The State

Anthony de Jasay, courtesy of the author
Jasay, Anthony de
(1925- )
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First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date

1. The Capitalist State

If States Did Not Exist, Should They Be Invented?


People come to believe that because they have states, they need them.


Neither individual nor class interest can justify a state on prudential grounds.


We have derived some of the characteristic features of a state which would be "best" (alternatively, "least harmful") for capitalism, proceeding from the ideal conditions of capitalist ownership and exchange to how the state fulfilling these conditions might behave, and what reason it could possibly have for doing so. The image which is beginning to emerge is that of an unusual creature, bearing a relatively remote likeness to any real state that ever existed. The few real states I have alluded to in order to illustrate a point were chosen more for their style, flavour, and lack of governing zeal, than for being really close incarnations of the ideal being. The reverse procedure could, perhaps, be used to show that a less bizarre, more likely sort of state would really be more harmful to capital and capitalism, even if it was an unprincipled tool of the Two Hundred Families and sent gendarmes or the National Guard to help grind the face of the poor.


The real-life states people are stuck with, more often than not because their distant ancestors were beaten into obedience by an invader, and sometimes due to Hobson's choice, to having to take one king so as to escape the threat of getting another, are not primarily "good for this" or "least harmful for that." They are not shaped to meet the functional needs of a system of beliefs, preferences, life-styles or "mode of production." This affirmation of the autonomy of the state and the separateness of its ends does not exclude all scope, over time, for some mutual adaptation whereby the state comes to conform to people's customs and preferences, just as they learn to accept and, from time to time, to enthuse about some of the state's demands upon them.


Any real state, given its de facto origin, is primarily an historical accident to which society must adapt. This is unsatisfactory to those who, by both training and inclination, see political obligation as resting either on moral duty or on prudential purpose. Instead of a trivial theory showing obedience to result from the threat of coercion, more interest will be shown in theories which derive the state from the subject's own volition, if only because it is intellectually comforting to find coherent reasons for believing that we actually need what we have.


There are, in particular, two rival theories with the identical basic thesis that if the state did not exist, we should invent it. Both, I shall argue, rest on self-delusion. One holds that it is people in general who need the state which alone can fulfil the function of turning general conflict into general harmony. People not only need this, but are aware of their need, and by the social contract create the state and give it authority over themselves. The other theory proposes that it is the possessing class which needs the state as the indispensable instrument of class rule. The source of the state's political power is, in some fashion, the economic power which ownership confers upon the possessing class. The two powers, economic and political, complement each other in oppressing the proletariat. The purest, least ambiguous theorist of the social contract is Hobbes, and Engels is that of the instrument-of-class-oppression theory.


Both theories have an irreducible common core: both require people ("the people" in the one case, "the capitalist class" in the other), to abdicate a de facto faculty, the recourse to force. One and the other, each in the manner proper to it, confers a monopoly of the possession (and hence obviously of the use) of force upon Leviathan, the monarch or the class state. One's motive is fear, the other's greed; not moral but prudential reasons.


Neither provides any good ground for supposing that the state, once it has the monopoly of force will not, at times or forever, use it against those from whom it received it. Neither is a theory of the state in the proper sense, i.e. neither really explains why the state will do one thing rather than another. Why, in fact, should it stop people from killing and robbing each other rather than indulging in some robbery and, if need be, killing, on its own account? Why should it help the capitalists oppress the workers, rather than engage in the probably more rewarding pursuit of oppressing the capitalists? What maximand does the state maximize, what is its pay-off, and how does it go about getting it? The conduct of the state is assumed (it keeps the peace, it oppresses the workers) rather than derived from its rational volition.


The state, under either the contractarian or the Marxist hypothesis, has got all the guns. Those who armed it by disarming themselves, are at its mercy. The state's sovereignty means that there is no appeal against its will, no higher instance which could possibly make it do one thing rather than another.*18 Everything really depends on Leviathan giving no cause to people to rebel (Hobbes is assuming that it would not), or on the state oppressing only the right people, i.e. the workers.


There are certainly good reasons, both a priori and empirical, why such assumptions should, at least some of the time, be wrong. One cannot seriously expect people in general, or the capitalist class, to take such a gamble with an essentially unpredicted state for prudential reasons, though they might do so as an act of faith. The one plausible condition under which self-interest could induce rational people to take this risk is when the likely consequences of not disarming themselves in favour of the state look more dangerous still.

Notes for this chapter

Locke, seeking to oppose Hobbes and to present a more palatable doctrine, saw that if people's natural right was to remain inviolate (i.e. if the state was not to trespass upon property which, in turn, was coextensive with liberty), sovereignty could not be absolute. It had to be limited to the upholding of natural right (Second Treatise, 1689, section 135). Subjection of the executive to a strong legislature was to safeguard this limit.

Two objections arise. First, the sovereignty of the legislature being absolute, we are back in the Hobbesian situation: the legislature is the monarch; why should it not violate natural rights? Quis custodiat ipsos custodes? Second, why should the executive choose to stay subjected to the legislature?

Locke was really arguing from the circumstances of a historical fluke: property-owners have managed to dethrone James II and put William III in his place, therefore the legislature has the upper hand over the executive. He was manifestly unaware that by giving the majority the right of rebellion, he did not provide them with the means for rebelling successfully in less exceptionally propitious historical circumstances than those of the Glorious Revolution (1688). It is fairly probable that had he been writing in the age of armoured vehicles, automatic weapons and proper telecommunications, he would have avoided the concept of a right to rebel altogether. Even within the technical civilization of his own day, he failed to allow for a state which is neither inept at keeping power nor insensible to its subjects' property.

End of Notes

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