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I. The InstitutionMorton H. Fried


II. The ConceptFrederick M. Watkins



“L’état,” Louis xiv is reported to have said, Vest moi.” The clarity and ease of application of this definition are somewhat exceeded by its lack of utility. As a definition, however, it suffers only slightly more from the outrages of controversy than most other attempts to set out succinctly the essence of the institutional phenomenon known as the state. At one extreme of argument the state is identified with one or more highly specific features, such as organized police powers, defined spatial boundaries, or a formal judiciary. At the other end of the definitional spectrum the state is regarded simply as the institutional aspect of political interaction; no concrete structures are specified, and the state, being coterminous with society, vanishes in universality.

Nineteenth-century theorists, whether in moral philosophy or the emerging disciplines of political science, sociology, and anthropology, accepted a more or less rigid concept of the state as a complex of specific mechanisms of government which could be described in their own contemporary societies and which could be recognized in some form in the classical Mediterranean civilizations. Differences in gross types of polity did not disturb these thinkers. Aristotle, after all, had provided for at least three polarities, monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, each with its nonideal form, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy; this system of classification has remained without essential change to the present day, although its utility has declined sharply of late.

Though the Aristotelian approach predated the evolutionary orientation, it had several features that enabled it to fit very well into the mainstream of nineteenth-century thought. Foremost among these were its reliance on conventional logic and the fact that it had been developed, albeit long before, in a theoretical matrix of historical change. In political theory the difference between pure and corrupt forms and the possibility of passage from one type to another was evidently compatible with newer emphases on evolution and progress. The revolution in thought, which, at least temporarily, undermined the analysis of the state as a complex of concrete institutions, began toward the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of functionalism. It was in the twentieth century that new ways of looking at the state, stimulated by the parallel development of behavioral and operational approaches, began to show competitive degrees of refinement.

Definition of the state . According to George Sabine, the word “state” was fixed as a generic term for a body politic by Machiavelli early in the sixteenth century, at which time it seems to have been current in the form stato. Somewhat earlier, similar and related forms were used to designate “status” and “estate.” Slightly divergent in etymology, both words are traced to the Latin status, the participial form of stare, “to stand.” Considering the continuing problem of the relationship of the state to the existence of socioeconomic classes, the philological interdependence of state, estate, and status is of some interest.

In some definitions, such as those contributing to or inspired by Marxist theory, the state coincides with all societies composed of two or more classes involved in relations of dominance and subordination, primarily in the sphere of economics, but also in other sectors of social life. It is this postulated identity that underlies the concept of the withering away of the state and is proposed as rationalization and justification for the dictatorship of the proletariat: when only one class is in possession of society, the state, by this definition, must become a null category.

Equipped with a definition that furnishes a logical point of emergence and an equally logical point of expiration for the state, one may reasonably attempt to isolate characteristic features or mechanisms whereby the state may be recognized and its variations plotted. It is not surprising, moreover, that a considerable portion of the literature devoted to this subject is polemical and normative, given to proofs of the historical superiority of one system as opposed to another or to the inevitability of the emergence and the ultimate demise of the state. With regard to the latter points, an important focus of problems is found in the conditions and processes whereby states are precipitated; these subjects have long had particular fascination for anthropologists and more recently have attracted political scientists, who, rather than speculating on these questions from a distance, are going into the field to study the political systems of newly established states.

For various reasons, some political in the most restricted sense and others having to do with the dialectical character of the expansion of knowledge and the growth of theory, functionalism developed within sociology and anthropology partly as a counter to the dominant position of evolutionary orientations in nineteenth-century thought. Functionalism brought some changes in the formulation of problems; the quest for origins was abandoned, if not attacked on theoretical and methodological grounds. Concurrently, the emphasis on process in the analysis of systems and subsystems redirected attention toward types of societies that previously had been omitted from the field of study. This trend was reinforced by implicit or explicit subscription to cultural relativism; if no people lacked technology and religion, so too none lacked the state. In some approaches this led to virtual elimination of the term “state” and its content; the state was equated with political organization. The further development of operationalism and behavioral orientations encouraged these views. The strategy of operationalism concentrated research on the study of clearly separable parts of the political process and their interactions. The analysis of political systems as a whole, the implicit focus of evolutionary studies, was abandoned on the ground that the state, taken as a totality, was a variable congeries of complex institutions and an unwieldy research subject. Concomitantly, the growth of behaviorism, in a sense the operational phase of psychology, encouraged the study of the microprocesses of politics, decision making in particular. Moreover, a branch of mathematics specially geared to this type of problem analysis was developed. Game theory and complex statistical techniques capable of determining regularities in multivariate situations have greatly enhanced the prestige of the small-scale study. [See Systems Analysis.]

It is not unlikely that the future will see a rapprochement between these now divergent approaches. At present, however, conflict and parochialism overshadow harmony and the search for common denominators. As a result, it is impossible to offer a unified definition of the state that would be satisfactory even to a majority of those seriously concerned with the problem.

Territoriality . At first, the association of the state with a territory seems unlikely to encounter disagreement from any analyst, whatever his theoretical commitment. But difficulties do appear. In some simple cultures attachment to place is ad hoc and relates not to bounded areas but to scattered features of the environment, such as sources of water or windfall foods. Even with respect to strategic features, the concept of exclusive access is not universal. Unfortunately, it is probable that a completely definitive statement about the relations between truly primitive societies and their habitats, considered as domains, will remain beyond the power of anthropology to offer. There are no longer any such societies available for study. Interesting results are being obtained, however, from comparative observations of other primates; these show a range of situations, including the relatively close tie of a group to a locality as well as cases of both peaceful overlapping of territories and relatively easy movement of individuals from one resource area into that occupied by another group [see Social Behavior, Animal, article on Primate Behavior].

Vagueness in regard to the association between society and territory interfered in the attempt of the U.S. government to repair some of the inequities that attended the westward spread of the dominant culture. Skilled witnesses, attorneys, and federal judges tried to establish cash values for territories from which various Indian tribes, particularly in the area of the Great Basin and adjacent California, had been dispossessed, but there was incessant wrangling over which tribe had occupied exactly what stretch of ground.

More crucial to the discussion are those situations in which kinship rather than territoriality furnishes the basis of association. Two facts must be added immediately. First, proximity plays a role in the organization of all kinship groups, and to that extent all such groups are territorial. Second, the development of complex political organization does not extinguish kinship but leads to its reinterpretation, the loss of some old functions and the emergence of new ones. A kinship society, however, is one in which social relationships are primarily determined by pre-existing sociogenetic ties, with other principles of affiliation playing minor roles. Basically, apart from the network and ideology of sociogenetic and affinal kinship, there are no loci of power from which regular sanctions emanate. As indicated above, some scholars do not regard this as sufficient ground for withholding the designation of state. But it should be asked whether there is any value in a term stretched so broadly that it pertains simultaneously to both an acephalous, territorially unfocused aggregate of kin and a formally organized, territorially demarcated, elaborately coordinated society, composed of members whose only bonds are those of participation in the same social system or even in overlapping but largely discrete segments of a complex system. [See Stateless Society.]

There are other problems in the association of a state with a defined and bounded territory. The analysis of feudalism, for example, raises questions of this kind. Even in its European setting, where feudalism was tied so clearly to a territorially based manorialism, actual political ties did not always correlate with location; feudal hierarchies rarely can be understood in territorial terms, although they possess territorial elements [see Feudalism]. Perhaps a more illuminating case is that of the Berber rule in portions of north Africa until the middle of the last century. In that system a relatively high degree of governmental complexity existed in the context of general territorial ambiguity.

Sovereignty . Territoriality in many of its features raises questions of sovereignty—the identification and monopoly of paramount control in a society. The concern with the paramountcy of control is important. All complex societies and some of the simpler ones can be described as collections of administrative subsystems. Such a society has a kind of cellular structure which represents the areal spread of the political system. Thus, a federal system comprises provinces or “states,” which in turn consist of smaller units down to the lowest level of formal political control, such as wards, or precincts. These low-level units can be adapted to urban or rural settlement, to a nomadic life, to capitalism, socialism, or any other system of property ownership.

While most systems provide for considerable local power in carrying out the frequently vague or ambiguous prescriptions of higher authority, an implementation that often requires extensive ad hoc decision making, there are always provisions guaranteeing the final authority of the higher administrative echelons. The maintenance of channels of communication between levels is one of the most important of state tasks.

At best, sovereignty is a relative concept, though some states claim total power and attempt to wield it. Other polities (feudal, for example) exclude certain areas from control and thus circumscribe and reduce the sovereign power, as in the instance of the Magna Charta. Anthropologists and sociologists, particularly those working in premodern African states, have made fairly intensive analyses of the structural limits on the power of the ruler who has been found to be inhibited in the exercise of his office by the necessity of relying on advisers and agents and by the weight of ritual, if not tradition. These limitations can have the effect of an unwritten constitution, but what is not always realized is that they compromise the power of the ruler without compromising the power of the sovereignty concerned. Rulers, including dictators and despots, are only one focal manifestation of the power of the organized political state. It is obvious that this power must be transmitted and thus shared, but this does not eliminate it.

The inefficiency of physical means of communication and the lack of understanding of individual and group psychodynamics have interfered with the exercise of sovereignty. In addition to problems arising out of the necessity to parcel out authority to a bureaucracy, all complexly organized societies have been subject to what Karl Wittfogel has called the rules of diminishing administrative returns. This means that conflicts between higher and lower levels of authority may be decided by default of the superior level, which cannot apply its force to every issue and trouble spot but must husband it, defending strategic regions or institutions. The contest is particularly acute in some societies, although it is endemic in all. If the gap between the claims of sovereignty and the availability of force grows too great, the state may be destroyed. This may be the result of internal pressures, as a new group comes to power, or it may be accomplished externally, with conquest sweeping aside the outworn pretensions of sovereignty.

The failure to deal with problems of sovereignty has sometimes adversely affected field work in the social sciences. This is a particular matter of concern when a society has been described as if it were politically autonomous when, in fact, it has been under the firm control of a superior political establishment and therefore has suffered significant changes in its system of administration, economic allocation, warfare, and other major aspects of social life. The errors of description become errors of interpretation when observations made on such societies are purported to represent pristine conditions in the development of a political system. One empirical index of the magnitude of such errors is apparent in the failure of such studies to predict or even prepare us for the massive anticolonial revolutions sweeping much of the world. These studies have also been almost useless in furnishing guides to the developments that have taken place since the establishment of new states, especially in Africa.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the jurist John Austin tied his definition of law, and implicitly the concept of the state, to the concept of sovereignty. He held that positive law, on which formal government rested, could only exist in conjunction with a determinate locus of power and ultimate authority. Though no state has yet seen total power vested in the ruling forces, the wisdom of Austin’s suggestion is revealed by its utility. This value, however, diminishes as the frame of the problem moves from the evolution of the state to the functioning of particular political systems. [See Sovereignty.]

Legitimacy . Sovereignty involves the source of ultimate power in a society. Power is the ability to make and carry out decisions that are binding on the rest of the population. As such, it is essentially divorced from moral or value judgments. It is through the concept of legitimacy that ideology is blended with politics. One of the basic functions of legitimacy, in other words, is to offer an excuse for and justify the existence of the state; beyond this, it also justifies specific social orders and hierarchies and the means of maintaining them.

