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The State: Its Rise and Decline

Mises Daily: Monday, October 16, 2000 by

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This is an excerpt from the keynote lecture given at the Mises Institute conference on the themes in Professor van Creveld's talk.

The background of the state as we know it today is formed by civil war, although at that time, of course, it was not yet called civil. The endless wars between the various principalities, some of them Christian and others Moslem, that took place in the Iberian Peninsula during the fifteenth century; the English Wars of the Roses; the French guerres de religion; and the Thirty Years War which devastated much of Germany and Central Europe--all these resulted in so much death and destruction that, to end them, people were even prepared to have their appetites controlled. As figures such as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes argued, the only way to bring about peace and quiet was absolute government invested in a single person. And peace and quiet, more than anything else, was what people wanted and what history seemed to demand.

Communities subject to absolute government by a single king or emperor were, of course, nothing new. They had existed at least since the Old Egyptian Kingdom; they could be found in many places around the world, starting with the Mediterranean littoral and proceeding through Mesopotamia and China all the way to Central and Southern America. What made the system of government that emerged in Europe after the end of the Thirty Years War different was the fact that it was an corporation. Previously, kings and emperors had been the same as the organizations they headed. There was no kingdom of Pergamon; only, to translate the original Greek formulation, "that part of Asia [Minor] which belongs to Eumenes". There was no Byzantine army; there was the army that followed the Byzantine Emperor, with the result that soldiers swore their oath of allegiance not to "the Empire" but to each individual emperor as he ascended the throne. One did not pay taxes to the Holy Roman Empire; one paid taxes to the Emperor. There were no "public" roads, only those built by the king for his own use on which he might, if he was gracious, permit his subjects to travel too.

THE RISE

A reader who covered my book for The Mises Review believes that the distinction between the man and the organization "sounds like a topic of interest only to legal and political theorists". I disagree. In my view, the fact that the state, unlike all previous political constructs, was able to separate the ruler from the organization was the secret behind its outstanding success. What made the state unique was that it replaced the ruler with an abstract, anonymous, mechanism made up of laws, rules, and regulations. The laws, rules and regulations were the main thing, the people who staffed them and put them into practice merely incidental and, as Stalin once said, replaceable. If only because, being abstract, it could not die the state was infinitely more powerful than any individual person (and, therefore, any previous political organization) had ever been. So powerful, indeed, that it expanded in all directions and over all continents until, in 1914, seven states shared practically the entire earth between them.

As if to emphasize this point, the more time passed the more symbolic the role of the person claiming to be at the head of the organization and in whose name it functioned. This was true when the monarch was indolent and spent half of his time hunting, as France’s Louis XV did, and also when he was a demon for work, as Prussia’s Frederick the Great was; in a relatively free oligarchy such as England and under a despotism such as Russia. In the long run the monarchs who succeeded in retaining their thrones were those who came to terms with these facts; whereas those who refused to look them in the eye ended up by losing their realms and, not infrequently, their heads as well. The state, however, survived and flourished. Throughout the numerous changes of regime that characterized France in the nineteenth century, the Civil Service remained essentially the same; when the various Kaisers had to go in 1918 their bureaucracies carried on almost as before, to the point that in Austria the title of "Hofrat" is still in use. As the TV series "Yes Minister" showed so well, it was really these officials and not the politicians who run the country.

Born out of civil war, originally the state was merely a machine for imposing peace and quiet. During the later years of the eighteenth century, though, it met with nationalism. In the hands of such people as the Swiss Baltheassar and the German Herder, nationalism started as a harmless nostalgia for one’s native customs which seemed about to be swept away by the universalism of the enlightenment; it was a cultural movement, not a political one. Later, though, it was usurped by the state which used it in order to fill in its own moral emptiness. Thus employed and, some would say, perverted, nationalism changed its spots, taking on a virulent, chauvinistic, and aggressive character. By providing a goal and a flag--it is with the aid of colored ribbons that men are led, as Napoleon said--nationalism enabled the state to assimilate the people. Channeling and focusing the latter’s energies, it harnessed them to its own ends.

