What is a state?

The concept of a state that we’re carrying into the 21st century is out of date. We need to examine what a state is today and, to the extent that we need governance, what form a state should take in a globally connected world.

The state that we think we have, the nation state, has only had a short and brutish existence. European nation states took their present form in the 18th or 19th century. Before this there were other forms of governance — empires, city states, feudalism — with varying degrees of size, ethnic cohesion, strict or lax laws, open or closed borders, etc. The most striking difference though has been the relationship of people with government, ranging from equal partnership to open exploitation. The nation state brought three centuries of coercive policy making coupled with paternalistic welfare.

Today the nation state is in crisis, not so much because of open borders or because the clan wars that it caused threaten to tear the world apart, but because its social contract is in crisis. The modern state can neither enforce policy nor provide welfare with credibility, and we’re not collectively sure if it should. We need a clear model of the state and its role.

What is a state supposed to be then? From the perspective of the social contract, in other words the deal between the citizens and government, we have three prevailing models in the West:

  • The state as kin. The state is a large family. You’re accepted as a member if you are biologically related as offspring or mate of another. The state looks after the collective good of the kin, to the detriment of those non-kin. That may mean coercion within the state to make sacrifices, and war against foreigners. Since the membership of the state is closed, the state may wish to participate in relationships with other states but does not wish to open borders or be subsumed in greater entities. Examples: Israel, Japan.
  • The state as a charter. The state has a territory in which certain rules apply, to everyone. The belief is that prosperity, justice, and human flourishing follows from an open society based on good rules. The charter state is open to all people, but needs to defend its jurisdiction and its charter in order for the latter to be meaningful. The state sometimes has to intervene between people to defend the promise made to all, and may wish to export its charter or create a greater chartist structure. Example: France.
  • The state as a service. The state collects subscriptions, usually called taxes, builds infrastructure, and provides services: Defense, health, information, transport, banking, pensions, communications, etc. It retains a monopoly for some of these services, it’s a wholesales for others, and a retailer for some more. It prefers being a monopoly-wholesaler, leaving retail to private firms. The state doesn’t care that much about kin or territory, but rather cares about solvency, revenue, and entitlement or otherwise of service users. This state sees itself first among equals in relation with private firms. Example: Britain.

These conceptions of the state are very different, but we don’t usually see that because we’re used to the kind of state that we live in. In a world going through rapid globalization, we need active debate on the types and roles of states that we want to bring about in the future.

In my opinion, the state as kin is indefensible after 1945. Most of Europe has accepted this as consensus and thus the EU was created, largely on a chartist vision from France. A few notable nation states remain, due to their exceptional circumstances:

  • Japan remains as nation state due to the long period of isolation in its past. Eventually I think it will become chartist, over many generations.
  • Israel created a nation state after 1945, ironically to escape the horrors vested upon the Jews by the rampant nation states of Europe. It’s simply late to the game. Nation states are over, and Israel has to become either a chartist government of the region with a responsibility to all people, or a welfare state for Jews that can co-exist with a similar one for others.
  • South Africa was a clearly indefensible state of the Afrikaans kin, and that structure was dismantled.

The United States is divided among all three influences. The founding of the American state was clearly chartist, and France even gave them a nice statue as a gift to celebrate this. For most of its history, however, the US acted as the state of the Anglo-Saxon kin. It embraced those Europeans who were closest to the kin, such as Germans, tolerated others such as Italians, and abused those who were clearly not kin: Blacks, latinos, asians. The Anglo-Saxon America clearly had no qualms about attacking distant, non-white people. The third influence, which is gaining ground, is to see sates and the federal government as financial services firms, with a few R&D departments, that provide a kind of backbone to private enterprise.

The EU stated out with the explicit claim to end the clan wars that ravaged the region for millennia. In this it brilliantly succeeded. The earlier years of the EU, and most of its architecture, is chartist. It unifies rules, creates enforcement mechanisms, and tries to ensure openness. In my opinion it lacks corresponding development of its services role. There has to be a unified approach to taxation, citizen’s obligations, and citizen’s entitlements between member states. That doen’t mean they should be the same, but rather they all need to be comparable and equally fair, and there needs to be an open way for citizens to join, leave, and transfer between welfare systems as they move through the EU.

I don’t know enough about China and India to characterise them. From a western perspective, China appears to be a kin state. It’s organised as a patriarchal family, where citizens are supposed to respect authority and work on common goals, in exchange for protection. Dissidents are severely punished. If that’s really true, China’s saving grace its lack of expansionist or imperialist tendencies. Even so I worry that a kin state containing one fifth of the word’s people will lead to conflict or exploitation depending on how those outside the kin organize themselves. By comparison, India appears to be so variegated that it’s not a credible kin state. It has strong chartist and some services elements, which I think is better for the long term welfare of the people in the region. I don’t know enough about it though.

These are important questions that need to be at the center of policy. If we ignore them the growth and diversification of private firms into providers of everything, from search to phones and from groceries to mortgages, will push states into a similar and shrinking role. You’ll buy healthcare from Tesco or from the NHS. You’ll use an infrastructure made by Google or by DARPA. You’ll pay your debt to the fed, or HSBC, or GE. What is the difference? That is a de-facto libertarian society.

A libertarian society may be a valid vision for the future. I sincerely doubt it, but the point is the world’s citizens shouldn’t sleepwalk into it while capital pushes it.

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