Related to this meaning of legitimacy, yet distinct, is the technical meaning of the term made familiar by Max Weber, which deals with the basis of acceptance by a population of a specific polity and system of rule. This conception both flows from and reinforces notions of social solidarity and integration. When used by Weber and his followers, the concept of legitimacy was superficially freed from connections with specific ideologies, but a deep current akin to utilitarianism, or to the older and now generally discredited concept of social contract, runs in it and is manifested in implications that all political systems ultimately rest upon the consent of the governed. [See Legitimacy.]

Without attempting to summarize the Weberian typology of modes of legitimizing authority, it is interesting to note that two of the types form a progression: The charismatic leadership of the magically potent warrior chief, which, with the delegation and routinization of power, becomes patrimonial. If development continues, it tends to be in the direction of increasing bureaucratization, which shows increasing rationalization of the process of government.

Since the time of Weber problems in the structure of bureaucracy have commanded increasing attention among sociologists. Such scholars as Peter Blau and Amitai Etzioni have expanded the theoretical frame of analysis and its appplications. Others, following the lead of political philosophers such as Michels, have stressed elitist elements and have taken more programmatic lines, becoming advocates of a timocracy based on managerial ability. The descriptive analysis of bureaucratic organization has been undertaken in relation to a wide variety of cultures. Some analyses have focused on societies long famed for bureaucratic complexity, such as traditional China, and have involved the overlapping labors of specialists from a number of different disciplines. Others have pioneered in less well known traditions, primarily in work on African kingdoms, such as Fallers’ study of Soga organization. Still other inquiries have been made into bureaucratic formations in industry and commerce, where these have not been branches of the state, yet have exerted statelike power not only over their employees but also over sectors of the public that have been affected by their pricing, marketing, or other policies, or their influence on decision making in formal organs of the state. All of these studies, particularly the last mentioned, have shown deep awareness of the interpenetration of political and economic behavior and institutions. [See Trade and Markets.]

State and economy . Politics has been defined by Harold Lasswell as the study of “who gets what, when, and how.” The distinction between economics and politics is in large measure a heuristic device of the analyst and a measure of his specialization. A case may be made, however, to show that one index of the complexity of a social system is the discreteness of its several subsystems of allocation. Another way of putting this is to remark that the development of the state parallels the development of semi-independent sectors of economic and political action. A number of profound questions flow from the foregoing statement. Some have to do with the integration of culture: it may be asked how far changes may develop in one cultural sector without necessitating at least compensatory changes in other sectors. Related to this question is the important problem of core and superstructure, raised not only in Marxist philosophy but in many other materialistic approaches to the nature of culture and society. It is interesting to consider the recent attempt to remold the economy of China by the primary means of applying tremendous political pressure to the population. In this attempt the Chinese Communist party rallied behind a slogan borrowed from Lenin, “the primacy of politics,” and vaunted ideological means over economic means of reforming the culture. The differences between economics and politics are made very clear when one compares the political-ideological view of the Chinese economy with what can be gathered of its statistical reality [see Chinese Society; Economic Data, article on Mainland China].

Conversely, a nineteenth-century myth still circulates in some quarters, spreading the fantasy that a state can exist that plays no role in the economy. No such state has yet existed, and there are ample theoretical grounds for believing it impossible. So-called laissez-faire governments had no hesitation in applying crushing force to the unpropertied in order to keep them in that status. The use of its power to maintain a specific social order is one of the primary aspects of the state, and the analysis of ancient, classical, and exotic legal codes confirms that the points in the social order that are considered strategic have invariably been definable as economic statuses. The codes of ancient Mesopotamian states, whether of Lipit-Ishtar or Hammurabi, of the Mediterranean civilizations, and of ancient China, as well as what is known of the legal structure of the Inca empire, indicate the same proliferating of law in the overlapping areas of property and status. The one area that competes most strongly with these is that of administrative law and rules of procedure. However, the sanctions involved in maintaining procedure are frequently couched in terms of a defense of the paramount status of the ruler, offenses against which may be regarded as the serious crime of lese majesty, or treason.

Among the various theories of the origin of the state are several that stress economic factors; one approach portrays the state as the precipitate of the social organization of the economy at a particular level of productive and distributive efficiency. According to the economic ideas of Karl Polanyi, the pristine state was a solution to the problems of organization of increasingly complex redistributive economies. The theory is broadly synthetic, relying also on Weberian notions about the development and routinization of bureaucracy, on Marxian notions of incipient class struggle, and on the ecological notions of Wittfogel, which relate the growth of complex government to the need for directing a large labor force carrying out socially compulsory tasks of irrigation and flood control.

This particular problem has attracted considerable attention in anthropology. Contributions have been made by archeologists and by some ethnographers. The former have produced evidence on the antiquity and importance of irrigation structures in civilizations in Asia and the New World. Ethnographers have observed societies presently dependent on irrigation works or drainage control and have attempted to evaluate the pressure such social tasks place on the political network. [See Urban Revolution.]

State and religion . There have been many states that have wedded the mechanisms of government to a particular sacred establishment, not merely in a supportive way but also to create an identity between political and religious hierarchies. The question of whether any state has ever existed completely free of religious ties is somewhat more difficult to answer, since it raises serious problems of definition.

As already indicated, the concept of legitimacy, which explains the basis of state sovereignty, is essentially an ideological rationalization of de facto political power. In every state the ideology of legitimacy is associated with extensive ritual, with ceremonies that are anything but hollow, even if they may not conform to a narrow definition of religion. Anthropologists have long been aware of the relations between ritual and social organization and are becoming increasingly concerned with this topic. Whether their attention has focused on the role and significance of the golden stool in Ashanti kingship or on the ceremonial first plowing which is a responsibility of the ruler in almost all of the states whose agrarian economies rested on irrigation, those who have studied political activity in simple states have become familiar with the interdependence of state and ritual, governance and myth.

Because so many early states either were theocracies or conceived of the political ruler as a god, there has been no shortage of theories attributing the origin of the state to the emergence of a powerful priesthood. Such theories tend to neglect or misinterpret the negative cases, such as ancient China, where the priesthood occupied an ancillary position. More importantly, however, such theorizing tends to miss the main question: Regardless of the alternate roles occupied by those who filled leadership positions, what were the conditions that demanded or at least supported the development and concentration of such new and extreme forms of social power? It is particularly the problem of supplying an excuse and rationale for this power that implicates the religious subsystem of the culture. Though there have obviously been a great many ways of linking religion and governance, the reasons for doing so remain few and simple. [See Ritual; Myth and Symbol; Religion.]

State and law . Quite obviously, as E. A. Hoebel has reminded us, the number of legal systems will shrink considerably if among the criteria of such systems is possession of marble edifices: courts of law above whose portals is inscribed, Fiat justitia, mat caelum. Most of those concerned with the problem of defining law will readily grant that elaborate courthouses are dispensable; indeed, they will give up the courthouse in toto. However, can they also give up the court?

Ultimately this question comes down to the distinction between law and custom. According to the historical school of jurisprudence, the distinction was inconsequential. The emphasis was on compliance rather than on the means of securing compliance. The problem, of course, is both real and practical: the state, as we have seen, cannot constantly mobilize its force at each point in its structure. On the other hand, it is well established that laws are not broken simply because police power is not being exerted. For the most part, social norms are maintained because of socialization; trouble cases, if they exceed a small minority of all cases, are evidence of a potentially fatal gap between ideology and polity. The majority of laws, then, are followed as if they were customs. Laws that are remote from customary behavior are very difficult to enforce; the weight of police needed to secure compliance may completely outweigh the objectives of the original proscriptions. Although there are many examples of this, the reaction of the population of the United States to the federal prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages has become a classic illustration.

The previous discussion of sovereignty and its natural, i.e., systemic, limitations suggests a possible answer to the question of the distinction between custom and law. It would seem that the essential criterion that differentiates the two is that concentrated force is available to make the breaking of a law both dangerous and expensive, whereas the breach of custom initiates a crisis that requires only a strong ego.

Beyond this point lies a vast field only partially explored by social scientists. Legal systems are by definition normative and thus fit only approximately, at best, with actual behavior. The sociology of law has made only limited excursions into the amount of variation between legal codes and customary patterns in different societies. Many other questions remain to be investigated, such as the reasons for the high incidence of specific types of illegal behavior in particular societies. Other questions are best treated in a broad comparative frame; these have to do with variations in justice and equity by class and social status and the evaluation of the strength of bureaucracy in replacing conventional legality with its own administrative codes. These phenomena are by no means limited to modern Western society and the states it has influenced but seem to be a functional aspect of bureaucratic organization, wherever found. [See Legal Systems, article on Comparative Law and Legal Systems; and the articles listed in the guide under Law.]

State and nation . One of the intellectual functions of the historical school of jurisprudence was the attempt to counteract the predominance of the Roman concept of jus gentium in the legal theory of the time. This was made particularly clear in the romantic and fervidly nationalistic writings of von Savigny and is most conspicuously intertwined with the development of the modern German state. According to the principles of jus gentium, the law of the state was to incorporate, wherever possible, those elements that seemed common to all traditions. This was an appropriate attempt for an expansionistic empire with goals of universality, as Rome was at the height of its political maturity. The romantics, particularly the Germans, whose political thought was already showing affinity for the blight of racism, exalted a different goal and were driven to establish the identity of a population sharing the myth of common descent and a common culture with one sharing a common government.

One of Maine’s great contributions was to show how the life of the state rests upon legal fictions. The romantic nationalistic theory of the state introduced and emphasized fictions that extended far beyond the area of jural personality. Fictions of commonality, at best, were and remain selectively distilled myths whose main reality lies in their ability to lead a population to internal violence and external aggression. Beyond wedding the state with a xenophobic notion of race, the romantic-historical approach assisted in the creation of a mystique which, in a familiar phrase, places the state above society.

The philosophy of one folk-one state helped cause some relatively minor nuisances before it matured as a major irritant in the attempt to draw a rational map of Europe after World War i. Little thought was given at that time to the effects of the spread of the thesis of self-determination to areas then held as colonies. The rapid emergence of scores of new nations after World War n is only a foretaste of what may be expected as today’s minorities demand separate statehood tomorrow.

In conjunction with this problem, it is interesting to note that Marxist theory strongly crticizes all schemes that attempt to link the state and ethnicity. Class solidarity is seen, of course, as the product of the most enlightened form of association. Since class solidarity is thought to be the means of polarizing the struggle against the state, the state acts to counter it and, as one technique to that end, creates dissension by favoring bourgeois nationalism and ethnic chauvinism. Such is the theory, but within the orbit of this theory, the last decade has seen the formal assertion of principles startlingly like those of nationalism. [See Communism, article on National Communism; Nation; Nationalism.]

State and war . Although several states have passed through long periods of peace, there is a deep and abiding association between the state as a form of social organization and warfare as a political and economic policy. From the viewpoint that the state is an institutional invention of post-neolithic times, it can be convincingly argued that the development of the state has been paralleled by growth in the scale of war. Although much of this growth can be attributed to technological advances, the state clearly provides a means for organizing violence on such a large scale as to lend a new quality to war. In addition, the state has provided an improved economic basis for the constant maintenance of military forces and has marshaled and multiplied the motives and justifications for the use of organized force.