To be sure, neither nationalistic rhetoric nor symbols on their own could have strengthened the grip of the state on the people to the extent that it was. To build its dominance the state had to resort, and did resort, to every available means. This included the gathering of information in the form of statistics (the word itself, significantly, is derived from "state") and maps; the construction of a bureaucracy, so that in the US alone the number of Federal Employees increased from 3,000 in 1800 to 230,000 in 1913 and 3,100,000 in 1945; the imposition of taxes which took away a greater and greater share of the people’s wealth and concentrated it in the state’s hand; the establishment of a monopoly over the manufacture of money; as well as the regulation of banking; and the creation of state-run education and welfare systems. Last not least, it involved the construction and maintenance of a police force and of armed services. The former were used both to underpin all the rest; the latter, to fight others of their own kind.

To be sure, too, the way in which all of this was done, and also the time at which it was done, varied form one country to the next. By establishing the Bank of England in 1694, Britain obtained a commanding lead in the conquest of money; in respect to creating a bureaucracy that was non-venal and thus entirely at the disposal of the state, however, it was Prussia that showed the way. France under Napoleon became the first country to rejoice in a country-wide, unified, police force; whereas in respect to compulsory universal education Germany was once again in the lead. Of all the European countries it was Russia and Poland whose progress was the slowest. The former really only became a state--here understood in the sense of a corporation clearly separate from the ruler--during the nineteenth century. The latter, failing to develop into a state at all, ended up by being swallowed by its neighbors. Taking a post 1945 point of view, however, we can see that these differences were less important than the similarities and indeed that the direction in which things moved was the same in almost all places--including those which had originally been most decentralized and most democratic, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. This is as strong an indication as any that the development was neither accidental nor arbitrary. Rather, as already noted, it was a vast historical process brought about by almost equally vast forces acting blindly and anonymously with hardly any regard to the wishes of individual rulers, however powerful and however wicked (in the eyes of some) they might be.

As the state concentrated more and more power in its own hands, the most important use to which it put that power was in order to fight others of the same kind. Within three years of the French Revolution Europe had been set ablaze. With one brief interruption (in 1803) it remained so for twenty three years, with the result that by the time peace was finally restored in 1815 perhaps two million people had been killed. The years between then and 1848 saw Herculean efforts being made to put the nationalist jinni back into the bottle, and indeed it might be said that, so long as the nineteenth century lasted, these efforts were not altogether unsuccessful. If they did not succeed in preventing individual wars, then at any rate there was no repetition of the events of 1792-1815. If they did not succeeded in preventing massacres of civilians from taking place, then at any rate those massacres were limited. Underneath, however, the fires of nationalism, abetted and stimulated by the state with all the means at the latter’s disposal, burnt more and more fiercely. Already Hegel, writing in the 1820s, claimed that the state constituted "the sound of God’s footsteps on earth", no less, and recommended war as the means by which it should attain its goals; nationalists who followed him went further still. When the long-expected, even eagerly anticipated, explosion finally came, it easily put all its predecessors in the shade. Between 1914 and 1945 a total of ten years’ fighting--not counting the numerous smaller wars in between--left perhaps 80 million people dead. Such were the results of the buildup of the state.

THE DECLINE

Somewhere between 1945 and 1975, the type of political construct known as the state and characterized, above all, by the separation between the ruler and the organization peaked and may have gone into decline. As previously, this process was not the making of individual rulers, however powerful and...benevolent. It was not as if the people at the top suddenly became less power-hungry or more willing to let the people at the bottom do their own thing. Once again, the well-nigh global character of the changes indicates that they were produced by anonymous forces over which scarcely anybody could exercise any control. And in relation to which, indeed, the entire question of morality becomes almost irrelevant.

