What is the State?

WashingtonDCFirst of all, before we can really get much further at all, we must understand the answer to this question: What is the state?

Certainly, there are various practical definitions of state that we should not altogether bypass. A state to the common social studies teacher is a political entity consisting of boarders and a government. True enough, for its purpose in education and understanding modern states (which are, incidentally, a phenomenon of the last few hundred years…another topic for another time!).

A state in the United States can also be thought of as the people of that state. For example, as a resident of Arkansas, I could debate about the state of Arkansas as being considered backwards and redneck. By state here we mean, of course, the people of Arkansas. (I would readily argue against that stereotype for the part I am familiar with.)

Understanding that other concepts of state could be addressed, I’ll leave those two standing and proceed to the more appropriate definition for the purpose of this blog.

The state is what most people in passing reference call the government. Government gets its name from the idea that it governs—whether it does so well or not is another matter. There are those who argue that there is a difference between state and government, and I am happy to leave them their argument without animosity and proceed with my own. (For a well-thought-out post on this, read “Words Matter” at the Things Not Seen blog.) For our purposes, then, the state is whatever person or body of people has been given or claimed authority over others.

Wait! I hear the protests already. In the United States, we have a government properly chosen by the people in as close to a republic as we can get, the pundits proclaim. Sure, in some sense, I suppose, but that monster I shall fight another day. It does not matter to me right now, in this argument, how the state came to be.

In essence, the state is a monopoly on force. Whether the state because they are stronger than any other, or the state because they are chosen by their people in a purely republican fashion, they have a monopoly to force people to do as they instruct.

And already, four posts in, I have earned the reputation of dark cynic. But am I wrong? I am not speaking—yet—of legitimacy, but merely of fact. We pay our taxes because we accept that our government—the state—has a legitimate claim to force us to do so if we do not. We follow the speed limit (if you are among the rare few of us who do) because the state can fine us if we do not. Whether legitimate or not, the state is a monopoly on force.

We’ll come back later to that question of legitimacy to satisfy the frustrated demands that I address the difference between the state and a gang, which may also have a monopoly on force in a neighborhood or city.

(And to quickly clarify: I do not advocate a total state of anarchy, for those who interpret my cynical definition of state as advocacy for no state at all. But I’ll make my case on that eventually.)

For now, I have laid enough foundation to proceed with my argument about water: human nature.


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One Response to What is the State?

  1. Thanks for talking about and linking to my post. Very much appreciate your perspective as well.

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