Unfortunately, there is no convincing theory in which confidence can be placed in the attempt to eliminate war as a means of attaining national goals. Indeed, with few exceptions, such as the work of Quincy Wright, the serious literature of the social sciences has conspicuously ignored the subject of war, which is usually left to the province of the historian [see War]. In recent years, however, there has been a significant growth of interest in such studies within the power-wielding circles of the great states and in the decision-making echelons of the United Nations.

A supranational agency, a state above states, meets many of the logical requirements of a body capable of suppressing wars. Given sufficient force and the authority to use it autonomously, such a body might be capable of rendering the resort to violence socially and economically unwise for any state or its ruling class or party. It is also capable, theoretically, of carrying out functions calculated to reduce or remove the necessity of choosing war as an instrument of policy. It might do this by enhancing its provision of the office of third party in the arbitration of disputes and by enforcing its decisions. Hopefully, it would also expand its work directly within member states to modify conditions that are discovered to breed war. Unfortunately, all of these functions, and several others not here mentioned, require that the United Nations, or another supranational body, be given forces and powers that conflict with the earlier established notion of state sovereignty. [See International Organization.]

The problem will be exacerbated when the possession of nuclear armaments spreads to small states whose ruling cliques or classes cherish grand ambitions which they are willing, or which they are forced, to place ahead of the demands of international responsibility. When that situation is reached, even more than in the anxious present, the structural affinity of the national state for war will constitute a constant threat to the existence of all states, no matter how large or prosperous. The danger is already perceived. It may provide the stimulus that will enable the major powers to cooperate effectively and sacrifice some portion of their individual sovereignties, so that the benefits of complex society can be preserved and expanded and the viability of the human race protected.

Morton H. Fried


A guide to related articles and a combined bibliography appear after the article that follows.


The state is a geographically delimited segment of human society united by common obedience to a single sovereign. The term may refer either to the society as a whole or, more specifically, to the sovereign authority that controls it.

As the above definition shows, the concept of the state is closely related to the concept of sovereignty, which was first developed in the field of jurisprudence. It starts from the essentially legalistic assumption that all political societies are, or ought to be, united under a determinate rule of law. Since laws emanating from several authorities are likely to come into conflict, it follows that there can be no determinate law of the land unless there is, within that land, a supreme law-making authority whose decisions are final. If the law of the land is to prevail, moreover, it must be backed by effective sanctions. Thus coercive power, as well as legal authority, are both essential to the juristic concept of sovereignty. The state is a territory in which a single authority exercises sovereign powers both de jure and de facto. [See Sovereignty.]

In the history of political thought, the term “state” has enjoyed wide currency, both as a normative and as a descriptive concept. Normative theorists, convinced that the concentration of coercive powers in the hands of a single determinate authority is indispensable to the maintenance of public order in any given territory, have frequently tried to show that obedience to the state is the highest form of political obligation. Descriptive theorists, without necessarily committing themselves to the normative proposition that the state is supremely valuable, have likewise been disposed, in many cases, to single it out among all social institutions as the only one that is distinctively “political” and to regard the description and analysis of the state as the central problem of political science. In the remainder of this article I shall consider the role of both these usages, first the normative and then the descriptive, in the development of modern political thought.

The normative concept

The primary value of the concept “state,” historically speaking, lies in its normative contribution to the early development of Western political institutions. When the word “state” first appeared in its present sense in the course of the sixteenth century, its significance was clearly revolutionary. The men who used it were consciously opposed to existing political traditions. For them the state was not a present fact but a desirable objective. By giving new meaning to the old concept “sovereignty,” which then meant “kingship,” they hoped to overcome the traditional pluralism of Western politics and thereby to place the maintenance of public order on new and sounder foundations. Their efforts were largely successful. For several centuries the establishment and maintenance of states was widely accepted as the proper goal of political action. At a formative stage of their development the political thought and institutions of the modern world were shaped by this belief.

The political conditions against which the new concept was directed were an outgrowth of the Middle Ages. During the centuries that followed the fall of Rome, the political organization of the Western world was extremely pluralistic. Theoretically the medieval political system was dualistic, being based on the idea that the pope and emperor, as vicars of Christ, were jointly responsible for the governance of Christendom, the former being the final authority in spiritual questions, the latter in secular ones. In practice, however, the division of authority went even farther. The secular realm in particular was broken down into a complex network of overlapping jurisdictions, each of which was recognized as being vested with prescriptive or contractual rights of its own. Under these conditions no territorial ruler had either the power or the authority to maintain an effective rule of law. Conflict and insecurity were endemic to the system. [See Christianity.]

The modern state is the product of a long and ultimately successful struggle to overcome these difficulties. It was accomplished by a gradual increase in the power of territorial princes at the expense of all other authorities. By the fourteenth century the kings of France had already gone a long way toward reducing the independent powers of the church and toward controlling the feudal magnates. Other kings, in varying degree, were similarly successful. This involved the violation of many vested rights and encountered much resistance. Because of the sacredness of their office, however, kings had a great advantage over most of their rivals in the general competition. As a result of their efforts the foundation of the modern state was well under way by the end of the Middle Ages.

Machiavelli . It was not until the sixteenth century, however, that the concept “state” gained currency. Niccoló Machiavelli was the man who introduced the word in its modern sense into the vocabulary of politics. His use of the term was a reflection of the special problems then being faced by his native Italy. In many respects Italy had been a leader in the development of modern political institutions. For various reasons feudalism had never flourished there. This meant that there were comparatively few traditional interests to stand in the way of an effective concentration of power. But the form that concentration took in Italy was an uncommon one. A traditional bone of contention between popes and emperors, the country as a whole had no king to serve as a focus for the creation of a single state. Renaissance Italy was a patchwork of republics and principalities, all vying with one another in a ruthless competition for power. This was the world that Machiavelli knew, the world that found expression in his theory of the state.

“Reason of state” was the central principle of Machiavelli’s thought. Although the phrase itself does not appear in his own works, the idea is implicit in everything he wrote. According to this principle, politics consists essentially in an all-out struggle for power. The proper objective of political action is to maximize the power of the state. All things are permitted, on the sole condition that they are “rationally” calculated to further the objective. Like so many men of the Renaissance, Machiavelli was magnificently confident in the possibility of achieving results by the use of rational techniques. The state to him was an artifact, a work of art created by the skill and genius of statesmen. To teach the basic rules of that art was the purpose of his political writings.

Machiavelli’s theory was too extreme to be widely influential in its original form. The difficulty lay in his disregard for the problem of legality. Accustomed to thinking of political authority in terms of the rule of law, the Western world was reluctant to accept a system that subordinated all other considerations to the pure pursuit of power. It is true that reason of state was a concept that could not be entirely neglected. Beginning with Giovanni Botero, who seems to have invented the term, books devoted to the subject began to appear in most of the principal countries and languages of Europe. They were greeted with some uneasiness, however, and “Machiavellian” gained international currency as a word of popular opprobrium. [See Machiavelli.]

Bodin . It was Jean Bodin who first succeeded in formulating the concept “state” in an acceptable way. Bodin was a Frenchman whose view of politics was largely shaped by conditions in sixteenth-century France. Unlike the Italian republics and principalities, the French monarchy was a typical large-scale state, and its problems were typical modern problems.

In that country the pluralistic traditions and institutions of the Middle Ages, though greatly affected by the expansion of royal power, were still much more formidable than they had been in Renaissance Italy. This led, with the advent of the Reformation, to a serious political crisis. In accordance with the traditions of Christian dualism, the church had the right and duty to defend the true faith against heretical kings. In a time of religious disunity, when the claim to orthodoxy was in dispute between two or more rival churches, no ruler could avoid appearing as a heretic to some part of the population. This meant, in France, that a strong Protestant minority felt justified in disputing the authority of their Catholic kings. Some of them, known as monarchomachs, even went so far as to maintain that heretical rulers ought to be forcibly deposed and, if necessary, killed. Although the Protestants were unable to control the country as a whole, they were strong enough to dominate a number of provincial parliaments and other local agencies that had survived from the feudal period and to use the traditional privileges of those agencies as legal justification for their resistance to the king. Thus the unity of the kingdom was effectively broken, and the country was committed to a long and exhausting period of religious warfare.

Bodin’s epoch-making theory of sovereignty was an idea developed in response to this situation. He adhered to the position of the politiques, a loosely associated group of theorists and statesmen who deplored the trend toward religious extremism and who believed that law and order were political values that ought to be preserved at all costs. This led him to the conclusion that there ought to be, in every state, a single recognized lawmaker, or sovereign, whose decisions were recognized as having final authority. As against the sovereign no vested interests and no sort of jurisdiction, secular or spiritual, could rightfully prevail. For Bodin sovereignty was a matter not so much of power as of legal right. The value of a coherent legal order was the premise from which he deduced the need for a sovereign authority. Unlike Machiavelli’s, his view of the state was squarely in line with the Western tradition of respect for the rule of law. Through him the concept was firmly established in the repertory of Western political thought. [See Bodin.]

The cult of the state reached its highest point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From the end of the Thirty Years’ War to the French Revolution absolute monarchy reigned almost without a challenge as the standard form of political organization. After more than a century of religious warfare most people were ready to accept the Bodinian position as the only possible basis for the maintenance of public order. The most serious limitation on the authority of princes had been eliminated by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which expressly confirmed the right of secular sovereigns to determine the religious duties of their subjects. In secular matters, also, their supremacy was generally recognized. It is true that in some countries, most notably in England, some vestiges of the older pluralism still managed to survive. But these were rare exceptions, and even in England the theoretical dualism of king-in-parliament soon gave way, in practice, to the sovereignty of parliament. Thus western Europe, for more than a century, was ruled by a number of clearly determinate sovereigns, hereditary monarchs in most cases, who exercised an unlimited right to make and enforce the laws within their respective states. The obligation of the subject to obey the sovereign was the highest form of duty. [See Monarchy.]

Erosion of the normative concept

Ever since the French Revolution the normative power of the concept “state” has steadily eroded. Indeed the process had already started by the beginning of the eighteenth century. As the fear of religious warfare faded, people came to feel that the maintenance of law and order was not enough, in itself, to justify political action. Individual happiness and social justice came also to be reckoned as values, values in terms of which it was right to make demands. In the eighteenth century the primary inspiration for such demands was the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Legal equality, intellectual freedom, and laissez-faire economics were the liberal ideas that first gave men the vision of a better world to come. Nationalism and socialism, later on, gave rise to similar hopes. To people inspired by such ideas obedience to the state was no longer acceptable as the highest form of political obligation. If sovereigns would consent to become reformers, well and good; if not, reform would have to be achieved in defiance of them. Although the philosophers of the Enlightenment long persisted in the hope of achieving their purposes through the “enlightened despotism” of existing rulers, the final outcome of their efforts was the French Revolution. This was only the first of a long series of revolutionary movements which led, in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to a marked and progressive deterioration of the authority of the state.

Anarchism and socialism . One consequence of the modern age of revolution has been to encourage the development of philosophic anarchism. An anarchistic element was implicit from the beginning in the theory of liberalism. Although most liberals recognized the need for a rule of law enforced by coercive sanctions, they emphasized the spontaneous self-regulation of society by noncoercive institutions, such as the free market. To them, the government was best that governed least. This greatly reduced the dignity and importance of the state and led a few individuals—William Godwin, for example—to the extreme conclusion that a government that had wholly ceased to exist would be the best government of all.