Perhaps the most important factor, and one that is taken so much for granted that it is often overlooked, was the introduction and subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons. For the first time in history, nuclear weapons permitted those who possessed them to annihilate each other and, of course, those who did not possess them as well. To date all attempts to change this fact by discovering some kind of antidote have failed; indeed they scarcely even got off the ground. Nor do I think that the current plans to build a ballistic missile defense system are going to make a difference in this respect. While this is not the place to argue the case in detail, against so-called "rogue states" such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran it is not needed. Against a first or even second class power with a full nuclear arsenal at its disposal it is useless.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons has affected war, and large scale war as waged by the state in particular, in two opposed ways. First, to the extent that the opponent also possessed a second strike capability it turned warfare into suicide, thus negating Clausewitz’s definition of it as a continuation of policy with an admixture of other means. It used to be that states went to war in order to extend or defend their interests. By definition, though, the interests of a state are less important than its existence--indeed it is only that which exists that can have interests in the first place. To put it in a less abstract way, it is hard if not impossible to think of an "interest" that will justify putting Washington D.C., or New York, or Moscow, or Beijing, or New Delhi, or Tel Aviv, at risk of instant and complete annihilation. As Bernard Brodie wrote as long ago as 1946, nuclear weapons cannot, should not, be used. If they have to be used, then they have already failed in their purpose which can only be to deter. As a result, whereas during the centuries before 1945 war was a major instrument used by states to increase their power at the expense of other states, since then it has been waged almost exclusively between, or against, non-nuclear states; in other words, such states as were not first or even second rate players in the international system.

The second reason why nuclear weapons have had a dampening effect on major interstate war is psychological. As the late Moshe Dayan once said, nothing is more exciting for men than war; as he well knew but did not say, nobody is more likely to command the admiration of women than warriors. In so far as nuclear weapons make it impossible to resist and can indeed eliminate entire societies in the twinkling of an eye, however, there is nothing exciting about them. By the speed with which it kills and destroys even more than by its sheer power, nuclear war simply does not offer any room for the exercise and display of such qualities as pride, honor, courage, determination, endurance, and self sacrifice. Briefly, it does not provide scope for heroism; whereas from the time that the first woman gave birth to the first baby (thus demonstrating to men how useless they really are) heroism has been what war is all about.

Concomitant with the retreat of major interstate war states also began dismantling some of the systems with which, since 1850 or so, they have built up in order to hold their populations in check and secure their loyalty. To a large extent, their doing so was a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict which brought on the Energy Crisis and plunged the world into a recession. Recession and unemployment overburdened the welfare system. This in turn led to inflation; and inflation in turn meant that the state had to rob some of its citizens in order to maintain payments to the rest. Even where rising oil prices did not constitute a major problem, Austrian economics--and here I agree with the ideas presented by the Mises Institute--would have predicted that the very success of the welfare state in creating more extensive education systems, more expensive health services, more old people, and more single mothers would cause its size to increase and its cost to skyrocket. By 1980 even Switzerland, that bastion of sound money, had a budget deficit amounting to more than 5 percent of GNP.

To be sure, the movement towards dismantling the welfare state did not start in all countries at once. In most of them it got under way between about 1975 and 1980; in others, such as Austria and Sweden, it is essentially a development of the last fifteen years alone, whereas in others still there have been ups and downs. One country--Norway--is even using its incredible oil-wealth to maintain its welfare state intact. The development may be less obvious in the US than in most countries, given that the US has always been the most capitalist of countries and that the American state has never succeeded in restraining and nationalizing private enterprise to the extent that others did.

Elsewhere, however, the changes have been enormous. The movement away from public ownership over natural resources, public ownership over the means of production, public ownership over banks, insurance companies, and transportation, public education, public pensions, public welfare, public recreation, even public prisons and public drinking water, is well under way; to the extent that more and more people are being paid in stock options, even money is being privatized. This as is true in developed countries as in developing ones, in Europe as in Asia, in Canada as in Africa and Australia and Japan. It is even, some would say particularly, true in the former Communist states which used to comprise one third of the earth where state control over civil society used to be the most complete; and where, indeed, this society could hardly be said to exist.

The third factor working against the state is the process known, in short, as globalization. Essentially globalization is the product of technological change; a convergence of new means of transportation and communication that have made the world much smaller and more interdependent. Some of these technologies, such as radio, television, satellite television, videos, telephones, fax machines, and the internet easily penetrate state-borders. Others, such as the jumbo jets which carry half a million people across the Atlantic each week, can only be used with the greatest efficiency if they are not limited to the borders of any single state. These technologies in turn have made it possible not just for information but for money and people to flow across state-borders to an extent, and at a rate, that defies any attempt to control it; perhaps the factors that did most to bring down the old so-called German Democratic Republic were people’s desire for the D Mark on the one hand and West German Television on the other. They have also made it possible for private corporations that are not states to coordinate and merge on a global scale. The resulting behemoths are of a size, and possess power, which is more than a match for most states. What is more, since they do not have sovereign territory they are, to a greater or lesser extent, mobile. Should any single state try to restrict them too much, then they can always shift their headquarters and production plants into the territory of some other state.

