The history of almost all hitherto existing society is the history of patronage and clientage. Freeman and slave, lord and serf, administrator and beneficiary, activist and rent-a-mob, in a word, patron and client stood in magisterial or servile relationship in which unequal power predominated.
If you scratch a social reformer, he will likely bleed a plan for more government. For the easiest way to imagine the future is one miraculously converted to your own vision: happy people living in a world designed by you. How can you get the world to transform itself into your ideal world? Almost certainly you can only do it by force, because nobody gets to have their ideal world in the real world. Ideals suggest force, and that means government, for government is force.
The narratives about governing that come down to us are mostly apologies by members of a governing elite. Occasionally they represent the visions of revolutionary activists who wish to conjure up a vision of a future government purged of the injustices of the present incumbents. Those revered analysts, the contract theorists, constructed openly unhistorical and hypothetical narratives, like Plato in The Republic, about the best and the most just government. These special pleaders were careful to put a showroom shine on their plans for the rest of us. Even the authors of The Federalist Papers, victors in a war of liberation, offered up a vision of government that was good for them and their revolution, rather than good for the inhabitants of North America in general. They took many of their ideas from a member of the French governing elite, the baron Montesquieu.
Never mind government all gussied up for a ball by valets and ladies’ maids. What does government look like stripped of the adornments of the special pleaders, government reduced to its essentials? What does government look like before we have decorated it with the baubles of our dreams? Here is the short version. It is the work of retired politician Norman Tebbit, once a minister under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.
A state must have a territory over which it is sovereign, and a people who owe it allegiance. It must have the capacity (and the will) to defend its territorial boundaries and its people from aggressors. It must provide not only external but internal security, allowing its citizens to go about their lawful business freely, and criminal and civil justice systems as well as a currency and the regulatory and legislative infrastructure needed for agriculture, industry and trade. Nothing else has to be provided only by the state. Health and education provision and physical infrastructure may be provided by or precipitated by the state or others, but they are not core functions of the state.1
The sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas extracts a definition from the first sociologist, Max Weber.
The organizational nucleus of the state is the rational public institution, which on the basis of a centralized and permanent tax system,
1. has at its disposal a centrally commanded, standing military force,
2. has a monopoly on setting laws and legitimately using force, and
3. organizes administration bureaucratically, that is, in the form of rule by specialized officials.2
This is clearly the modern bureaucratic state. But St. Augustine had a more pointed view than the practical politician Norman Tebbit or the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made of of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed upon. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it hold places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.3
Augustine is equating the robber band with the robber state, while Tebbit is looking at a settled society in which the question of “who rules” has already been decided. But what about the actual inflection point between the robber band and the established state? What about guerrilla movements? What about urban street gangs? What about civil war? What about conquest? What about an army marching across Europe? What exactly is the difference between and army and a government? It’s important to understand this, because every state that we know of was founded by force, or was descended from a state founded by force.
In The Federalist Papers three revolutionaries, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing as “Publius,” argued frankly the case for more force in the government of the independent United States. The experience of confederation since the approval of the Articles of Confederation in late 1777 argued clearly, Publius wrote, for a more powerful federal government with more powers of compulsion over the member states in the federated United States of America.
The first twenty-one essays in The Federalist Papers are simply an enumeration of the problems the United States had experienced as a confederation with very limited powers of coercion by the central government. The problems included, first, the lack of respect that foreign powers would have for a loose confederation, and the danger of foreign countries exerting power over and dividing the several states. Loosely confederated states would also be inclined to quarrel with each other, perhaps leading to actual hostilities between the bigger states or groups of states ganging up on others. The new union must, of course, have a navy to prevent other nations from meddling with its commerce. Publius writes about the problems of ancient confederacies in Greece and the difficulties then being experienced by the German confederation, Poland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The problem of confederacies is that no one member can be compelled in anything, and in consequence, every member cheats, particularly when it comes to contributing money and soldiers for the federation’s defense. Summing up in Federalist 21 and 22, Hamilton writes that if there is no sanction to compel obedience to federal laws, there is no way to finance the federal government except through the essentially voluntary contribution of the states, no way to raise troops properly, no uniform regulation of commerce, no common judiciary. It is all a question of power, and the United States under the Articles of Confederation did not have enough power to compel respect within the United States and without in the wider world. Simply put, the United States under the Articles of Confederation did not have the minimum powers needed to perform the basic functions described by Norman Tebbit: “a territory over which it is sovereign,” a people who owing it allegiance; the capacity and will to defend its territory and people from aggression; internal security and justice system; and a currency and social infrastructure needed for agriculture, industry and trade. It is power that allows a free people to go about their business.
