeed, a community. For they all have something in common; namely, living under the rule of that state. So, I thought I would look again at those binding forces, to see how well they fare when put into the context of a state.

The first binding force is a shared humanity. Biologically, the inhabitants of a state are indeed all human. But there is doubt, in my mind at least, whether the ruling classes of states have much humanity. At least, in its sense of “benevolence, or the quality of being humane.” In fact, there’s a good case to be made – and I’ve made it elsewhere – that many of them are psychopaths.

Second comes kinship, as in a family. But the idea of the state as a family, which up until 50 or so years ago was quite widely touted, no longer works. Part of this is due to large scale migration. But a greater part, I think, is due to a general degradation of the feeling of community. Caused, if we are to believe Albert Jay Nock (and I do), by the increasing power of the state.

Next come three facets of co-operation: teamwork, trade and leadership. While in our daily lives we do use teamwork, the state can hardly be seen as a team. For to be a member of a team, you must identify with its objectives. And the objectives of the rulers of the state, per de Jasay, are often hostile to the interests of good people. As to trade, the state makes all kinds of “laws” to restrict what we may do in our dealings with others. I know this from personal experience, having had my career as a software consultant ruined by a bad tax “law” that for 20 years has all but taken away my access to the market. And as to leadership, what I feel for virtually every politician in the world is not respect, but contempt and loathing.

The sixth binding force is a shared belief system, of which a shared religion is a particular case. But as an agnostic, church religion means little to me. And having been trained long ago as a mathematician, my belief system is a strongly bottom-up one. I like to build up conclusions logically from known facts, and I’m skeptical of anything that doesn’t look right. The state and its minions, on the other hand, continuously bombard me with their propaganda narratives. To which, my reaction is to switch off, if not also to disbelieve everything they say.

As to proximity, I do indeed feel a love for the land and people of my corner of the world. For I am a Wessex man. I was born, and now live, in its eastern marches. And I was schooled in its heartlands of Hampshire and Wiltshire. So, if I became a patriot, I would be a Wessex patriot.

As to culture and shared customs, I am an Englishman. I am fluent in, and admire, the English language. I eat an English breakfast each morning. I played English cricket at village level over more than 30 years. I love the English pub; and I have respect for the English common law, when in honest hands. But I have also acquired cultural overtones from other places where I have lived over the years, notably Holland and the USA.

The ninth binding force, enlightenment, is one which I feel very strongly. I am an individualist, and a strong supporter of the values of the Enlightenment. Like natural rights and freedoms, scientific thinking, and tolerance of difference. But today’s states seek to force on their subjects whatever is the political ideology of those in power at the time; be it for example socialism, fascism, rabid environmentalism, or a combination of all of them.

Moreover, statist thinkers are virulently opposed to Enlightenment values. They promote conceits like “post-modern” philosophy and “post-normal” science. They resist human progress, hate honest business and industry, deny the value of facts and rational thought, promote moral relativism, and aim to politicize everything and to impose a suffocating conformism on everyone.

Community versus society

Before I tackle the final putative binding force, nation, I’ll take a look at what I think may be a major cause of our troubles with today’s nation-states. That cause can be brought into focus by asking the question: Do the human beings, who reside in the territory of a state, constitute a society, or are they merely a community?

As I’ve said before, a society has some form of, usually written, constitution. Among much else this will, almost certainly, state the goals of the members as a group. It is likely to have a president or chairman, and a committee or other group of officials. Under its constitution, the society makes decisions based on its principles and interests, and acts on them. Even though some of its members may disagree on an issue, the society as a whole takes only one view.

A community, on the other hand, has no constitution. It has no president or chairman, no officials and no goals as a group. It may spawn societies, which act in certain respects on behalf of all those in the community; an example I gave in an earlier essay is a home-owners’ association. But a community has no “general will,” beyond its own continuation.

In the case of a group of people resident in a territory, if those people also form a society, then the territory becomes what I’ve called a commune. In such a set-up, the territory is ruled over – and, in some sense at least, owned – by the society. In this model, then, the state is in essence the committee of the society, and the people are the members. The state is the head, while the people are the body; this is almost exactly Hobbes’ Leviathan.

If, on the other hand, the people residing in a territory are merely a community, not a society, there is no place for a state. The people have formed the community for the purpose of mutual defence of rights, and they have no agreed agendas beyond that. The private areas of the territory are each owned by individuals, families or societies. And the public areas are common to, but not owned by, all.

There is no need for Leviathan in such a set-up. But there is, nevertheless, room for societies, whose remit is to perform functions for the public good of all in the community. These societies might, for example, adjudicate disputes, maintain the public areas, and defend the community against external attack and internal violence. Collectively, I’ll give these societies the name “governance.” Such an ideal of governance is, I think, not so far from John Locke’s view.