Changes as vast, and as important as the above-listed almost cannot take place without bloodshed. At the moment, such bloodshed is most visible in Africa and parts of Asia. Here the state, exported from Europe and developed on the European model, has failed to take root; it has consequently started disintegrating even before it was properly established. In these regions and elsewhere, the declining power of the state is manifest by the almost daily creation of new ones. Some of these new births are mediated by the use of violence, others not. Nowadays perhaps the only regions that do not witness major, politically-motivated, intrastate violence or the threat of it are North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australasia. Even in Europe, however, politically motivated violence is not entirely absent; in any case, these regions between them, only comprise less than twenty percent of the human population of this earth.

Even in places that are not yet threatened by, or involved in, major politically motivated, intrastate violence the holds of the state over civil society seems to be weakening. Sometimes this is manifested by a massive buildup of police forces, as in the US under Bill Clinton. In other cases it is made manifest when the forces responsible for maintaining internal order are reorganized and put on display, as in the Netherlands and France. More than anything else, however, the feeling that states are no longer as capable of holding their populations in check as they used to be is the growth of gated communities and a vast private security industry. The former are like medieval cities, presenting fortress-like facades to what their inhabitants obviously feel is the growing disorder outside; the latter has turned into a growth area where fortunes are being made, armed forces raised, weapons acquired, and power accumulated and not seldom projected. To some extent there is even taking place a fusion between these private forces and the public ones. On the one hand, the former are often made up of veterans of the latter; on the other, many states are openly calling for private security to form "partnerships" with them and are endowing them with growing powers.

As one might expect, the above-listed transformations have resulted in changing attitudes. As private security or insecurity increase, borders become more permeable, the welfare state retreats, and large scale war between powerful states has all but ended loyalty to them has also entered a decline; the days when a General Leslie Groves could use patriotism to make the directors of Dupont LTD. approve the greatest investment their company had ever made without even knowing what it was all about are definitely over. Half a century after the end of World War II, and in places as far apart as the US, Europe and Japan, so little inclined are people to trust the state or risk their lives for it that even the death of a few soldiers is likely to result in an outcry and lead to campaigns being abandoned. In all these countries more and more the media tend to present the state as corrupt, inefficient and wasteful; not so much an aid to justice and social peace, as an obstacle on the way to obtaining them.

AFTER THE STATE

Assuming the picture I have presented is broadly correct, what is going to take the place of the state? Here it should be said at the outset that I do not share the libertarian belief that human society without government is possible; as Hobbes wrote three and a half centuries ago, in such a society--if the word is appropriate at all--life would be "nasty, brutish, and short". It is possible, indeed extremely likely, that in some places the ongoing retreat of the state will lead to anarchy. This, however, does not mean that world-wide anarchy represents the future, let alone that such a future is desirable.

Even at present, there are some places in the world where the state is simply imploding. In part it is being undermined by lingering loyalties to traditional institutions such as chieftains, ethnic groups, tribes, and kin-networks; in part, these institutions having been destroyed or rendered inoperative, it is simply giving way to a void. Partly because they are anarchic by definition, partly because they have a way of sucking in their neighbors, such voids usually witness warfare on a considerable if ill-coordinated scale for ends that hardly raise above the most immediate interests of those who wage them; such warfare, indeed, can hardly be distinguished from feuding and large-scale robbery. From Somalia to Sierra Leone, in many places around the world this reality already exists. In others it appears just around the corner, in others till it may still take place.

If implosion is one result that may follow from the weakening of the state, integration may be another. From ASEAN through the EU and NAFTA and MERCOSUR, technological and economic changes are forcing states to cooperate with each other, not seldom at the expense of at least some parts of their sovereignty. Particularly in Europe, the process whereby individual states are being taken over by a larger organization is well under way. At present this new organization already makes law, exercises justice and makes money, though it does not yet either declare war or levy taxes. Above all, it is not sovereign and does not represent a state; that is why it is called a Union or a Community. To the extent that new members are joining it or are trying to join it every day, the Union is growing and may indeed soon cease to be European at all. Even in places so far removed that they cannot join it, it is often regarded as a model.