It is commonplace today to sneer at this kind of state as a night-watchman and compare it unfavorably to the luxuriant growth of the modern, caring state. But its virtue is best appreciated when compared against the robber states conjured up by St. Augustine, where power is not used merely for the spare and limited functions of the Tebbit state but for a grand project of power. The 20th Century has seen many great power states grow from nothing, but perhaps none matches the model of St. Augustine more exactly than the state built by Mao Zedong out of the ruins of the Chinese Qing Dynasty.
Jung Chang in Mao: The Untold Story paints a vivid portrait of a proto-state, the band of men led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in south-central China in the 1930s. These two revolutionaries commanded a “red base” in the province of Jiangxi, about 500 miles south-west of Shanghai, and Mao started out as a kind of bandit, supporting his Red Army troops by looting and raiding the local population. But Zhou brought order and organization to the operation. Under Zhou’s leadership Mao’s banditry evolved into semi-statehood:
The red state regarded its population as a source of four main assets: money, food, labour and soldiers, first for war, and ultimately to conquer China.4
Mao and Zhou made money from the mining of tungsten using soldiers and “slave labourers.” Peasants paid a grain tax, and were pressured to lend grain to the red state. Drafted into the Red Army or as conscript labor in the tungsten mines, men were unable to work on their farms; pretty soon “women became the main labour force.”
[T]hey had to do most of the farm work, as well as other chores for the Red Army, like carrying loads, looking after the wounded, washing and minding clothes, and making shoes, for which they had to pay for the material themselves[.]5
There was no thought for the welfare of the subject population. There was no attempt to improve health, and secondary schools were closed down and commandeered by the party. Consequently, this regime did not win the spontaneous support of its population, the consent of the governed; it could only maintain itself with naked force. Mao and Zhou discovered by trial and error that terror and purges were necessary to keep their red state alive. Zhou relaxed the purges for a while in 1931, but found that when people ceased to fear killings and arrests “they started to band together to defy Communist orders. It rapidly became clear that the regime could not survive without constant killings[.]”
In the 1930s, long before they stood above the Tienanmen gate in Beijing in 1949 as the founders of a new dynasty, Mao and Zhou ran a real government in a remote area of China. They had a territory and they defended it with an army. They supported their government with taxes and by exploiting natural resources for profit. It was, almost, the state as described by Tebbit and St. Augustine.
Conversations the author had with Guatemalan tourist guides in 2007 confirms this model. During the long civil war in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996 both government forces and guerrillas taxed whatever population they controlled, and both sides seized young men off the streets to draft into their armies. Woe betide the tax resister and the deserter.
In conclusion, when we strip our ideas about government of narrative and apology, we are left with the following definition:
Government is an armed minority ruling over a subject people in some territory. It maintains itself in power by defending its territory by force from enemies foreign and domestic using resources requisitioned from the people living within the territory and/or supplied by a foreign power.
This sharpens the definition of government even more than the austere model described by Tebbit: in this definition the core functions of justice, money, and infrastructure are optional. A government is still a government if it occupies a territory and merely requisitions resources to feed and supply its troops. It can exist as St. Augustine’s great robbery and do without money, law, and justice if it uses terror. A government is well advised to provide justice, money, and infrastructure to the subject population and pose as the representative of the people because the cost of providing these services is returned to the governing elite in decreased chance for rebellion and increased wealth that can be farmed by the government. But the government can do without justice, money, and infrastructure so long as it has the stomach for terror.
We can abstract from the government of Mao in his red base to an even more basic form of government. Nicholas Wade has described this prototype human government in Before the Dawn. Chimpanzees, researchers have found, are very like humans. They are patrilocal, in that the males stay put and the females move to find mates in neighboring territory. They are also fiercely territorial. There is a good reason for this. Chimps feed on fruit from trees scattered throughout their territory, and the bigger the territory, the shorter intervals between births. The way to establish and defend a territory is by warfare.
Chimp warfare takes the form of bands of males who patrol the border of their territory, looking for an individual of the neighboring community who has been rash enough to feed alone... Three against one is the preferred odds: two to hold the victim down and a third to batter him to death.6
Government, for chimpanzees, is a male elite of warriors that defends and maintains the territory over which it rules. The males rule over the females. “Every adult male demands deference from every female, resorting to immediate violence if a submissive response is not forthcoming.”
The human past, according to Wade, was equally violent.
Warfare was a routine occupation of primitive societies. Some 65% were at war continuously... and 87% fought more than once a year. A typical tribal society lost about 0.5% of its population in combat each year[.]7
We like to think of our modern wars as uniquely savage. But Wade estimates that the toll of war deaths in the 20th century would have reached two billion people if the wars of the 20th century had suffered the casualty rates of primitive peoples. In fact only about 40 million people, military and civilian, were killed in the bloodiest of all wars, World War II. Steven Pinker concurs in The Better Angels of Our Nature. In the good old days of the Noble Savage and the hunter-gatherers 500 persons per 100,000 per year died violently. By the end of the agricultural age in 1500, the homicide rate was down to about 50 persons per 100,000 per year. Today in Europe the homicide rate is down to about one per 100,000, and in the United States it is about five per 100,000. We are not just talking about a decline in homicide, either. Torture, judicial penalties, infanticide, oppression of other races, oppression of women and gays, cruelty to animals — the rate is way down.8 Roughly, we may say that homicide declined by an order of magnitude in the transition between the hunter-gatherer age and the agricultural age and it declined by another order of magnitude in the revolution from agriculture to industry, and this is a very big deal.
