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To what extent should a state pursue its interests?

Dahlen          22 May 2015 09:17 AM

The foundations for this discussion go all the way back to the definition of a state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. A state comes into being when an organization manages to build an army powerful enough to defend its territory from other claimants, and ensures the cooperation of as many people as it takes for it to function through a process called legitimation. The state's status as a monopoly on violence enables it to unilaterally impose on its subjects obligations such as taxation, conscription, and a legal system. As well as that, states, as institutions, follow conservative patterns of self-perpetuation, in that the basic structure of the state and its most important institutions is intended to remain unchanged, and for every office, no matter how powerful, there are changes relevant to it which it cannot legally make -- for instance one cannot be elected president and then dissolve one's own office. There are clear restrictions on the type of power conferred to one by his position. The stability of the system is meant to, and often does, continue for generations. It often takes insurgency to change something so fundamental to the system.

Therefore, people are generally born as de facto subjects to their government and, to the extent that they do not become anarchists, tend to "inherit" perceptions of the legitimacy of the state's existence from the previous generations. For people still caught in the Enlightenment paradigm, who forget that the Enlightenment thinkers themselves often were the first generation in their lineage who got to witness the advent of the constitutional republic, this could be justified through the social contract theory of legitimacy, more specifically the "tacit" acknowledgement of the legitimacy of government -- the idea that people, by not revolting against the state and by "willingly" surrendering some of their freedoms in exchange for the benefits of an orderly society, thus legitimize the state. However, just like the divine right of kings and the conflation of legality with justice, this legitimation myth is by and large just a nice-sounding story to pacify those who would react with moral revolt instead of resignation to the simple fact of the superior physical force of the state. While it can be very rightly argued that, by and large, it is nicer to live under the rule of a government than amidst the perpetual violence that power struggles result in, taking a legitimation myth at face value is rather naive.

The larger point that I mean to make here is that the reality of statehood is value-neutral, i.e. not necessarily underlied by an appeal to a higher principle of justice or wisdom. While a legal system and its enforcement do generally lead to better outcomes than the alternatives, and while a state can and often does use its forces for good rather than for evil, a lot of government action is self-interested, resulting in the mere perpetuation of the system with just enough elasticity to withstand normal and expected historical change, or in the enrichment of the individuals that make up the government. There is no force compelling laws to be wise and just other than the constitution (to the extent to which the constitution itself is wise and just), or the reasonable expectation of popular backlash and inefficiency. Historically, taxation and conscription have been used to a large extent as extractive practices, burdens placed upon the populace to ease the lives of the nobility or to enrich the state.

Besides taxation and conscription, other practices that benefit the state but may inflict harm on subjects are imperial conquest, austerity measures, domestic spying, forced labour for state projects, propaganda, police states, strictly enforced demographic policies etc. In recent history (Cold War), operations by military organizations and intelligence agencies to dismantle radical organizations, overthrow foreign socialist regimes, or force people into decidedly sketchy research programs (that have ranged from the unethical to the Mengele level) may be included here.

Since I phrased my title question in terms of "should", the ethical standard by which self-interested state action is to be judged should be called into question. What does it mean to say that a state was right to pursue a certain action with externalities upon the populace? Whose is the good that results from this? Do state interests count more than non-state interests? Is the level at which modern Western states defend their interests the "right" level, or not? Should they do it more? Less?

I view this question and its unfolding to lay at the heart of the matter of authoritarianism vs. libertarianism (in the meaning of the term devoid of economic implications). People today, when in Hanson's "far mode", "know" the right answer to the question: "libertarianism good, authoritarianism bad!". Yet, because clear thought on the matter is a rarity, they often fail to unfold the implications of these intuitions of theirs into the support of or opposition to specific policies, or of the state as a political entity at all.