As states integrate into a larger organization that encompasses them, they are often made to devolve some of their internal powers to regions, districts and communities. In this respect, too, Europe has led; with the result that, from Spain through Belgium to the United Kingdom, regional autonomy is the order of the day. In the US, too, the Republican Congress has promised--though to date it has scarcely begun to deliver--a greater emphasis on the rights of individual states as opposed to those of the Federal Government. Even where regionalization has not yet started, as in Germany, it is very often being discussed as one way of responding to, and benefiting from the changes brought about by the European Union. The days when statehood necessarily meant a movement towards greater and greater centralization are clearly over.

While many states are either imploding or coming together, all of them face increasing competition from other forms of organization. Some of those organizations are private, others are public. Some are enormously powerful and wealthy, some made up of a handful of people who do little more than exchange their (not seldom cranky) beliefs by e-mail. Some are dedicated to peaceful and even praiseworthy ends such as the conservation of wildlife or the prevention of vivisection or disarmament or women’s rights. Others are purely economic by nature and seek merely to enrich themselves by legitimate or illegitimate means. Most do not have their own independent armed forces, but a few have started building them; as of late even that most pacific of organizations, the Red Cross has been compelled to transport some of its personnel in armored carriers and under armed guard. Many, possibly even most, have this in common that they transcend national borders. In so far as they do so they can be said to be making better use of the most modern means of transportation and communication than do states themselves; which indeed is a key reason behind their success. The growing role played by international organizations of every kind is perhaps most manifest from the fact that some of them have gained observer status with the United Nations. The latter, of course, is itself the greatest international organization of all, and one whose importance seems to be increasing day by day.

In the future, and to a growing extent, more and more these organizations can be expected to emancipate themselves from state control and to play an independent role. Playing an independent role, they will exercise growing power over members and non-members; e.g. by making their own laws, exercising their own justice, levying their own taxes, and even manufacturing their own money in the form--as is often done at present--of stock-options. Depending on the issue and on the moment, they may cooperate with governments, exercise pressure on governments, oppose governments, and even wage war on governments; indeed one reason why they are able to do so is precisely because, not owning sovereign territory, they cannot be tackled with nuclear weapons. Needless to say, the kind of relationships that prevail between international organizations and governments will also characterize those among those organizations itself. To the point, indeed, where the difference between governmental and non-governmental organizations will itself be eroded.

In all this, a single factor stands out. Governmental or not, national or international, public or private, altruistic or profit-seeking, to the extent that they are of any importance most of the organizations in question are not simply "gatherings of people (as Cicero, lacking a better terms, defined the Roman Republic) but corporations. Like states; they possess an abstract legal persona; like states, they are separate from their leaders. Like states, too, this character endows them with much greater staying power and much greater continuity than any individual or even group of individuals are likely to have. Even when they are defeated and eliminated de facto, de jure they still exist; so long as they exist de jure, they can neither be defeated nor eliminated. To put it in another way, current developments may reflect not so much the decline of the state as a corporation but the ascendancy of one kind of corporation, i.e. that which is not sovereign and does not have "sovereignty" over another, i.e. that which is and does. In this respect the invention of the corporation which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century, represents one of the greatest revolutions ever in human history; and one whose full implications we are only now beginning to understand.

FIVE TRENDS

Assuming, once again, that the picture I have presented is broadly correct, are the changes desirable or not? The answer is by no means simple and depends on the identity of those involved. In trying to answer I shall once again run through the factors which, in my view, are leading towards the decline the state, proceeding in reverse order.