So, which of these two views is the correct one? I find it odd that today’s political states are supposedly founded on a “social contract,” and yet there is no agreed, signed contract between each individual and their government, stating what each must provide to the other. The only case where there is anything like such a contract is when an immigrant applies for, and receives, citizenship in a new country. This suggests that the idea, that all the residents in a given territory have consented to join a society run by a state, is well wide of the mark.

John Locke himself, unfortunately, was rather unclear on this matter. In his Second Treatise, he often uses the words “community” and “society” as if they were almost interchangeable. It is understandable, then, that those who came after him seem to have erred on this point. Rousseau, as I noted earlier, got it very seriously wrong. Even the writers of the US Constitution, in its very first words “We the People,” show that they thought they were setting up a society made up of everyone in the North American colonies. But what they were doing, in reality, was setting up a system of government to replace George the Third. They may have escaped the clutches of one particular king and his state. But only at the cost of erecting another state, and so another sovereign – albeit one called “the people” – in his place.

Nation and state

To return to nation. I noted, in an earlier essay, that if it is a binding force at all, nation is little more than a mixture of kinship, leadership, belief system, proximity and shared culture. I have also observed that many people seem to think of nation, country, “the people,” “society” and the state as essentially the same thing. And those, whose world-view is top-down, regard this thing as being of supreme importance, and the human individual as of little or no importance in comparison.

But if nation is simply the state, then for me at least – and, I suspect, for many others who, like me, are sick and tired of today’s dismal politics – it has lost all power to bind people together. Indeed, the state as it exists today, with its evil traits that thinkers like de Jasay have noted, actively works against many, if not all, of the forces which ought to bind people into communities. Such as kinship, teamwork, leadership and enlightenment.

So, from where does a state get its supposed legitimacy? I will look, first, at the state called “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Plainly, this state is mis-named; since it is neither united, nor a kingdom, nor in any way great. Be that as it may, the theory seems to be that a silly, rich old woman called Lizzie, who lives in a castle at Windsor, is “sovereign” over all the people in a particular group of islands (and a few other places). And that her cronies, among whom the current chief mafiosa is (was! I just read the news) one Theresa May, thereby have a right to rule over the people, and do to us whatever they think they can get away with.

In the USA, and in most other countries, the legitimacy of the state is supposed to come from a constitutional document. But such constitutions are of no use – indeed, they are dangerous – when applied to a group of people who rightly form a community, but have not explicitly agreed to form a society, and have no general will. And moreover, the political class have a habit of ignoring these constitutions when it suits them.


Ah, you may say, but these states are supposedly “democracies.” If people don’t like what the current crop of mafiosi are doing to them, they can vote them out, and vote in another lot instead! My reply is, if only that were true.

Democracy, as I’ve shown in an earlier essay, tends to favour the worst psychopaths for positions of power. Moreover, it encourages the formation of political factions, as James Madison warned more than 200 years ago. These factions seek to enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of everyone else. As a result, people tend to divide along party lines, and start to lose social cohesion. These dynamics are happening in most, if not all, democracies in the world. I have been astonished, for example, at the personal venom which those opposed to Donald Trump show towards those who support him. They should not be surprised if the backlash, when it comes, is even more virulent. A “community” with such divisions, I think, cannot survive for long as a community.

But after a while, the political factions start to align with each other, and against the people – exactly as de Jasay identified. Now the state becomes totally divided, with the rulers (of all the factions) and their cronies and supporters on one side, and the ordinary people – the victims – on the other. There is no “general will,” no sense of fellowship, and little or no possibility of agreement or even compromise on anything. As shown, for example, by the deliberate failure of the “United Kingdom” political class to implement the Brexit which they had all promised.

In such a state, politics becomes a war, waged by the politically rich against the politically poor. And that’s where we are today.

A world-wide Leviathan

On top of all this, we have the European Union and the United Nations. With the eager co-operation of most of the national political élites, these remote, bureaucratic, unaccountable organizations and their rich hangers-on are seeking to drive politics, all over the world, towards a single planet-wide super-state. What they are trying to create is a giant, world-wide Leviathan, under which there is to be no possibility of freedom, change or escape.

The root of the issue

The nub of all these problems, I think, is not so much democracy per se. Nor is it even the idea of the nation. The root problem is the state. The state in its current form, as devised by thinkers like Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes, is a failed system. The state is out of date; indeed, it is already centuries past its last use by date. And it is my view, that the current incarnation of the state must, and will, be the last. The idea, that some have a right to rule over others, has shot its bolt. And missed.

The state has got to go, and soonest. And the question, which must now concern us all, is: With what shall we replace it?

Leave a Reply