It was not until the nineteenth century, however, in connection with the rise of socialism, that anarchism really flourished. Athough some, like Saint-Simon, believed in using the powers of government for the attainment of social justice, the more important socialists thought of the state quite simply as an agency of economic oppression and regarded the elimination of all coercive authority as one of their principal objectives. This was the view of Marx and Engels. It was also that of Proudhon, whose influence in the early socialist movement was second only to their own. Although twentieth-century socialists have generally abandoned this position, it still enjoys wide currency as part of the orthodox doctrine of the modern communist movement, as established by Lenin. [See Anarchism; Marxism.]

The theory of popular sovereignty . In most cases, however, the modern reaction against the cult of the state has taken a different form. The usual thing has been to recognize the need for coercive authority but to reduce the prestige of actual rulers by making a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. This follows the line which had already been developed in the Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762). The outstanding feature of Rousseau’s political thought was his insistence that sovereignty was an inalienable right of the people and that no government, even as delegate of the people, could properly claim any share whatever in the exercise of sovereign powers, including legislation. Though few of his successors were willing to follow him all the way in denying the legislative authority of governments, his doctrine of popular sovereignty was widely influential. [See the biography of Rousseau.] In their contest with the monarchy the leaders of the French Revolution relied heavily on the proposition that the third estate, as representatives of the people, were the rightful rulers of France. In subsequent revolutions similar claims were made on behalf of the nation or the proletariat. The result, in each case, was to attack the position of established state authorities by appealing to an alternative and presumably more popular source of sovereignty.

Revolutionary in its origins, the theory of popular sovereignty was destined in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to become the only widely accepted basis of political legitimacy. It is true that after the French Revolution conservative theorists tried for a time to defend and strengthen the old connection between sovereignty and government. Burke, with his emphasis on the importance of maintaining political traditions, and Hegel, with his more elaborate theory of the state as the ultimate achievement of a rational “world spirit,” were among the more notable defenders of the older conception. [See the biographies of Burke; Hegel.] There were also attempts, especially by the papacy, to counteract the more extreme pretensions of popular sovereignty by showing that God is the one true source of political authority and that to rebel against established governments is a sin against God himself. Even among the liberals, moreover, the theory of popular sovereignty met some resistance. For example, most liberal governments felt free to claim imperial rights in colonies without any appeal to popular consent on the ground that non-European peoples were not yet ripe for self-government. In the long run, however, the idea of popular sovereignty could nowhere be successfully withstood. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries colonial empires and traditional monarchies alike have repeatedly had to make way for movements claiming the indefeasible right of national self-determination. Most governments today, no matter how oppressive they may be in fact, find it necessary to justify themselves as representatives of the people. In that sense democracy is the well-nigh universal norm of contemporary politics.

This development has led to a marked devaluation of the normative concept of the state. In the days when the sovereign was an actively ruling monarch the entire power and prestige of the state was concentrated in his person. The aura of kingship created a vast distance between him and his subjects and lent special dignity to the civil and military servants who executed his will. Under democratic conditions this view of the state as a thing apart is not easy to maintain. Though allegiance to a democracy may be symbolized by flags, anthems, and uniforms, and even by a royal family, the authority to which these symbols point is no longer that of a prince over his subjects but that of a sovereign people, collectively, over its own individual members. Under these circumstances the state is hard to distinguish from the citizens in whose name and over whom its authority is being exercised. Sovereignty thus conceived is little more than a bloodless legal fiction. Attention shifts from the state to the government, which, though it makes no claim to sovereignty, does all the actual ruling. [See Democracy.]

Constitutional democracy . The erosion of the concept is especially clear in the case of constitutional democracy. When the powers of government are limited by the provisions of a constitution, written or unwritten, it is hard to say who, if anyone, is in a position to exercise sovereignty. Although the government is supposed to reflect the will of the “sovereign” people, actual decisions are the outcome of a complex political process in which many different agencies, both private and public, are allowed to play a part. Since the rights and duties of these various agencies are defined by the constitution, it is sometimes said that in constitutional democracies the constitution itself is sovereign. This is true in the sense that obedience to the constitution is apt, in such societies, to acquire much of the normative value once associated with obedience to a king. But a constitution, unlike a king, is not a person with a mind and will of its own; it is a collection of laws and usages that have to be defined and enforced by someone. Like other democratic processes, the process of making constitutional decisions is diffuse. Even in Great Britain, where the rights of Parliament from a legal standpoint are virtually unlimited, there is in practice no single agency with absolute power to change the constitution. Although the powers of a constitutional democracy are in a very real sense derived from the consent of the governed, the process of eliciting that consent is highly complex. To say where sovereignty lies in such a system is almost impossible. [See Constitutions and Constitutionalism.]

For normative purposes, therefore, the concepts of state and sovereignty have lost much of their former significance. To jurists, who must stop somewhere in their search for a final legal authority, these concepts will always be meaningful. To dependent peoples throughout the world the idea of independent statehood is still an object of aspiration. It would be an exaggeration to say, therefore, that the concepts of state and sovereignty have lost all normative value. The fact remains, however, that the effect of modern democracy in all of its forms has been to devalue them. A large part of the world is at present ruled by communist regimes, which expressly promise an ultimate “withering away of the state” and justify their continuing use of coercive power in terms of social justice and the interests of the proletariat. Where communism does not prevail, the words to conjure with are “people,” “country,” “nation,” and “race.” Few people today would regard obedience to the state, as such, as the highest form of duty. Bodin’s theory of the state as the ultimate value of politics is practically extinct.

The descriptive concept

In addition to its normative role the concept “state” has also played an important part in the attempt to create a descriptive science of politics. There was a time, indeed, when most people would have agreed that political power is nothing more or less than sovereign power and that the proper subject of political science is the study of the state. Staatswissenschaft, the nearest German equivalent for the English “political science,” reflects a point of view which was by no means limited to the German-speaking world. Thus James W. Garner’s Introduction to Political Science, an influential American textbook which appeared in 1910, starts from the proposition that “political science begins and ends with the state.” This view of the discipline was once the standard one, but few would subscribe to it today.

The idea that the state alone can provide the basis for truly political behavior goes back to the beginnings of Western political thought. For Plato and Aristotle the city-state, or polis, was the ultimate expression of man’s intrinsic capacity for social action. Although many social needs could be met by lesser associations, such as the family and the village, the city-state alone, in the opinion of these early philosophers, was sufficiently comprehensive to enable man to realize his full potentialities and thus to develop that “good life” which was the proper goal of his social existence. The good man was one who lived in close and harmonious association with all his fellow citizens in a perfectly integrated polis. To the founders of Western political thought, therefore, the city-state was a form of human association generically different from all others. Lesser units, like the family, were too small to be self-sufficient; greater units, like the vast barbarian empires of the East, were too large to meet the human need for social communication. Only the city-state was both large enough and small enough to enable men to achieve a truly lawful and human form of social life. That is why political science, to the ancient Greeks, could begin and end with the polis. [See Plato; Aristotle.]

The influence of this tradition is clearly reflected in modern political thought. It is true that the modern state is in many ways quite different from the ancient polis. Its territorial extent is normally far greater, and its relationship to the social life of its members is correspondingly less intimate. Instead of being regarded as an aspect of the common life of a close-knit community of citizens, the modern state often appears as an external agency of control, ruling over a more or less random and heterogeneous collection of subjects. The British and Hapsburg empires are typical cases in point. Different as such aggregates may be from the ancient polis, however, the modern state resembles its predecessor in ways that might seem to entitle it, also, to be regarded as the central concern of a specialized science of politics.

The essential point is that the modern state, like the ancient polis, is both large enough and small enough to provide a uniquely effective form of social integration. In all modern societies the rights and duties of men are defined by a wide variety of associations and enforced by various agencies. Some, like the family, are less comprehensive— others, like the Roman Catholic church, more comprehensive—than any single state. Large or small, however, these “private” associations are rarely self-sufficient. In pursuit of their respective goals they make rival claims which often lead to conflict. The distinctive function of the state is to regulate such conflicts. In territories where a sovereign is available to decide between rival claims and to enforce its decisions if need be with adequate coercive sanctions, it is possible to achieve a substantial degree of social coherence. Thus the modern state, like the ancient polis, is a form of association to be distinguished from all others by virtue of its unique capacity for achieving integrative action. The idea that political science begins and ends with the state is a reflection of the idea that this type of action, and this type alone, is essentially political.

This idea no longer corresponds, however, to the theory and practice of contemporary political scientists. Although problems of state and sovereignty are occasionally discussed, they are rarely regarded as central to the discipline. In the United States especially, attention is now focused mainly on problems of political power and on the nature and operation of political systems in general. The tendency is to regard politics not as a function specifically limited to one particular type of social organization, the state, but as a particular functional aspect of social life in general. According to this point of view, the power relationships that exist in trade unions or professional associations are no less “political” than those existing within a national government and no less worthy of attention. Some scholars believe, indeed, that the “micropolitical” rather than the “macropolitical” is the most promising line of approach and that the study of all larger political structures should be based on a thorough knowledge of small groups and of face-to-face relationships. This is not to say that contemporary political scientists are uninterested in the larger forms of political organization; the modern state is too powerful an institution to be neglected by students of politics. Typically, however, the interest today is not in the state as such, but in the governments or political processes that operate within it. [See Government; Political Process.]

This shift of interest away from the state may be taken, at least in part, as a reflection of the increasingly nonlegalistic character of contemporary political science. The concepts of state and sovereignty have traditionally rested on the assumption that the determination and enforcement of legal rights is the most important technique of social integration. The political tradition of the West, with its long-standing commitment to the maintenance of an effective “rule of law,” is based on this assumption. When the problems of politics are thought of in this way, it is natural for political science and jurisprudence to be closely associated and to share many common concepts. To modern social scientists, however, the juristic approach to political problems is comparatively uncongenial. Important as law may be in society, it is only one among many possible agencies for the control of social behavior. Contemporary political scientists generally believe that they ought to study political power in all of its manifestations, not just in its legal aspects.

The state does not, of course, have to be defined in legalistic terms. Because of the coercive aspect of law, power as well as authority have always been associated with the idea of the state. The familiar distinction between sovereignty de facto and de jure is a reflection of this fact. This being so, there is no reason why political scientists, with their special interest in problems of power, should not confine their attention to the de facto aspects of sovereignty and treat the state quite simply in these terms. Considered without reference to the problems of legal authority, the distinctive feature of the state, as compared with other associations, is its attempt to monopolize coercive power within its own territory. Although the limiting case of absolute monopoly is never reached in fact, it has often been approximated. From the standpoint of a purely descriptive political science it is sufficient, therefore, to define the state in terms of the limit and to study the conditions that accompany the greater or lesser degrees of monopoly that have been achieved in particular times and places. Thus defined, the concept “state” has no necessary connection with the making and enforcing of law and is compatible with a wholly nonlegalistic approach to the problems of politics.