To reiterate my earlier point, generally speaking, living in a prosperous and efficient state is better than living in a corrupt and divided state, which is better than living in no state at all. The question follows, if a policy makes a state more prosperous and efficient (stronger, more unified, less corrupt, larger in territory and richer in resources, more internationally recognized, more populous etc.), what counts as a cost too big for the greatness? When we evaluate a totalitarian policy in, say, Hitler's Germany, or the Soviet Union, we tend to draw on hindsight -- on the eventual failure of those states and on the known grievances of the populace with the regime -- to conclude that totalitarianism is a sad and terrible waste of human potential. At the same time, we're not in too great a rush to dig up dirt on our own governments when it doesn't affect us personally, or don't know many people whom it does.

I think this is a question that is relevant to people of all political persuasions. Progressives want less war and police brutality, social conservatives and racists want (selective) government intervention in demographic policies towards more babies, the Pirate Party wants less spying on the internet, anarchists want no state at all, libertarians want government out of people's lives, neoreactionaries and monarchists want the people out of the government's life. What is warranted and what is not?

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melian 22 May 2015 02:08 PM

Could you clarify your question a bit? It is hard to answer the question what is the best policy for a state without the definition of what “best” means in this context.

"one cannot be elected president and then dissolve one's own office"

Actually, quite a few historical leaders did that (take, for example, Napoleon III).


Dahlen 27 May 2015 08:38 AM

I actually meant for there to be a meta-discussion about the values by which it is better or worse for the balance to be tilted in favour of states or of citizens, and whether "the common good" is the same as, or distinct from what is best for a state as a political entity.


melian 27 May 2015 09:35 AM

The example of North Korea demonstrates that “the common good” is definitely distinct from what is best for a state as a political entity. It would only benefit most North Koreans, if their state were dissolved tomorrow and the country annexed by the South.

In general, I believe that the optimal balance between the power of states and their population depends mostly on the level of external threat. The state needs to be strong enough to protect its citizen from aggression, but not stronger.

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ChristianKl 22 May 2015 01:18 PM

You use the phrase state's interests without being clear about what you mean with it.

You treat the interests of an intelligence agency as synonymous with the interest of it's state. I don't think that's the way the phrase "state's interests" is usually used.
In a democracy every citizen is part of the state and therefore his interests are part of the state's interest.


Dahlen 28 May 2015 07:41 AM

I use "the state" to mean the institutional complex that has sovereign power over a territory; the people comprising the state, in their respective political-administrative-military roles, constitute its government. The interests of the state refer to the interests of its body of governing institutions, that generally remain stable even as the people holding the offices come and go. Examples of things that may be in the interest of a state, but not necessarily, directly, or obviously in that of its citizens, are: territorial expansion (people die in wars), alleviating national debt through austerity measures (it might work, but it would suck for consumers and businesses alike), defensive war propaganda and conscription (inadequately prepared military forces could mean you get conquered, maybe by a worse regime, but again, the flipside is people dying in wars), counter-insurgency and operations that target radical political groups (it preserves the state and the status quo, even though this might happen at the cost of the people's expressed desires), illiberal policies imposed in the name of national security, co-opting a majority church to further legitimise one's regime, social policies that target the birth rate, perhaps of certain social or ethnic groups, like bachelor taxes or monetary incentives/disincentives for having children, or restricting the right to divorce... in short, actions that strengthen the state even at the expense of the citizens. Policies that look good from the top.

Much as the theory of democracy may uphold the idea, I disagree that every citizen has a share of the state's interest. It strikes me as a case of the fallacy of division. It is my view that people, even in the best-functioning representative democracies, are de facto subjects to government rather than participants in it, and that the political class is a relatively uniform minority under little compulsion to represent its constituents adequately. Also, that most people don't know and either wouldn't understand or would disagree with a large part of what the government does.


ChristianKl 28 May 2015 07:52 PM

The way the term states interests is generally used recognizes that opening up the European markets towards gene manipulated foot is a US state interest because Monsanto is an US company.

Functioning democracies in general don't wage wars to expand their territory. But even if you look at Russia you find that war is popular with most of the population and Putin's decision to wage war radically improved his approval among the Russian public.

Whether or not austerity measures are a good idea depends a lot on your beliefs about economics.

I don't think Malta is a stronger state because it restricts the right to divorce. It has a lot more to do with religion and the power of the church in Malta that can make it's interests into policy than there being an interest of the side of the government.