Modern humans are, of course, different from chimpanzees. We are different from primitive hunter-gatherers. We are even different from our agricultural ancestors. We are not merely territorial animals. We are also trading animals. The emergence of food surpluses in the agricultural age created the opportunity for trade between political units, and that set off an argument that has persisted to this day. How should trade relate to the state? Should it be government regulated, government owned, government controlled, or what? In Nicholas Wade’s narrative, the story of humans is a tale of progressive “gracilization” or domestication. This has physical markers, such as skull thinning, reduction in tooth and jaw size, and also cultural markers identifying the decline of violence. Humans defend their territory, but they also thrive by the reciprocal gifts of trade.
The question that returns again and again is the question of force. Within the simple band of hunter-gatherers, government force does not extend much beyond the headman, “with few powers beyond personal persuasion.” But in the agricultural age, specialization and investment in irrigation required coordination, and that coordination was achieved by converting personal persuasion into institutional compulsion. To defend its territory against aggression a state needed to requisition some of the surplus of food production and trade. Yet this governmental protection became an equivocal blessing. For what, to the peasant family, is the difference between a far-away government that collects a portion of the harvest for defense, and marauding bandits that sweep into town in a dawn raid and demand tribute? Should a besieged city declare itself an “open city” and buy off the investing army with tribute, or should it defend itself and risk a defeat and the pillage and rapine of a “sacking?”
In the early modern era at the end of the agricultural age, the political system built up on agricultural surplus faced a crisis, as the development of firearms made warfare much more expensive than before. Kings and princes in Europe found that they could not obtain enough resources to maintain their armies by the customary methods of taxing intermediaries such as guilds and corporations and the periodic mustering of the feudal horde. But money the king had to have, else the neighboring prince would overwhelm his underfunded army. Fortunately, help was at hand. The scientific revolution that applied instrumental reason to military engineering also applied to governing technology. Government could be organized not as a hierarchy of feudal families, but as a rational organization of bureaucratic functionaries.
James J. Sheehan describes how the princes in the German lands converted their patrimonial estates into modern states.
Money—for whatever purpose—was the dominant force behind the construction of the modern state... To support their courts and pay their soldiers, rulers needed a steady, inexhaustible supply of income... Taxation required that rulers penetrate their territories more deeply then ever before, and thereby cut through or circumvent the web of institutions separating them from their subjects.9
In order to tax their subjects, governments needed to know more about them.
They had to know how many men were available to service in their armies, how much grain could be levied, and how much money passed through a merchant’s hands.10
The solution was the state bureaucracy, a corps of professional information keepers, and the bureaucrat became, by the end of the eighteenth century, the personification of state power. Monarchs now ruled by gathering information about their individual subjects and taxing them with bureaucracies. Thus did the feudal era give way to the era of the absolute monarch.
James C. Scott describes all this in a parallel but more highly colored narrative. Governments, he writes in Seeing Like a State, want to make their people “legible.” They desire “to arrange the population in ways that simplifie[s] the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.”11 They want to create a detailed “map” of the state and obtain structured and consistent information about the land and its people to provide a “synoptic view” of it all. Thus modern rulers have developed the modern state into an astonishing machine of compulsion and control.
Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measure, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification.12
The institutions that we experience as the foundation of modern sophistication are thus also understandable as the ruler’s bid for power and control.
Paralleling the development of the state bureaucracy, states learned how to articulate their armies on the bureaucratic principle. The direction of an army on the battlefield had always been difficult; as armies became bigger and bigger the direction of a large feudal host became impossible. The solution was articulation and uniformity. Armed forces divided themselves into exact and uniform types of formation. The brigade was invented by Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War of 1628-48; the division was invented by the French in the mid 18th century, the army corps by Napoleon. The organization of supplies became not just the responsibility of a single quartermaster but a supply organization. The general staff was invented by the Prussians; it converted the warrior culture into a bureaucracy of military specialists. All governments adopted the new military organizational revolution; all understood the imperatives of power.