Even in this form, however, the concept is little used. The difficulty is that it places excessive emphasis on the coercive aspects of political life. In the days of absolute monarchy it was not unnatural to think of politics as a one-way relationship of command and obedience between a ruler and his subjects. The interaction between a sovereign people and its government cannot be so simply understood. Although modern governments may act coercively, they lack that ultimate identification with the sovereign state which constituted the peculiar strength of the older monarchies. The concept “the sovereignty of the people” still remains as a useful political catch phrase, but it is too abstract to throw much light on the realities of contemporary politics. That is why political scientists generally prefer to use other terms in describing the phenomena that once were subsumed under the concept “state.”

Frederick M. Watkins

Directly related are the entries Authority; Government; International Politics; Nation; Power; Social Structure; Sovereignty. Other relevant material may be found in Political Anthropology; Political Science; Political Theory


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Before the sixteenth century the word state was used to refer to the estates of the realm or to kingly office or dignity, but not to an independent political community. Niccolò Machiavelli was largely responsible for establishing this modern usage. The change, however, was not in words only but also in ways of thinking about political organization and political relations. In feudal society a man figured in a network of quasi-contractual relations in which his political rights and duties were closely linked to land tenure and fealty. He was his lord's man and his king's man. The powers of kingship were only with difficulty distinguished from property rights. From the twelfth century on, the conceptions of Roman law began once more to influence political thought. Public authority was more sharply distinguished from private rights; the peculiar position of the king among his barons, which feudal writers recognized but found difficult to conceptualize, came to be expressed in Roman termsthe princeps was said to speak on behalf of the whole people and to exercise imperium, as distinct from a feudal privilege, because his care was for the whole respublica.

However, so long as barons could still simultaneously hold fiefs from different kings in different lands, the notion could not develop of the territorially defined state, making an exclusive claim to the allegiance of all who resided within its borders. The idea that men could be not only subjects of their king but also citizens of their state became possible with the consolidation of national monarchies in England, France, and Spain. Its development was assisted in the thirteenth century by the quickening of interest in Aristotle's ideas about the city-state and, in the early sixteenth century, by the Renaissance interest in the ancient Roman republic. Classical elements, then, were grafted onto the late medieval stock to produce the Renaissance state.

With the declining influence of such customary forms of regulation as feudal and manorial ties, the guild, and the family, the state became an indispensable category for any kind of speculative thought about society. Moreover, as the grip of custom slackened, men came to think that law might be made by an authoritative will rather than discovered by the understanding or known by tradition. The political order, as the authority structure through which law was created and which therefore conferred legal status and rights on all other forms of association, gained a corresponding preeminence. Out of the split in the universal church and the consequent alliance for mutual survival between protestant princes and religious reformers, there emerged the idea of a national church closely related to the state, further stressing that the state was a community or polity and not simply an aggregation of men who happened to owe allegiance to a common overlord. The consolidation of national states created a new state of naturea world peopled by sovereign states recognizing no overriding authority and only tenuously subject, if at all, to a common law. Francisco Suárez, Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel von Pufendorf, the pioneers of international law, explored the relations between states in such a world; what was implied for the internal structure of a state was worked out by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes.

Identity of the State

Since the seventeenth century, political philosophers have been largely preoccupied with the relations of the state and the individual, with the citizen's rights, if any, against the state, with the right of the state to punish, to promote morality, or to regulate the affairs of other associations such as families, trade unions, and churches. These matters have been all the more troublesome because there is disagreement about the proper analysis of propositions about the state. For instance, what does it mean to say that a state has acted in a certain way, made a decision, adopted a policy, assumed responsibility, and so on? These are not statements about every one of its citizens, nor are they simply statements about the acts of certain individuals who govern the state; for not all the actions of the person who for the time being is president are acts of the United States, nor is an act of the state always attributable to one person in particular. Hobbes was certainly mistaken when he argued that what made an aggregate of many men into one corporate person was that one man acted for the rest: "The unity of the representer, not the unity of the represented maketh the person one " (Leviathan I, 16).

Again, what kind of sustained identity has the state, that one can speak of its enduring through many generations of natural lives? It is tempting to meet such a question with an organic analogy: Although the cells die and are replaced, the organism survives; although an action of an organism requires nothing more than the coordinated operations of its organs, it is not identical with the actions of any one or of all of them (unless their functions as elements in an organism are presupposed in the descriptions of their actions). The organism, it is often said, is a form of life transcending its parts; purposes are attributed to it that are not the purposes of any one of its parts or of all of them taken severally. Many writers, notably the Hegelians, have described the state in this way, exalting the interests of the state at the expense of the interests of its members considered as individuals.

A quite different account of the state has been given by writers who have employed atomic or contractual models, with explanatory analogies drawn from joint-stock corporations, clubs, or perhaps from mechanical contrivances. Thus, Hobbes talks of the state as an artificial man, contrived by an agreement of self-determining individuals. It can have no purposes not ultimately reducible to the purposes of individuals; its acts are those of a sovereign authorized to act on their behalf. The contractual analogy in Hobbes and John Locke is a device for explaining how and under what conditions the acts of one or a few ruling individuals could be attributed to a body composed of a multitude of free and autonomous persons, all with their own separate interests, yet each committed by his own consent to a public interest in which he has a personal stake.

The problem of meaning, however, must be distinguished from the moral problem of obligation. The notion of corporate action does not necessarily entail consent or authorization on the part of individual members, although it could be argued that without consent the individual could have no moral commitment or responsibility. Acts of the state are acts of persons in an official capacity, acting according to procedures and within the competence prescribed by the rules of its constitution. A president's actions are those of the United States only when they form part of a particular procedural routine; they then indicate appropriate responses by other officials. When the president acts in nonofficial rolesas father or as member of his golf clubhis actions are incidents in what a Wittgensteinian would call different "games" and therefore have appropriately different implications. The enduring identity of a state can be correspondingly analyzed in terms of the endurance of its procedural order. The Constitution of the United States has had an unbroken history since its adoption in 1788; the changes it has suffered have all been valid according to the criteria it prescribes for itself.

This sort of analysis explains the personality and life of a state without resorting to organic analogies or to metaphysical notions of an order of being where a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, it does not deal with all the problems. Despite several revolutions since 1789, there is a sense in which the French state has a continuous history, unlike the Austro-Hungarian state that was destroyed after World War I and replaced by a number of successor states. If the population of an area continues to be governed undivided, as an independent political unit, there seem to be grounds for saying that it remains the same state, despite changes in regime. In the case of France, although formal continuity of legitimization broke down between, for instance, the Second Empire and the Third Republic, there is a continuity of tradition and, despite deep cleavages, a sense that however bitterly rival groups contend, they are nevertheless committed by their awareness of history and common culture to remaining in political association. A struggle to control or reconstruct the machinery of government is not necessarily, then, an attempt to break up the political association, as it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The State as an Association

To call the state an association is to put it on the same footing as clubs, churches, and trade unions. There are features of the state, however, which, although no one of them is peculiar to the state alone, together make it a rather special case. For instance, because people do not usually become or remain members of a state by choice, and because a state exercises exclusive authority over everyone in a given territory, the concept of membership is hazier than in the case of voluntary associations. The state insists that not only its citizens but also everyone else in its territorial jurisdiction shall conform to its rules. Indeed, the notion of a citizen suggests a certain minimum degree of active participation. This may be restricted, as it was in Athens, to a relatively small number of the resident native population. In that case, would the association include only the citizens? Are the rest outsiders on whom the state imposes its will, much as a trade union might insist that nonunionists shall not work for lower wages than its members? Or are citizens and noncitizens merely two classes of members, one with rights of participation, such as the right to vote, the others with private rights only?

Unlike trade unions, literary societies, joint-stock corporations, and guilds, the state's range of interests is very wide and, in principle, unlimited. This, too, is connected with its nonvoluntary character. Even allowing for migration and naturalization, people do not easily join or leave a state, and when they do, it is usually only with its permission. And whether they join it or not, they are subject to it if they reside in its territory. Consequently, the state does not need to define the terms and aims of their membership. Neither is there any higher authority which can rule, as the state's judicial authorities may do in relation to other associations, that a proposed act falls outside its terms of association and therefore infringes its members' rights. This indeterminancy of scope is a characteristic that the state shares with the family and even with some churches. Such associations have no defined set of aims: The behavior norms they sustain may govern a very wide, if fluctuating, segment of the social life of their members. And since the mid-1800s the effective sphere of the state has encroached increasingly on the spheres of other associations.

The State and Conflicts of Interest

The state's territorial inclusiveness and the uncertain limits to its concern have led many political philosophers to assign to it a unique role among the forms of human association. Plato's Republic sketched an ideal state in which men's conflicting interests and energies were harnessed and reconciled by philosopher-rulers who would integrate them into a single-minded unity, the principles of which could be discovered by a philosophical insight. Aristotle claimed that, at its best, the Greek polis was the most perfect association because, while including lesser associations like the family and the village, it was large enough to provide within itself everything necessary for the good life. For Aristotle, citizenship was a matter not of passively enjoying rights but of participating energetically in the many-sided life of the polis. The Greek writers had in mind a small state, a face-to-face community capable of satisfying emotional needs that the impersonal mass state of the twenty-first century cannot. Nevertheless, the same completeness that Aristotle found in the polis has often been attributed to the modern state.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though tempted to identify the modern state with the polis, hesitated to do so unconditionally. He believed that the state was sufficient for the expression of all human excellencies. The vocation of the citizen was the highest to which a man could aspire. Participating in the expression of the general will for the common good of the whole association, the citizen rose above private interest and became a moral person, "substituting justice for instinct in his conduct. man, who so far had considered only himself, finds that he is forced to consult his reason before listening to his inclination" (Social Contract I, 8). Membership of the state was for Rousseau, as for Plato and Aristotle, a moral education; bad laws corrupted nature, good laws provided conditions for moral development and nobility of soul. Not only was nothing needed beyond the state but also, Rousseau suspected, lesser associations, by setting up partial or sectional interests as objects of loyalty, frustrated the public interest and corrupted the state. Nevertheless, the ideal state of Rousseau's Social Contract remained a city-state, small enough for everyone to know everyone else. The attempt by others to extend the conception to the nation-state led to confusion in theory and, in practice, to Jacobin totalitarianism.

G. W. F. Hegel transformed Rousseau's doctrine by substituting for personal, face-to-face relations a metaphysical dependence of parts on the whole. The state was the concrete universal, the individual a mere partial expression of it. Sectional associations had a function in organizing human interests. They operated, however, on a lower plane of reality than the state, a plane that Hegel termed "civil society." This was not a different order from the state but the same social organization viewed from the standpoint of the subjective ends that individuals set themselves. It was the plane of the free market economy motivated by the pursuit of profit and sectional advantage, where competitive conflicts are checked, ordered, and adjusted by the police. Nevertheless, unknowingly and despite themselves, individuals promoted ideal ends. Interests that from the subjective point of view of civil society were sectional and egoistic appeared objectively in the state as moments or partial expressions or functions of the greater whole. The state would then rightly regulate although not supplant such interests. For Plato and Rousseau the conflict of interests was a pathological symptom in a state; for Hegel it was an unreality masking a fundamental unity that the state would safeguard if necessary. For all three there was a transcendent public interest in which the apparent interests of individuals are dissolved and fused.

