How Much is the State?
In the previous essay I began a discussion about the question “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” As might be imagined, the category of others is rather broad, so as a practical matter it is necessary to limit the scope of the discussion. In this essay I will focus on how much a person’s success (or failure) is owed to the state. Obviously, the exact debt will vary from person to person and this examination will be, of necessity, somewhat abstract.
One rather promising way to begin the discussion is to make use of the state of nature. This classic philosophical device was used by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their examination of such matters as rights and the justification of political power. I am, however, going to use the device to see what the state contributes to success (or failure).
While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, two of the classic approaches to the state of nature are the Hobbesian state and the Lockean state. In general terms, the state of nature is a state in which there is no governmental authority. It is often presented as a hypothetical predecessor to the rise of political states. In any case, the state of nature is marked by the lack of any artificial authority.
For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of the conditions of this state, none of the following are possible: “Industry, culture of the earth, navigation, use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, commodious building; instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force, knowledge of the face of the earth, account of time, arts, letters, society.” As Hobbes sees it, the establishment of the sovereign (the state) is necessary for the establishment of order and this allows the possibility of industry and the other things that are required for “commodious living.” Given Hobbes assumptions about the state of nature being a state of war of all against all, the idea that these things would not be possible makes sense. One has but to look at what happens in cases where civil authority collapses to see the plausibility of Hobbes’ view.
On the Hobbesian model, an individual who succeeded in industry or other endeavors would owe a great deal to the state (that is, the collective of everyone forming the great leviathan that is the state). After all, without the order provided by the state, success in these areas would not be possible. Naturally, this does not include any other contributions made by the state, such as providing infrastructure or support for research. These contributions would, obviously enough, add to the debt owed by the individual to the collective society.
The Lockean model is rather nicer than the Hobbesian, most likely because Locke includes divinely based rights to life, liberty and property even in the state of nature. On Locke’s model, life in the state if nature is not a state of war (although war can occur) and there is clearly the possibility of success within this state. For example, the right to property allows for the accumulation of goods and this could be seen as success.
While the Lockean state of nature is more appealing than Hobbes’ state of war, Locke does argue that it is not preferable to the state of civil society. While there are, according to Locke, rights in the state of nature, these rights are enforced only by vigilante justice in which individuals act (or not) to prevent and take revenge for misdeeds. As such, wrongs are not reliably prevented or corrected. If, for example, someone stole the goods a person had accumulated, it would be up to her (and any allies) to recover her goods and punish the malefactors.
To solve this and other problems, civil society is created and vigilante justice is replaced with a legal system. Once the state is established, then the state has the responsibility of protecting the citizens and dealing with criminals. Assuming the state is doing its job, the state of civil society provides a stable system in which success is both more possible and more secure.
If Locke’s view is correct, a successful individual owes less to the state (that is, the collective agreements and actions of the people) than she would if Hobbes were right. After all, the difference between Locke’s state of nature and civil society is not as extreme as the difference in Hobbes. However, the successful individual would still owe much to the collective efforts of civil society, not the least of which would be a debt for the existence of laws enabling and protecting the fruits of her success. If additional contributions of civil society, such as infrastructure, public education and so on are included, then the successful individual would owe a great deal to the state.
Of course, not everyone sees the state in such a positive way. For example, the communists contend that while the state is necessary for capitalism and socialism, it will wither away as true communism is achieved. Before then it will be an instrument of oppression, either serving the capitalists or the socialists. Obviously, once communism is achieved, then people will not owe any of their success (or failure) to the state on the obvious basis that there will be no state. Or so the communists claim. However, a debt will be still owed to the states—without them, humanity would not have been able to achieve communism.
As another example, the anarchists have a uniformly negative view of the state—although the degree of their negativity varies. Some, like Thoreau, are willing to co-exist with benign states. Others, like Goldman, advocate the destruction of the state because of its role in oppression and how it prevents true human flourishing.
Thoreau presents a rather interesting view of the state and one that many current conservatives would heartily endorse, noting “that government is best which governs least” and even going so far as to say “that government is best which governs not at all.” As Thoreau sees it, government seems to interfere with success in two main ways. The first is that people use it to impose on each other for their advantage. While this aids the success of those who control the state, it impedes the success of those who are imposed upon. Second, he claims that the state gets in the way of success, noting that “trade and commerce continuously face obstacles placed by legislators.” As he sees it government has only one role in success, namely doing nothing. As he sees it, “government never furthered any enterprise except by getting out of its way.”
On Thoreau’s system of government non-involvement, it would seem that an individual’s success (and failures) would depend more on the individual than it does in the current system in the United States and similar countries. After all, the state is routinely used by some to their considerable advantage over others (subsidies, favorable laws and so on) and it also imposes restrictions on what people can do. As such, the state does make contributions to the success (and failure) via these guided impositions and restrictions.
Thoreau advocates an evolution rather than a destruction of the state, however there are those (such as Goldman) who do advocate the complete elimination of the state. This would, of course, take the discussion full circle by returning to the state of nature—a situation without political authority. Naturally, if there was no state, then there would be no state to contribute to or prevent an individual’s success. There is, however, the question of whether or not such a state would be desirable. There is also the question of whether or not success would even be possible without a state, unless success is merely a matter of staying alive.
Obviously, there are other alleged contributors to individual success than the state and some of these will be addressed in the essays that follow.