What’s the State?

To pick up where I left off in the previous post — “Governments fail because usually the citizens are not very clever, the politicians are power-grubbing cretins, and the bureaucrats are corrupt ignoramuses. The solution is therefore to keep government small and its scope severely limited” — let’s ask “What is the proper role of the government or the state?”[1]

For a start, we should define “the state.” The state, according to the German sociologist Max Weber (1854 – 1920), is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” This characteristic of the state, more than anything else, determines and constrains its scope.

Because the state has a legitimate monopoly on the use of force, two things necessarily follow: First, it has to concern itself with all activities that necessarily involve the threat and/or the use of force, and second, equally importantly it must be prohibited from engaging or interfering in any activity that does not inherently involve the threat and/or the use of force.

Because it must use or threaten the use of force in one set of activities, it must be prohibited from engaging in all complementary activities. Because it must be involved in policing (an activity that requires force or threaten its use), it must be prohibited from charity, for instance. We will address the reason why presently.

Let’s enumerate all those activities that involve the threat or the use of violence and/or force: external aggression and internal violence (broadly defined) such as murder, robbery and theft. The state has to use force to minimize these, and to punish whenever these occur for deterrence and retribution.

External aggression has to be resisted with force. Pleading with aggressors to be good does not work, however saintly the appeaser of dictators or tyrants pretends to be (à la Mohandas K Gandhi.) Therefore the state has to maintain an army. Protection of private property similarly requires the use of force since you cannot merely lecture criminals that it is morally impermissible to murder, rape, steal and defraud. The maintenance of civil order cannot be left to preachers of virtue; you have to promise appropriate (often violent) punishment for causing harm to others.

Nothing is costless in this material world of ours. Every activity incurs costs. For whatever activities the state undertakes, it has to raise revenues to meet its costs. These are called taxes. And the important, unavoidable reality is that taxes are ordinarily raised with the threat and/or use of deadly force.

The state does not send you a polite letter in the mail gently reminding you that you should contribute to the funds needed for the state to do its business. Your tax bill is mandatory, not optional as when you send in your voluntary contribution to your local public radio station. The public radio station can beg for all it’s worth pleading with you to do the right thing but it cannot send its goons to shoot you. Their mega-begging is at worst irritating but not harmful to your health.

Unlike the local public radio station, the state will send its goons to make you pay. If you don’t, they will arrest you and throw you in jail. And if you resist arrest, they will shoot you. The state has guns, and in many parts of the world the people are disarmed by the state (as in India and unlike in the US, thanks to the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution.) At the end of the day (literally the end of your day), the state will, and indeed does, kill you at will without much penalty. Taxes and state violence are intimately related in multiple ways.

The situation is simple to state. There are some activities in this world that involve violence and force. To have civilizational stability, we have to counter violence and minimize it — which necessarily requires the threat, and use, of retaliatory force. Cost minimization of the necessary protective use of force requires that we enable some entity to do the protection and for that we have to give that entity the monopoly of the use of force in the defined territory we live in. That’s the state. But it’s also the greatest source of evil in the world.

It’s a Faustian bargain, if ever there was one. Recognizing the state for what it actually is is the first step toward liberation. What’s that, you may ask.

I was coming to that.[2]

Picture at the heading of this post: From a visit to NYC in May. It’s the interior of the Oculus building in the World Trade Center complex. 


[1] I am equating the state and government here because, although the two can be usefully distinguished,  ignoring the distinction does not alter the argument presented here.

[2] “I was coming to that” is a favorite line from a favorite poem, “The Welsh Incident” by Robert Graves. Here’s Richard Burton’s recitation of that wondrous poem. You should follow the poem in the description section of the YouTube video.



Author: Atanu Dey


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