First, the decline in public security. It goes without saying that, in virtually all cases and at almost any cost, internal peace is good whereas violence is bad. In some places the decline of the state may mean freedom from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and execution. In many other places, however, the result will be just the opposite as non-governmental organizations seek to fill the void, achieve their own ends, and, either as a condition for achieving them or as a by-product of doing so, fill their own pockets. For the members of those organizations the changes may be all good; for the rest of us, definitely bad. I do not see that being stopped, or searched, or arrested, or imprisoned, or executed, by the employees of a private organization is superior to being subjected to the same indignities at the hand of the state’s own servants. This is true even if the private "security personnel" wear uniforms, even if they have badges, and even if they disguise their power behind a carefully studied courtesy. If anything, to the contrary.

Second, globalization. Some people like globalization, others hate it. In so far as globalization means getting entangled in the affairs of other people who in turn start putting a finger in one’s own pie, I suspect that many of those who are associated with the Mises Institute and take a neo-isolationist point of view are among the haters. One may also sympathize with the feelings of those who fear that, among the effects of globalization, there are likely to emerge greater economic inequality, less democracy, and the loss of numerous ancient and beautiful environments and lifestyles in exotic places. Globalization, though, has its advantages. By permitting people to communicate and trade on a planetary scale, it should enable those who know how to take advantage of it to make entirely unprecedented gain in terms of both freedom and prosperity. Having grown up in a country which, though never anywhere near totalitarian, used to put considerable restrictions on the availability of information I can testify to the positive impact of globalization on freedom in particular. If CNN, BBC World Service, and their like did not exist they would have to be invented.

In any case, like Machiavelli’s Fortuna globalization exists and makes its influence felt whether we like it or not. As Hegel said, historical change often implies the crushing of many tender flowers. Globalization can be opposed, if at all, only locally and to a very limited extent. The necessary means are draconian, the results, terrible. Judging by the example of Burma and North Korea, indeed, it means a virtual return to a pre-industrial economy and lifestyle, coupled with tyrannies that almost rival that of Adolf Hitler.

Third, the retreat of the welfare state. Clearly, in any society there are and always will be those who are unable or less able to look after themselves--whether because they are sick, or have met with an accident, or because, as children, they have grown up dependent on people who were sick or have met with accidents or not sufficiently well to do to provide them with an education. Clearly in any society it is necessary that some kind of safety-net be spread for those who, through no fault of their own, are put in a position where they can not or can no longer cope. The retreat of the welfare state, which in most places is well under way, will almost certainly result in the growing importance of private welfare and charity on the one hand and of the family on the other. To the heads of those organizations it may bring power and prosperity; to the recipients of charity and welfare, a switch from some forms of dependence to others. In so far as the recipients of welfare are always likely to outnumber those who dispense it, I do not see that there will be either great progress or a retreat.

Finally, there can be no doubt that the waning of major interstate war is a blessing--indeed one might go further and argue that, in so far as they have almost single-handedly led to this retreat, nuclear weapons are themselves the greatest boon humanity has ever received. Nuclear weapons, however, are not all powerful. They cannot put an end to all, or even most, forms of armed conflict. Moreover, I am beginning to think that the very reason that makes their use in interstate warfare so difficult--namely their indiscriminate nature--makes them more suitable to use at the hands of organizations whose sole aim is to spread terror as such; a good example being the Japanese Supreme Truth which was responsible for the poison gas attack on Tokyo subway. To the extent that something is being done to prevent nuclear proliferation and cut or limit the size of existing arsenals, these dangers are recognized. On the other hand total nuclear disarmament, even if it were possible, might well get us back to the period from 1914 to 1945. The balance between peace and a holocaust is a delicate one; it is not unlikely that, sooner or later, it will be upset. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons or not, in many places around the world war and violence are proceeding just as they used to....

Though I am in many ways a Hegelian, unlike him I do not believe that history is necessarily taking us towards better things. In reality, all it does is change--and some of that change is more apparent than real. Even when it is real, the outcome is likely to be good for some people, bad for others. As the saying goes, what is meat for one person is poison for another. Since I regard the changes as inevitable, as in the case of Fortuna those most likely to benefit from them are those who have the wits and the daring to foresee them, adapt to them, and make use of them. The lives of individual and communities, however, will in many ways remain as it has always been--part terrible, part wonderful, part tragic, part full of opportunity and sheer joy.

To quote Mao Tze Dong, answering the question as to what the world might look like following a nuclear war:

The sun will keep shining
Trees will keep growing
And women will keep having children.