As the eighteenth century came to a close governments discovered a new technology of power, the economic power of an industrial economy. The British government began to appreciate the power that the new textile technologies gave to the British state, and forbade the export of textile technology and the emigration of technicians with textile knowledge. This was an action that all governments could understand. Technology was power; it should be sequestered and hidden from dangerous foreigners. But this new power inspired a movement of rejection. The revolutionary political economy doctrines of the Scottish Enlightenment brought the traditional power doctrine into question. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith developed a new idea that the health of the state depended upon the free flow of ideas, goods and services. In other words, the government that wanted to maximize its power would need to walk a line between power and freedom. An economy freed from detailed governmental supervision would create much more wealth for a government to exploit than an economy tightly controlled by minute and detailed bureaucratic regulation. This has been a difficult lesson for politicians to learn.
All these themes came together in the political career of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a child of divorce born and raised in the British West Indies and when orphaned at age 11 went to work in the office of an import-export merchant on the island of St. Croix. By his mid-teens he became the manager of the office while his boss traveled on business. He so impressed the local merchants that they sent him to college in New York — just in time for the American Revolution and for Hamilton to organize a company of artillery. By the time that Hamilton attended the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 at age 30 as a delegate from the state of New York he had made himself an expert on the new political technology in everything from constitutions to central banking and the importance of manufacturing over agriculture.
As a brilliant young chief of staff to General Washington during the Revolutionary War Hamilton knew first hand about the agony of trying to fight a war without an effective financial system. Britain’s power, he wrote in 1781 to Robert Morris, revolutionary Superintendent of Finance, depended more upon its credit than upon its ships and its soldiers.13 Hamilton was a leader in the fight to ratify the US Constitution in 1787, writing most of The Federalist, a sophisticated apology for a strong central government. Then he amazed the world with his extraordinary performance as the first Secretary of the Treasury. In his “First Report on the Public Credit” he proposed bolstering the strength of the state by issuing bonds to pay off the debts incurred by the Continental Congress and the states during the revolutionary war using revenues from federal import tariffs and excise taxes. In his “Second Report on the Public Credit” he proposed a central bank modeled on Britain’s Bank of England; he knew how the Bank had helped finance Britain’s rise to world power in the 18th century. In his “Report on Manufactures” he proposed a mercantilist program to encourage manufacturing in the United States by tariffs and subsidies. All these policies became law one way or another and helped the United States federal government become a preeminent power in the world.
Hamilton did not, of course, invent his political technology, the application of instrumental reason to revolution and national power. He merely copied his system — of central bank, funded debt, stock market, bond market, and banking — from the British, and they had imported Dutch finance a century before with William III and the Glorious Revolution. And why not? Dutch finance had given the Dutch Republic the financial power to throw off the yoke of Spain; it gave the British the power to neutralize the French in Europe and then build a world empire.
The year 1800 was a hinge in human history. Humans had developed new technologies of power that transformed the power of government. Bureaucracies could penetrate through the shield of traditional social structures and control individual subjects by taxation and conscription. Government-controlled finance and credit could influence and often control the entire universe of economic relationships by placing the government’s financial instruments at the center of the economic life of a nation. Governments would learn to use all these technologies ruthlessly as the modern state grew to adulthood in the 19th century. By the 20th century, government was armed against its people and the world with the triple threat: armed force; bureaucracy and finance; and a movement of political enthusiasts formed into a new ruling class that extended the technology of state power into a secular religion of state supremacy in which political power would dominate both economic and moral activity.
The trouble is that government can’t deliver anything more than force. It only knows how to say “you must” or “you must not.” It cannot conjure businesses into existence or innovations out of the creative minds of inventors. It cannot dream dreams and persuade people to join moral movements of reform. Armed as it is against its people with overwhelming force, the temptation of force has led governments everywhere to failure and ruin. Humans are not mechanical contraptions but social animals. Human societies operate not by the equal and opposite force of Newtonian mechanics but the cooperative web of social influence. The more that governments have relied upon force to direct and regulate their peoples in the minutiae of social and economic life the less their people have prospered and the more that government’s power project has withered.
Modern governments need to learn the lesson that capitalism learned in the 19th century. Businessmen found that wealth and prosperity comes not from a ruthless application of top-down instrumental reason but by the delegation of powers to others. We will now discover how modern business learned, after its early fling with plantation slavery and mass production, that prosperity and growth are the product of cooperation, trust, and lively competition, not the mere concentration of force.
1Norman Tebbit, Daily Telegraph January 18, 2010, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/normantebbit/100022655/dont-blame-great-british-institutions-blame-the-shysters-who-have-infested-them/
2Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, v.1, Beacon Press, 1984, p. 158.
3St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, Google Books, p. 137.
4Jung Chang and John Halliday, Mao, The Unknown Story, p. 104.
5Ibid., p. 105.
6Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 148-9.
7Ibid, pp. 151-2
8Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking, 2011, p. 64.
9James J. Sheehan, German History 1770-1866, p. 33.
10Ibid., p. 35.
11James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, Yale UP, 1998, p. 2.
13Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p.156.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital