The character and history of the modern state

In a paper given at a conference on the state, Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics gave a definition of the state and discussed its origins. Here are some key passages:

The state as a corporation (a collective “person” that has its own legal existence):

The question now is: what does it mean to say that a state is a corporate entity? The state is a corporation in the way that a people or a public cannot be. It is a corporation because it is, in effect and in fact, a legal person. As a legal person a corporation not only has the capacity to act but also a liability to be held responsible. Furthermore, a corporation is able to hold property. This is true for incorporated commercial enterprises, for institutions like universities and churches, and for the state. A corporation cannot exist without the natural persons who comprise it — and there must be more than one, for a single individual cannot be a corporation. But the corporation is also a person separate from the persons who comprise it. Thus a public company has an existence because of its shareholders, its agents and their employees, but its rights and duties, powers and liabilities, are not reducible to, or definable in terms of, those of such natural persons. A church or a university has an existence because of the officers who run them and the members who give them their point, but the property of such an entity does not belong to any of these individuals. The state is a corporation in the same way that these other entities are: it is a legal person with rights and duties, powers and liabilities, and holds property that accrues to no other agents than itself. The question in political theory has always been not whether such an entity can come into existence (since it plainly has) but how it does so. This is, in a part, a question of whether its existence is legitimate….

The significance of the capacity for political corporations to hold property ought to be noted. Of critical importance is the fact that this property does not accrue to individual persons. Revenues raised by such corporations by the levying of taxes, or the imposition of tariffs or licensing fees, or by any other means, become the property of the corporation–not of particular governments, or officials, or monarchs, or any other natural person who is able to exercise authority in the name of the corporation. The political corporation, being an abstract entity, cannot enjoy the use of its property–only redistribute it among the agents through whom it exercises power and among others whom those agents are able, or obliged, to favor. The state is not the only political corporation capable of raising revenue and acquiring property, though it will generally be the most voracious in its appetite.

Explaining the rise of the modern state:

According to Martin Van Creveld, the state emerged because of the limitations of the innumerable forms of political organization that existed before it. The crucial innovation that made for development of the state was the idea of the corporation as a legal person, and thus of the state as a legal person. In enabled the emergence of a political entity whose existence was not tied to the existence of particular persons–such as chiefs, lords and kings–or particular groups–such as clans, tribes, and dynasties. The state was an entity that was more durable. Whether or not this advantage was what caused the state to emerge, it seems clear enough that such an entity did come into being. The modern state represents a different form of governance than was found under European feudalism, or in the Roman Empire, or in the Greek city-states.

Having accounted for the concept of the state, however, we now need to consider what kind of theory of the state might best account for the nature of this entity. Ever since the state came into existence, political philosophers have been preoccupied with the problem of giving an account of its moral standing. To be sure, philosophers had always asked why individuals should obey the law, or what, if anything, could justify rebellion against a king or prince. But the emergence of the state gave rise to a host of new theories that have tried to explain what relationship people could have, not to particular persons or groups of persons with power or authority over them, but to a different kind of entity.

To explain the emergence of the state in Europe from the 13th to the 19th centuries would require an account of many things, from the decline of the power of the church against kingdoms and principalities to the development of new political power structures with the transformation and eventual disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire; from the disappearance of towns and city-states, and extended associations like the Hanseatic League, to the rise of movements of national unification. Attempts by theorists to describe the state that was emerging are as much a part of the history of the state as are the political changes and legal innovations. Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montequieu, Hume, Rousseau, Madison, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx were among the most insightful thinkers to offer theories of the state during the course of its emergence, though theorizing went on well into the 20th century in the thought of Max Weber, the English pluralists, various American democratic theorists, and Michael Oakeshott. They offered theories of the state in the sense that they tried to explain what it was that gave the state its point: how it was that the existence of the state made sense. To some, this meant also justifying the state, though for the most part this was not the central philosophical concern. (Normative theory, so called, is probably a relatively recent invention.)

Kukathas adopts Hume’s view that the state arose by chance, and this is the least satisfying part of the article. I thought that his overview was helpful, though.

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One thought on “The character and history of the modern state

  1. This time there’s one too many “http:// ” in your link to A Definition of the State. 🙂
    I agree with your conclusion. Hume’s view approaches the tautological and seems intentionally unhelpful in determining what a state should be.
    Kukathas’s article becomes a bit hodgepodge to me rather than framing minimum requirements, which is probably a casualty of trying to be descriptively inclusive of what people do and do not call “states”.
    The modern state as a corporation is a good observation and reveals some of the unique moral quandaries we have to deal with as a result.
    While fiduciary corporations only voluntarily abstract monetary liability, states involuntarily do so and disperse moral responsibility to the point where no one seems to be responsible (both in action and inaction, like the bystander effect).
    Actions taken by government have little accountability, from taxes (which are taken but nobody is directly responsible, so such money is spent as though it were not taken and belongs to no one) to unjust laws having no recourse, passing certain debts onto our children when it suits them.
    Externally, however, this fiction greatly simplifies our moral calculus. We can treat entire states according to how their leaders behave.

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