北野のぞみ Nozomi Kitano

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.

Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli

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 terms—the 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.

ancient Roman republic

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 nature—a world peopled by sovereign states recognizing no overriding authority and only tenuously subject, if at all, to a common law.

Just a fan creating some rainbow awesomeness�
Francisco de Vitoria

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?

Samuel von Pufendorf
Samuel von Pufendorf

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).

Calceolaria ( Lady's Purse )
Jean Bodin

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 jointstock 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.

John Locke
John Locke

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 roles—as father or as member of his golf club—his actions are incidents in what a Wittgensteinian would call different “games” and therefore have appropriately different implications.

official capacity
official capacity

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.

special case
special case

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.

literary societies
literary societies

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.

terms of association
terms of association

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.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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.

G. W. F. Hegel
G. W. F. Hegel

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.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

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.

Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels

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.

Fabian policy
Fabian policy

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).

Harold Lasswell
Harold Lasswell

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 interests—there 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.

Robert Dahl
Robert Dahl

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.

human excellence
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 groups—that the state (or its rulers) is therefore in a special position as arbiter between group interests.

A. E. Bentley - Tsukuyomi Himawari / 月読ひまり
A. E. Bentley

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.

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.

J. S. Mill - Suzuka Ishikawa
J. S. Mill

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.

essential mode - Valentina Nappi
essential mode

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.

Ernest Barker - Hisamatsu YuMinoru
Ernest Barker

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.

individual initiative - Citra Kirana
individual initiative

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