There is, however, another view that takes the conflict of interests as a fundamental fact of nature; it can be controlled but never finally superseded. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham were in this tradition. The state existed to regulate competition, since without it individual objectives would be mutually frustrating. The harmony it achieved, however, was artificial; the state remedied a desperate situation by altering the conditions under which men sought their own interests, deflecting them from antisocial ends by fear of punishment. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, agreeing that the state suppressed conflict, saw it as a strictly coercive instrument maintained by the dominant economic class to safeguard its privileges. But they believed that with the advent of a classless society, scarcity would give way to abundance, and conflict to harmony. The state would then wither away, to be replaced by a new administrative order without organized violence. The state, then, was a response to a pathological although historically necessary condition. Ultimately, however, the evolution of society would bring about the changes that would make Rousseau's vision possible. For Augustine the earthly state was the palliative for sin; for Marx it was the palliative for class conflict. But for both there was a condition of ultimate redemption, where the coercive state would have no place.

For John Locke civil society (equivalent in Locke's terms to the state) existed to safeguard the natural rights of individuals, which they could not successfully preserve in the state of nature. Nevertheless, because Locke considered people rational by nature and therefore ideally capable of living in peace according to the law of nature, the condition of conflict was pathological, not natural. However, the norm was not participation in a transcendent good but a condition in which everyone enjoyed their own area of legitimate privacy, troubled by neither private nor public intrusions. For Locke, as for Hobbes, the state's ends were reducible to those of individuals. Bentham put this quite unequivocally: "This public interest is only an abstract term; it represents only the mass of the interests of individuals" (Principles of the Civil Code, Works, Vol. I, p. 321). The state had and could have no moral function except to arrange that as many people as possible should obtain as much as possible of whatever it was that they wanted. For some purposes all that was needed was for the state to uphold property and the sanctity of contract; economic motives in a free market would do the rest. But Benthamite utilitarianism was committed to active state policies wherever, as in public health, laissez-faire would not work. The Benthamite state was readily convertible to a Fabian policy of social engineering. But the objective would still be, in Roscoe Pound's phrase, "such an adjustment of relations and ordering of conduct as will make the goods of existence go round as far as possible with the least friction and waste" (Social Control through Law, New Haven, CT, 1942, p. 65).

The view that politics is a matter of who gets what is substantially that of the group theorists in political science, such as A. E. Bentley and, more recently, Harold Lasswell, David Truman, and Robert Dahl. In their accounts, the state is dissolved into a "political process" which can be analyzed without residue in terms of the competitive pressures of interests. Whereas Locke and Rousseau would have agreed that the public interest was the proper end of state action (although possibly disagreeing in their accounts of it), many modern political scientists, Glendon Schubert, for instance, have rejected the concept of public interest as being so vague as to be useless or as being a device of politicians for advocating policies actually pursued for quite other reasons. Policy decisions, they argue, are the resultants of competing intereststhere is no single interest that everyone would acknowledge, nor one that would be to everyone's advantage. Thus, there can be no public interest that the state ought to pursue.

An analysis like Schubert's depends, on the one hand, on the identification of interest and desire and, on the other hand, on interpreting "public" to mean "enjoyed by everyone." This was clearly not Rousseau's meaning. A citizen's interest was in being a person of a certain kind with characteristic excellences, attainable only in a healthy state. One might misguidedly desire what was not in his interest; so might all the citizens, for the will of all was not necessarily the same as the general will. But as long as their vision was clear, conflict was impossible because the public interest was whatever would be to anyone's advantage, insofar as he was capable of human excellence.

Political scientists mistrust such a theory, partly because it tends to describe the actual state as if it were the ideal and partly because it is evaluative, whereas they want theories to be descriptive and explanatory. What is in a man's interest, they say, is simply what he strives to get, irrespective of why he does so or with what wisdom. However, treating the state as simply an arena for sectional pressures has the drawback of disregarding or misconstruing the widespread opinion that to act in the public interest is to be impartial between competing groupsthat the state (or its rulers) is therefore in a special position as arbiter between group interests. This frequently gives state decisions a moral authority that a mere political barometer, responding to the greatest pressures, could never enjoy, and it provides politicians and public servants, potentially at least, with a range of motives that are quite unlike interests as usually understood.

Sheldon S. Wolin, in Politics and Vision, advanced the somewhat paradoxical thesis that despite the vast extension of governmental activity, there has been a steady depreciation of politics and the political order since the seventeenth century. This has been matched, he asserts, by a corresponding heightening of regard for nonpolitical institutions and associationsfor society as distinct from the state. This "groupism" is regrettable, in Wolin's view, because the specialized roles adopted by the individual are no substitute for citizenship. Citizenship, as the individual's most general role, calls on him to choose regardless of special interests. As a member of a society bounded for most purposes by the state's frontiers, he is confronted with this demand only as a member of the state. As a trade unionist, for instance, he shares sectional loyalties with coworkers and is led to strive for advantages at the expense of other groups. To be conscious of oneself as a citizen, however, is to enjoy an integrative experience, which "demands that the separate roles be surveyed from a more general point of view." The political art, in Wolin's opinion, is that "which strives for an integrative form of direction, one that is broader than that supplied by any group or organization." Wolin comes close indeed to the view of Rousseau and Hegel that there is a concrete morality in the state. As a citizen one is asked to judge what would be to the advantage of anyone, their special circumstances aside. In this manner one approaches a moral judgment, an impartial assessment of claims in matters of general concern.

A further disadvantage of a fragmented vision of the political process is its tendency to miss the influence of the state, both as an idea and as a tradition, on the life of the society. As a trade union or a church is not simply an arena for its own sectional interests, so each state embodies a set of values and objects of loyalty which may greatly influence what its members consider their interests to be. Its manners and traditions leave their mark on them. Associations that participate in its political processes reflect its style, its modes of organization, and its procedures. Moreover, the state lays down terms on which its members deal with one another and with foreigners, establishing an area within its borders in which trade, communications, and movement are free, and regulating traffic that crosses them. Because of its regulative power, the texture of social relations is far closer within its boundaries than across them. It thus supplies not only a legal but also a general conceptual framework for much of our social thought and action. Thus, where we speak of Australian primary producers' associations, Australian football teams, and the Australian Political Studies Association, we speak not of the Australian state but of Australia.

This seems to support the Hegelian view of the state as a national community within which certain particular functions are promoted by sectional associations operating within it. But then one must distinguish the state in this sense from its governmental authority structure, which would be but one of its organs alongside trade unions, graziers' associations, and the like. For voluntary and sectional associations are not, like departments of state, of the navy, or of the post office, subordinate parts of the governmental structure, nor are their actions the acts of the state. This distinction would be quite consistent with a generalized although conditional duty on the part of sectional associations to submit to governmental authority. However, it would not be a duty owed by subordinate agencies to a superior but rather one owed by members of a society in which an authority is recognized as arbiter and coordinator of interests and as initiator of policies of general concern. This would also be consistent with the moral right of associations to defy the government should these functions be abused. The fact that the government is the executive agent of the politically organized state does not mean that its own views of the public interest or of a just settlement of conflicting claims must always and necessarily prevail.

The word nation is often used to refer to the state-community; so, in slightly different contexts, is the word country. Both words, however, have other meanings and overtones, nation being used of cultural groups which can transcend state frontiers or which may be minorities within a state, country referring more particularly to the state's territory or to the state as an international personality.

Limits of State Action

Liberal political philosophers have tried to define necessary limits beyond which the activities of the state must not extend. Some, like Locke, account for the existence of the state in terms of some specific function, such as the safeguarding of natural rights. They then infer, by analogy with the statement of aims in the articles of association of a club or joint-stock company, that the state would be exceeding its competence if it did more than that. Others have tried to define an area of private action that the state ought not invade. According to J. S. Mill, for instance, the state is never justified in restraining the action of a normal adult solely on the grounds that it is in his interests that it should. Some, like T. H. Green and Ernest Barker and, in a more sophisticated form, F. A. Hayek, have claimed that the state as a coercive organization has intrinsic limitations. Although it can hinder hindrances to the good life, it cannot force people to live that life; any form of activity, such as religion, art, or science, whose value lies in spontaneity or freedom of belief must therefore fall outside its scope. Barker argued that because the state's essential mode of action was through general rules, it was not apt for any field that, like industry, required ad hoc discretionary decisions. Such an argument depends, however, on a very doubtful kind of essentialism. The state has no one modus operandi. For the varied range of activities that states have undertaken since the mid-1800s, they have devised an equally varied range of techniques. They encourage the arts as well as censoring them. Nearly all modern states have very extensive responsibilities in education, industrial management, health insurance, and medical services, all of which have at one time been private undertakings and none of which involves coercion except in very remote or indirect ways. It does not follow from the state's monopoly of legitimate coercion that it can do nothing for which coercion is inappropriate. Nor need we suppose that, if there are indeed forms of social activity that the state has at present no satisfactory means of regulating, encouraging, or promoting, it may not yet invent them. Therefore, one cannot say in advance whether a given task would be more properly left to individual initiative or organized by governmental agencies. That depends on what can be done with the techniques available.

See also Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Bentham, Jeremy; Bodin, Jean; Engels, Friedrich; General Will, The; Green, Thomas Hill; Grotius, Hugo; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hobbes, Thomas; Locke, John; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Nationalism; Plato; Political Philosophy, History of; Pufendorf, Samuel von; Punishment; Renaissance; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Contract; Society; Sovereignty; Suárez, Francisco; Vitoria, Francisco de.


Virtually all the works listed in the bibliography to the Sovereignty entry are also relevant to this topic. The works listed here are therefore additional references.

historical treatments

Cassirer, Ernst. The Myth of the State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. Du pouvoir. Histoire naturelle de sa croissance. Geneva, 1945. Translated by J. F. Huntington as On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth. New York: Viking, 1949.

Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953. Republished as Community and Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Plamenatz, John. Man and Society. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1963.

Wolin, Sheldon S. Politics and Vision. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

analytical works

Benn, S. I., and R. S. Peters. Social Principles and the Democratic State. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959. Republished as Principles of Political Thought. New York: Collier, 1964.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. De la souveraineté. Paris: M. T. Génin, 1955. Translated by J. F. Huntington as Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. The Pure Theory of Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963.

Mabbott, J. D. The State and the Citizen. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.

the approach of modern political scientists

Bentley, A. F. The Process of Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908.

Dahl, Robert A. Modern Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Friedrich, Carl J. Man and His Government. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963. Includes extensive bibliography.

Friedrich, Carl J., ed. The Public Interest. New York: Atherton Press, 1962. This is Vol. V of American Society of Political and Legal Philosophy, ed., Nomos.

Lasswell, Harold D., and Abraham Kaplan. Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

Schubert, Glendon. The Public Interest. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960.

works in the classical liberal tradition

Barker, Ernest. Principles of Social and Political Theory. Oxford, 1951.

Bentham, Jeremy. A Fragment on Government (London, 1776). Edited by W. Harrison. Oxford: Blackwell, 1948. This volume also contains Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Bentham, Jeremy. Traités de législation, civile et pénale, edited by E. Dumont. Paris, 1802. Translated by R. Hildreth as The Theory of Legislation. Boston: Weeks, Jordan, 1840; London: Trubner, 1864.

Bentham, Jeremy. Works, edited by John Bowring, 11 vols. London, 1843.

