A Philosopher's Blog

How Much is the State?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2012
The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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  1. magus71 said, on August 20, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Hobbes was a proponent of a powerful state, and says that all of the things we view as “civilized” would not exist in the absence of a state. But, we must still define what that means, exactly. For most conservatives that means a strong military and security. Thus, when we say Big Government, conservatives do not mean a government that only has a strong military, but one that is in too many aspects of our lives, a government that actually begins to slow progress. A government that has made too many rules.

    Hobbes’ Leviathan is a dwarf compared to what we have now.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      The military and security aspects of the state seem rather big, at least in the United States. After all, the expenditures that fall under these categories are a significant part of the budget and security impositions also seem significant as well.

      Commerce also requires a large infrastructure as well: roads, ports, communication, education and so on. These things are typically provided for by the collective rather than the individual.

      As far as rules go, the liberals and the conservatives seem to both be very much into imposing rules, albeit often of somewhat different types. After all, the Republicans crank out bills, too.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Paraphrase from a Romney speech:

    An honor student rides the bus to school each day. Who deserves the credit for her good grades? I credit the student, not the bus driver…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      I would not credit the bus driver either, except insofar as s/he made it possible for the student to get to school. What point was Romney trying to make?

      The bus driver thing rather misses the mark. After all, bus drivers do not teach. It makes more sense to ask “an honor student rides the bus to a public school each day. Who deserves the credit for her having the opportunity to earn good grades?” After all, no public school, then no good grades at a public school. True, if her family has the money, they can send her to private school (via public roads).

      • magus71 said, on August 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm

        So can we tell Obama of his presidency, “You didn’t earn that?”

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm

          Depends on how you define “earn.” If you mean “achieved it ex nihilo with no aid from anyone or anything else”, then no.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm

        Point was that lots of kids ride the bus, use the roads, etc., so we shouldn’t give too much credit to such things to account for success.

        I guess I am an old fashioned “Ant and Grasshopper” kind of guy. Turns out there is evidence from psychology to back it up. 4 year olds who were able to delay their gratification were far more successful 25 years later than the 4 year olds who were not able to delay.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

          Just because roads and such do not contribute directly to education it does not follow that the public schools do not contribute to success. Obama’s point (and Romney’s when he was talking about the Olympics) is that we owe a lot of other people for our achievements. That seems something obviously true. So obvious, in fact, that only the derangement of politics could make this matter into some sort of major battle point.

          Now, what is worth discussing is the extent to which the collective (that is us acting as the state) contributes to individual and collective success as well as the role the state should play in this process.

          I’m reasonably sure that rational Democrats and Republicans agree that we need a state to provide security, infrastructure and the context in which civilization and commerce can exist. That results in a rather substantial state. The main debate seems to be more over the details of who the state should be aiding. While both parties exist to funnel public funds to their supporters, the Democrats are also inclined to support those who have less while the Republicans seem to be on the lookout for those who have more.

          • T. J. Babson said, on August 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm

            “I’m reasonably sure that rational Democrats and Republicans agree that we need a state to provide security, infrastructure and the context in which civilization and commerce can exist. That results in a rather substantial state.”

            Exactly wrong–those things result in a minimal state, like we had throughout most of the nation’s history. What has made the size of government explode is the fact that half of the population now gets a check from the government in the form of a transfer payment. This is where new taxes will go–not for schools, teachers, roads, or things which everybody supports. This is the lie at the core of what Obama is promoting.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 24, 2012 at 8:49 am

              That seems like a rather substantial “minimal” state. In the past, we could have a smaller state in part because of the relatively low technology-no cars, no aircraft, no tanks, no electricity and so on. As such, the state had much less to spend on in terms of defense and infrastructure.

              However, you do make a good point that there is also a transfer of wealth via the state. A significant chunk of this is an upwards transfer to those who are already wealthy (such as oil subsidies). I agree that those need to be removed. After all, it seems wasteful and wrong to give public funds to folks who are making significant profits on their own. As I recall, both the Republicans and the Democrats support this sort of wealthfare, only the Democrats support it slightly less.

              Romney has made some comments about cutting energy subsidies, which I wrote about in another post. I do agree that we should cut the established industries off the dole, but we should keep funding research into alternative energy. Part of this is because I want to see a fusion powered hover tank armed with a plasma gun in my lifetime.

            • WTP said, on August 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

              A significant chunk of this is an upwards transfer to those who are already wealthy (such as oil subsidies).

              Oil companies paid bigger taxes. And what are often referred to as “oil subsidies” are in many cases the same tax deductions any business or even individual gets for the cost of doing business such as capital equipment depreciation, paying domestic non-federal taxes, foriegn taxes, etc. Now if you want to talk about upwards wealth transfers, don’t forget your crony capitalism e.g. Solyndra, GM, GE, etc. Or even stories like this one:


              Lincoln Dahl of St. David, Ariz., owns a small company called African Energy that buys “off the grid” solar panels and other equipment that can generate electricity and can bypass a utility’s electrical grid. It then exports the products to customers in Africa. These lower-voltage solar products, which provide energy directly to appliances such as televisions and lights, are available in sufficient quantity mainly from China, Mr. Dahl said.

              The company, which has seven employees, had to pay more than $42,000 for tariffs equal to 31% of the value of a shipment of solar gear that Mr. Dahl received in May, days before the Commerce Department decision, plus countervailing duties of 3% tied to the effects of the government subsidies.

              Solar-panel makers world-wide have seen their profits erode due to oversupply, which has come about amid a rapid build-out of manufacturing capacity, primarily in China. Prices have plunged, driving smaller solar-panel makers into bankruptcy and putting pressure on larger players to find new demand for their products.

              SolarWorld, the company that pushed for the tariffs, maintains the case is only about leveling the playing field with China, not making trouble for U.S. buyers. Chinese manufacturers have distorted the solar market thanks to deep financial support from the Chinese government, argued Gordon Brinser, president of the company’s U.S. branch, SolarWorld Industries America.

          • T. J. Babson said, on August 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm

            This is an instant classic:

  3. WTP said, on August 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Man scores a hole-in-one on the 17th at Sawgrass. How much of that is luck?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 25, 2012 at 11:02 am

      That would depend on the specifics of the situation. If I did it, then it would be almost all luck (that is, random chance with a positive outcome). If a golf pro did it, the chance factor would be present but a much smaller part of the results.

      This, of course, assumes a random universe. If we live in a deterministic universe, then there is no luck.

      • WTP said, on August 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm

        But wasn’t the golf pro be “lucky” in the sense that whatever the nature of the universe is, fate brought him into the situation with the greater degree of competence?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm

          Only if you believe in fate or a comparable system (determinism, predestination, predeterminism and so on).

          I like fate as a plot device in my Pathfinder adventures, but I am not inclined to believe in fate in the actual world.

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