Policy about birthrates is generally made because it's considered to ... read more


Fwiffo 22 May 2015 12:51 PM

a state need not perpetuate itself as is to eternity. That it legitimate change can legally happen. The result is more of a continuity. A king can reform a kingdom to a republicd. Same power resides in democracies with constitution is alteration. Usually this is by significant majority parlamentary vote often with multiple succeeding different parlaments required (no single parlament soloing, election mandatory).

There are a couple constitutional monarchies where the monarch wasn't killed or really overthrown but real power was given/taken away. This can be seen as a peaceful process instead of a revolution. And even within a authoritarian rule it was often established that there is a supremacy of law, that is the king is subject to laws and can't make them totally willy nilly (that is everyone is subject to law even the king).

There is also the version of legitimising where the power is never given away. In the same way that you don't cease to become a legal person by owning stock backing up and supporting a goverment doesn't mean your power vanishes. In my language the word for "republic" can also be if translated piece-by-piece mean "evenpower" reflecting the fact that every citizen in a republic holds as much power as any other, embodying the principle that everyones vote counts equally (regardless of physical power, social status or economic efficency). I don't don't know if you imagine what would moral revolt. The problem is that if one doesn't vote why would they be obligated to follow states orders (such as its supreme court)? Moral revolt need not mean violent revolt but if one just lives how one believes (which I am assuming results in the ordinary living in a very similar kind of behaviour) and then civil disobeys (but doesn't violently resist) usually there can be a mutual non-interference understanding. if interfered with the protestor might say that he experiences injustice for being only a political prisoner and having not committed any harmful action. This was pretty close on what Gandhi did in India to make the british realise how dickish it was to colonize India. They just stopped following their british overlords and didn't resist when punished. It's hard to run a colony like that so eventually the british agreed to formally recognise that they had no power over the Indians. I am curious how the "legitimization myth" would be tried to be employed to "pacify" moral revolt. How do you pacify a non-violent resistance?

I would like to note that "libertarianism good, authoritarianism bad!" is not a universal agreed sentiment althought it is popular in the US style west. I get it when it is just that state ought not to be used for micromanagement but only macro management but it gets really weird when people for reals try to argue to live with next-to-powerless society. That is instead of a defence organization they think that somehow a a really strong castle doctrine and private security alliances might be better. What I think is that these kind of people when they describe collective action they tend to treat them as groups of individuals rather than organizations. But for a lot of things this is just a misleading picture. It is true that individuals can do good if there is market to operate on and there are basic infrastructure and interaction rules and such. For example a market requires that ownership is strong enough that theft and forcible repossession are not important worries. Having cities, transportation networks and information networks is also vital. It can be easy to forget that if you cripple the state too much these things become hard to provide. For example in a society where every road is a private road distribution markets are way different and not selfevidently for the better (how does a toll pay for every road sound?).

Hopefully a state is to further the values of its citizens (such as the management of the form of life within a spatial region). However not all values are equal.


melian 22 May 2015 02:14 PM

This was pretty close on what Gandhi did in India to make the british realise how dickish it was to colonize India. They just stopped following their british overlords and didn't resist when punished. It's hard to run a colony like that so eventually the british agreed to formally recognise that they had no power over the Indians. I am curious how the "legitimization myth" would be tried to be employed to "pacify" moral revolt. How do you pacify a non-violent resistance?

From George Orwell's "Reflections on Gandhi":

Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference.


Fwiffo 26 May 2015 08:11 AM

Is this supposed to be an appeal to authority? I have more of the impression that the deal with Russian is that resistance would be futile not that it would be wrong.

It could be argud that the Indian mass civil disobience worked because the British are not that keen on massmurder of nonresistant people. Russia might not similarly apply (after all their non-optional military service has a death rate).

There is off course that nobody wants to be the first to start disobeying. If somebody sees that there would be no point in disobeying the effectiveness of individual refusal is diminished. If you see the power as very illegimate you might disobey just out of spite even at great cost to yourself (ie sentiments of rather being dead than helping the devil).

There is also the difference that India could just go back to what they used to do. Russia would need a replacement governance ... read more

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