Hayek, F. A. The Constitution of Liberty. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1960.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government (1690), edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Mill, J. S. On Liberty (1859) and Considerations on Representative Government (1861). Edited by R. B. McCallum. Oxford, 1946; London, 1947.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 2 vols., 4th rev. ed. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1962.

marxist views

Bottomore, T. B., and M. Rubel, eds. and trs. Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1961. Includes selected bibliography of Marx's writings.

Engels, Friedrich. Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats. Zürich, 1884. Translated by Lewis H. Morgan as Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. 4th ed. London, 1946.

Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i Revoliutsiia. Petrograd, 1918. Translated as State and Revolution in Selected Works, edited by J. Fineberg. Vol. VII. London, 1946.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Die deutsche Ideologie (18451846). In MarxEngels Gesamtausgabe. Berlin, 1932. Part I, Vol. V. Parts I and III were edited by R. Pascal and translated by William Lough and Charles P. Magill as The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifest der kommunistischen Partei. London, 1848. Edited with introduction by Harold J. Laski as Communist Manifesto: Socialist Landmark. London: Allen and Unwin, 1948.

catholic theories of natural law

Entrèves, A. P. d'. La dottrina dello stato; elementi di analisi e di interpretazione. Turin: Giappichelli, 1962.

Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

fascist views

Gentile, Giovanni. Genesi e struttura della società. Florence: Sansoni, 1946. Translated and edited by H. S. Harris as Genesis and Structure of Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960. The views of the official philosopher of Italian fascism from the standpoint of "actual idealism."

Stanley I. Benn (1967)


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The declaration of independence declares that the "united colonies" are, as they ought mk mm to be, "free and independent states." The term "states" was chosen to indicate their status as autonomous political communities. The state was the result of the social compact, binding man to man and subjecting all to rule by some part of the community. The term also carried a connotation, already obsolescent in England, of a republican form of government; the seventeenth-century British political writers with whose works the Americans were familiar had generally contrasted "state" with "monarchy" or "principality."

But the Declaration of Independence was, after all, the unanimous declaration of the united states. Although the Declaration proclaims that the states are "free and independent," they were not thereby made independent of one another. By the Declaration, the one American people assumes among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which it is entitled by natural and divine law. Thus is the American people declared to possess sovereignty, and not the several states, although in the common usage, of the eighteenth as well as of the twentieth century, the term "state" refers to a sovereign entity.

The central paradox of American politics has always been, from the time of the Declaration and of the Constitution, the existence of ineradicable states within an indissoluble Union. The sovereignty of the people, from whom both the national and the state governments derive their just powers, is the basis for the distinctively American form of federalism. Neither is the central government the creature of the states nor do the states exist at the mercy of the central government, but both exercise those limited and delegate powers that are assigned them by the sovereign people.

Each of the original thirteen states had been founded and administered as a British colony prior to 1776. They had, therefore, established forms of government under their colonial charters. During the Revolution, most of them adopted constitutions providing for government of the same persons and territory as the colonies had comprised. The fourteenth and fifteenth states, Vermont and Kentucky, had experienced provisional self-government before they were admitted to the Union. Before the annexation of texas, that state had revolted against Mexico and governed itself as an independent republic. California's brief existence as the "Bear Flag Republic" (1846) scarcely qualifies as independence or self-government; but, when the controversy over slavery prevented Congress from organizing the lands won in the Mexican War, California proceeded to adopt a constitution (1849) and to govern its own affairs until its admission to the Union (1850). Hawaii was an independent kingdom for centuries before American immigrants revolted against the native monarchy and engineered the annexation of those islands by the United States.

All of the rest of the states—thirty-two to date—have been formed out of the national dominion of the United States and have been admitted to the Union as states following a probationary period as territories. The process by which the national dominion was to be settled and transformed into states was devised by thomas jefferson and adopted by the continental congress as the ordinance of 1784, although that ordinance was never actually enforced. Essentially the same scheme was enacted in the northwest ordinance (1787), which was the model for all subsequent treatment of the territories of the United States. At the constitutional convention of 1787 the delegates rejected gouverneur morris's proposal that states formed from the western territories should have a status inferior to the original states, and they provided instead that new states should be admitted to the Union on terms of full equality with the existing states.

Under the articles of confederation the national government was entirely the creature of the state governments. The confederation derived its formal existence from a compact among the states, and the members of Congress were chosen by the state legislatures. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were convinced of the necessity of creating a national government directly responsible to the people of the nation. james madison, for one, arrived in Philadelphia prepared to argue for a pure separation of state from national government, according to which the two tiers of government would be separately elected and separately responsible to the people in their respective spheres. But the Convention chose instead to give the institutions of the states a share in the government of the nation, and to provide, in the national constitution, for certain guarantees to the people of the states, including guarantees against their state governments.

In the Constitution, representatives in Congress are allocated to the states on the basis of population, and the state governments are left free to apportion them among districts and to provide for their election. Each state is allotted two senators, and until adoption of the seventeenth amendment (1913) the senators were chosen by the state legislatures. The President and vice-president are chosen by an electoral college whose members are apportioned to, chosen by, and convened in the several states. The Constitution became effective only upon ratification by conventions in the several states, and amendment of the Constitution is impossible without the concurrence of the legislatures of (or conventions in) three-fourths of the states. And the tenth amendment, adopted in 1791 as part of the bill of rights, reserves all governmental power not delegated to the national government by the Constitution to the states or the people.

On the other hand, Article I, section 10, prohibits the states from entering into treaties or alliances or granting letters of marque and reprisal; coining money, issuing bills of credit to circulate as currency, or making anything but gold or silver legal tender for payment of obligations; enacting ex post facto laws or bills of attainder, legislating to impair the obligation of contracts, or conferring titles of nobility. t he exercise of certain other powers by the states is made contingent upon the consent of congress: taxation of imports or exports, maintenance of armies or navies, entering into interstate compacts, and making war (unless actually invaded or imminently threatened by a foreign power). Moreover, the supremacy clause subordinates the enactments of the states to the Constitution and to laws and treaties of the national government, and all state officers and judges are bound by oath to follow these, as the supreme law, whenever there is a conflict with state enactments or decisions.

But a proposal that the national Congress should have the power to review and "negative" state legislation failed to win a majority at the Constitutional Convention; and more drastic proposals that the states be abolished, or realigned, or reduced to the status of provinces or administrative districts were rejected almost without discussion. The Convention did not adopt the virginia plan's wording, granting the national Congress the power to legislate in any field wherein the states were "incompetent," which would effectively have made Congress the only judge of the limits of its own power, and instead listed the fields in which national legislation was, or might be, required.

The sphere of state authority that the Constitution left untouched was vast, and included almost every governmental function with which most citizens were likely to come into direct contact. The laws of property, of inheritance, of marriage, of contract, of debt, of liability for civil wrongs, of employer-employee (or master-servant) relations, of commercial transactions, of banking, of business incorporation, and of common police were left to the states. The law of crimes and punishments, except for crimes against the national government, on the high seas, or in the armed forces, was left to the states. The nineteenth-century French political scientist alexis de tocqueville referred to these as functions of "administration," distinguishing them from such high political functions as national defense, foreign affairs, and acquisition and settlement of territory. But, precisely because the administrative functions of government are those with which the people are in daily contact, Tocqueville concluded that the affections and loyalties of the people would always be directed first to the states in preference to the national government.

The primary loyalty to the state, rather than to the Union, was one of the chief problems of American politics at least until the end of the Civil War. When regional interests, particularly regional economic interests, ran contrary to the course of national legislation, politicians at the state level frequently attempted to rally the people to the cause of disunion. There were many delegates to the hartford convention (1814) who advocated the secession of the New England states to protest the War of 1812, and the tariff act of 1828 led to South Carolina's attempt at nullification. Politicians attempted to justify such acts by resort to theories of the union that regarded the national government as the product of a compact among the states, the breach of which freed the offended states from their obligations.

The great tragedy of American constitutional history was the coincidence of state loyalties with attachment to the peculiar institution of human slavery. In 1861 eleven states attempted to secede from the federal union and to form a confederacy in which the existence of both slavery and state sovereignty would be permanently guaranteed. Some adherents of abolitionist constitutional thought were content to permit the secession on the ground that the Union was better off without the slave states. Some national politicians, including President james buchanan, were willing to tolerate the secession on the ground that the national government lacked constitutional authority to coerce the states.

President abraham lincoln rejected Buchanan's position, arguing that the federal Union was the permanent creation of the whole American people and dating the creation of the Union from the Declaration of Independence. In this way, Lincoln tied the preservation of the Union to the antislavery cause, making the civil war not a mere war between the states but a struggle to complete the constitution of the Republic upon the foundation of natural rights and the consent of all the governed, in accordance with the principles of the Declaration. The completion of the Constitution required the addition of the thirteenth amendment (abolishing slavery), the fourteenth amendment (guaranteeing individual rights against state interference), and the fifteenth amendment (prohibiting racial discrimination as a limitation on voting rights). The settlement of the crisis that had caused the Civil War necessitated these additional constitutional guarantees to the people against abuses by the state governments.

However, neither the Civil War nor the constitutional amendments adopted in its aftermath transferred significant additional power to the national government. Although there were new constitutional restrictions on the states, and although the national Congress was given power to enforce those restrictions, the distribution of substantive powers within the federal system remained essentially unaltered. What did change was the attitude of the people toward the two levels of government: citizenship of the United States became, in most of the country, the primary source of political allegiance, and state citizenship became secondary. Constitutional expression of this change was embodied in the sixteenth amendment (authorizing an income tax as an independent source of revenue for the national government) and the seventeenth amendment (providing for direct election of United States senators).

In progressive constitutional thought it was fashionable to speak of the states as the "laboratories" of the federal system, where experiments in political reform could be carried out. Like the abolition of slavery, all of the important reform measures of the Progressive era began at the state level and were enacted at the national level, if at all, only after successful adoption in the states. Such measures included women's suffrage, direct elections, and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

In the twentieth century the states suffered a radical change of relative status. That change had two aspects: the expansion of national power into fields previously regarded as belonging to the states, and the subordination of the states in the administration of national programs. The change of relative status was probably an inevitable consequence of the shift of loyalties as well as of the increased mobility, communication, and interaction attendant upon industrialization.

world war i and the Great Depression of the 1930s were great national emergencies, and the national government strained the limits of its power to effect national measures in response. Ultimately, the commerce clause became the source of constitutional authority for comprehensive national regulation of the economy, and economic regulation based on that authority received the approbation of the Supreme Court beginning with the wagner act cases (1937). The last vestiges of limitation inherent in the concept of interstate commerce were swept away in wickard v. filburn (1941). By the middle of the twentieth century it was no longer true that state law alone governed most ordinary economic relationships. In the 1960s the commerce power became the basis for national civil rights legislation and had already become the basis for a national police power generally.

If there is any type of activity that could with certainty be distinguished from "commerce," that would be the activity of governing. Whether on the basis of that distinction, or on some more general basis in the idea of federalism, the state and local governments were long excluded from national regulation under the commerce clause. national league of cities v. usery (1976) made that exclusion a matter of constitutional law, at least insofar as the activity that the national government sought to regulate was traditionally or inherently a governmental function and not just a publicly operated business. However, over vigorous dissent, a narrow majority overruled Usery in garcia v. san antonio metropolitan transit authority (1984), and the exclusion was thereby judicially abolished.

The taxing and spending power and the general welfare clause form the constitutional basis for coopting the states as administrators of national programs. The Constitution gives Congress the power to lay and collect taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare of the United States. Under this authority, Congress may appropriate public monies, raised through taxation, for programs beyond the scope of the ordinary legislative power and may make the appropriation conditional on compliance with nationally established guidelines. Beginning with the sheppard-towner act (1921), Congress has appropriated money to the states to support programs conforming to national standards. Such appropriations, and the standards upon which they are conditioned, are virtually immune to constitutional challenge because of judicial rules of standing. Thus in cases like frothingham v. mellon (1923) and helvering v. davis (1937) neither states nor taxpayers could state a case permitting review of federal grants-in-aid or the regulations accompanying them. One result of this is that by the mid-1980s federal grants made up a significant share of the revenues of the state governments and federal regulations dictated the operation of state programs in highway construction, traffic control, driver licensing health care, public relief, education, and most other areas.

Twentieth-century court decisions have also served to change the status of the states. The Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that the states could not deprive persons of life, liberty, or property without due process of law has formed the basis for federal court intervention in many substantive areas. At the beginning of the century, state economic regulation was often held unconstitutional when it was found to conflict with the due process clause. Later in the century, through the incorporation doctrine, the Supreme Court extended substantive due process protection to most of the rights that the first ten amendments protect against national government intrusion. In the 1950s and 1960s the Supreme Court used the concept of procedural due process effectively to rewrite the state codes of criminal procedure, and in the 1970s and 1980s it expanded substantive due process to preclude state interference with such rights of privacy as abortion and reproductive autonomy.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century did not herald a radical reduction of state power and influence. Government power and government expenditure have grown continuously at all levels; but the states have been largely displaced or coopted in the exercise of some functions as they have expanded their reach into other areas previously left to private activity and enterprise. Although both President richard m. nixon and President ronald reagan publicly advocated a "new federalism" in which the states and their governments would enjoy greater freedom of action, the tendency toward centralization has continued, and state governments have attempted to maintain their importance not by recovering autonomy in old areas but by expanding their activity into new areas.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Elazar, Daniel J. 1972 American Federalism: A View from the States, 2nd ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Goldwin, Robert, ed. 1962 A Nation of States. Chicago: Rand-McNally.

Grodzins, Morton 1966 The American System: A New View of Government in the United States, ed. Daniel J. Elazar. Chicago: Rand-McNally.

Hawkins, Robert B., ed. 1982 American Federalism: A NewPartnership for the Republic. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Morley, Felix 1959 Freedom and Federalism. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.

Sanford, Terry 1967 Storm over the States. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.

Vile, M.J.C. 1961 The Structure of American Federalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


views updated May 23 2018

state, the state The state is a distinct set of institutions that has the authority to make the rules which govern society. It has, in the words of Max Weber, a ‘monopoly on legitimate violence’ within a specific territory. Hence, the state includes such institutions as the armed forces, civil service or state bureaucracy, judiciary, and local and national councils of elected representatives (such as a parliament). Consequently the state is not a unified entity. It is, rather, a set of institutions which describe the terrain and parameters for political conflicts between various interests over the use of resources and the direction of public policy. Frequently there are conflicts over policy and resources, between elected politicians and non-elected civil servants, or between politicians in different parts of the state. It is therefore difficult to identify a state's interests, since different parts of the state apparatus can have different interests and express conflicting preferences.

It is also difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Older administrative perspectives see the state as a clearly defined set of institutions with official powers. Others, including Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, question the distinction between the state and civil society and argue that the former is integrated into many parts of the latter. For example, Althusser maintains that civil organizations such as the Church, schools, and even trade unions are part of the ideological state apparatus. It is, indeed, increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Many parts of civil society are given institutional access to the state and play a role in the development of public policy. The state also funds a number of groups within society which, although autonomous in principle, are dependent on state support. In addition, the boundaries of the state are continually changing, for example through privatization (transferring responsibilities from the civil service to private contractors) and the creation of new regulatory bodies. Often the nature of these quasi-autonomous organizations is ambiguous: it is simply not clear whether they are part of the state or part of civil society.

A further important issue in relation to the state is the nature of state power. The state as a set of institutions cannot act. It is the various actors within the state who make decisions and implement policy. This raises the important issue, much debated in recent years, of state autonomy. Pluralists generally see the state as acting in the interests of groups in society. State actions are therefore reactions to group pressures. For some pluralists, the state provides an arena for pressure group conflicts to take place, state policy being determined by the outcome of these conflicts. For others, the state is actually captured by pressure groups, while a third view is that the state determines what is in the national interest by arbitrating between the demands of the various interest groups.

For Marxist theorists, however, the role of modern states is determined by their location in capitalist societies. According to Nicos Poulantzas, for example (Political Power and Social Classes, 1968), capitalist states rule in the long-term political interest of capital. This raises the question of how the putative interests of capital are translated into state actions. So-called instrumentalists (such as R. Miliband , The State in Capitalist Society, 1969
) argue that the state is dominated by an élite that comes from the same social background as the capitalist class. State personnel therefore share the same interests as the owners of capital and are linked to them via a whole panoply of social and political interconnections. As a result the state acts more or less at the behest of the capitalist class. Poulantzas, by contrast, argues that the question of who controls the state is irrelevant. Capitalist states act on behalf of the capitalist class, not because state officers consciously contrive to do so, but because the various parts of the state apparatus are structured in such a way that the long-term interests of capital are always to the fore and dominant.

Both the Marxist and pluralist approaches to the state may be said to be society-centred: that is, they view the state as reacting to the activities of groups within society, be they classes or pressure groups. However, other writings on the state (for example, the works of Eric Nordlinger and Theda Skocpol) suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently of (sometimes in conflict with) the various groups in society. Since the modern state controls the means of violence, and the various groups within civil society are dependent on the state for achieving any policy goals they may espouse, the relationship between state and civil society is asymmetrical and state personnel can (to some extent) impose their own preferences on the citizenry.

In his writings on the social sources of power, Michael Mann outlines two types of state autonomy. The first is despotic power, where the power of the state derives from force, and so is limited to the territory over which the ruler can exercise terror. However, in modern societies, state power is more likely to be infrastructural. Here, the state increases its power by negotiating administrative relationships with different groups in society, in order to develop its capabilities for intervening in particular areas of policy. The concept of infrastructural power suggests that the state-centred versus society-centred dichotomy is too simplistic. State actors do have interests but these interests develop in relation to groups in society. Moreover, in order to develop the means of intervention, state actors are dependent on allies in society. Force cannot be the only means of state power and, therefore, state actors do have to make concessions.

Any definition of the state has to recognize its complexity. Its boundaries are not clearly defined and constantly changing. It is the site of internal conflicts not only between different organizations but also within organizations. There is no single state interest but, rather, various interests within different parts of the state. These interests are neither solely state-centred nor wholly society-centred but develop instead through bargaining between different groups in civil society and different state actors. Roger King's The State in Modern Society (1986) is a good place to start when considering these various issues.

There is also an extensive literature on state formation. The issue here is one of identifying the processes by which states emerge. Can the formation of states be explained primarily in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes, or are other non-class actors involved? Is state-formation best viewed in terms of the internal dynamics and conflicts in a given country, or are there international dynamics involving, for example, conflicts of war or economic domination? Is there a discernible historical pattern in the emergence of capitalist states? Was the formation of national states in the West associated with the emergence of capitalism? These and related issues are pursued in Bob Jessop 's ‘Recent Theories of the Capitalist State’, Cambridge Journal of Economics (1977)
, Gianfranco Poggi 's The Development of the Modern State (1978)
, and Charles Tilly 's The Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975)


views updated Jun 27 2018

state / stāt/ • n. 1. the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time: the state of the company's finances we're worried about her state of mind. ∎  a physical condition as regards internal or molecular form or structure: water in a liquid state. ∎  [in sing.] (a state) inf. an agitated or anxious condition: don't get into a state. ∎  [in sing.] inf. a dirty or untidy condition: look at the state of you—what a mess! ∎  Physics short for quantum state.2. a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government: the state of Israel. ∎  an organized political community or area forming part of a federal republic: the German state of Bavaria. ∎  (the States) informal term for United States.3. the civil government of a country: services provided by the state | [in comb.] state-owned companies | King Fahd appointed a council to advise him on affairs of state. ∎  (the States) the legislative body in Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney.4. pomp and ceremony associated with monarchy or high levels of government: he was buried in state.5. an impression taken from an etched or engraved plate at a particular stage. ∎  a particular printed version of the first edition of a book, distinguished from others by prepublication changes.• adj. 1. of, provided by, or concerned with the civil government of a country: the future of state education a state secret.2. used or done on ceremonial occasions; involving the ceremony associated with a head of state: a state visit to Hungary by Queen Elizabeth.• v. 1. express something definitely or clearly in speech or writing: the report stated that more than 51 percent of voters failed to participate | [with direct speech] “Money hasn't changed me,” she stated firmly | [tr.] people will be invited to state their views. ∎  [tr.] chiefly Law specify the facts of (a case) for consideration: judges must give both sides an equal opportunity to state their case.2. [tr.] Mus. present or introduce (a theme or melody) in a composition.PHRASES: state of affairs (or things) a situation or set of circumstances: the survey revealed a sorry state of affairs in schools.state of the art the most recent stage in the development of a product, incorporating the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features. ∎  [as adj.] incorporating the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features: a new state-of-the-art hospital.state of emergency a situation of national danger or disaster in which a government suspends normal constitutional procedures in order to regain control: the government has declared a state of emergency.state of grace a condition of being free from sin.state of life (in religious contexts) a person's occupation, calling, or status.state of war a situation when war has been declared or is in progress.DERIVATIVES: stat·a·ble adj.


views updated May 21 2018

A. condition XIII;

B. †status, (high) rank XIII; solemn pomp;

C. estate of the realm XIV;

D. commonwealth; body politic, territory belonging thereto XVI;

E. (partly from the vb.) statement XVII (spec. mil., report of forces XIX). Partly aphetic of ESTATE. partly direct — L. status manner of standing, condition, f. base of stāre STAND.
Hence state vb. †place XVI; set out in due form, declare in words XVI. stately (-LY1) befitting or indicating high estate. XIV. statement XVIII. statesman (see -S) man concerned with affairs of state. XVI.


views updated May 29 2018


As a noun, a people permanently occupying a fixed territory bound together by common habits and custom into one body politic exercising, through the medium of an organized government, independent sovereignty and control over all persons and things within its boundaries, capable of making war and peace and of entering into international relations with other states. The section of territory occupied by one of the United States. The people of a state, in their collective capacity, considered as the party wronged by a criminal deed; the public; as in the title of a case, "The State v. A. B." The circumstances or condition of a being or thing at a given time.

As a verb, to express the particulars of a thing in writing or in words; to set down or set forth in detail; to aver, allege, or declare. To set down in gross; to mention in general terms, or by way of reference; to refer.


views updated May 29 2018


of princes: princes collectively Bk. of St. Albans, 1486.


views updated May 23 2018

STATE (steɪt) Military simplified tactical approach and terminal equipment

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