the ethics of the state

When I say “the state,” I draw on the sociologist Max Weber’s famous definition as, essentially, a group’s monopoly on the use of violence over a given territory. So far as I can tell, few find this definition objectionable. Even those who see the power or privileges of the state optimistically cannot deny that only “the state” has a presupposed claim to use force or violence. What do I mean by this? Simply put, the state can use force, violence, and coercion in a way that you and I are not permitted to do. Even if we got together and called ourselves a “mini-state,” this would not justify otherwise unwarranted violence. If you or I hurt someone, or even worse kill them, or if we take their stuff, we are subject to the law and to punishment. The state, however, is not subject to repercussions, or least not in a few obvious ways. 


We should be careful, though, to not make the state an abstract entity. While many political theorists distinguish between a state and government, I don’t find the distinction necessary. They contrast a state from a government, for example, by saying that a nation could be an autocratic state with a democratic government. In this case, ultimate power (sovereignty) resides in the autocrat, but the government may employ democratic means for decision making purposes. Regardless, at any given time, when we refer to “the state,” we mean the agents of the state: the government. So in America right now, “the state” is the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the endless agencies, departments, lower-level courts, state legislatures and governors, etc. So while it is more expedient to refer to this expansive group as “the state,” we should also understand that it is not some autonomous, faceless being, as when we say “nature.” The state is, quite literally, the collective monopoly on the use of force by all of the individuals who comprise it. We shouldn’t speak about the state or “the government” as if we couldn’t also specifically identify who we’re talking about. If we say “the government passed so-and-so law,” we mean that a certain number of congressmen passed a bill, and that the president signed it into law, and then we also mean that agencies of the state such as judges and the police will enforce the law. So again, at any given time, instead of saying “the government,” we could, if we wanted to, say precisely who it is that we’re talking about. 

This previous point is important because when we talk abstractly about “the state,” this tends to obscure responsibility. If “the government” raised our taxes, it is not as though this is just some fact of life the same way that gravity is; rather, a particular group of people who have a monopoly on violence chose to raise taxes, and agents of the state—the IRS, judges, police, prisons—will enforce punishment if those taxes aren’t paid. If one single person didn’t pay his or her federal income tax, we could trace the exact amount of people involved in punishing him or her: all of the senators and congressmen who voted for the budget, the president who signed it into law, the county tax official or officials who reported the taxes unpaid, the IRS agent or agents who took the case to collect the payment, the judge who issued the offender to appear in court on a certain date, the policeman or court agent who served the warrant, the judge who presided over the case and delivered the sentence, and everyone at the prison who enforces the non-taxpayer’s punishment. (I don’t actually know that this is how it would happen in the case of refusing to pay taxes, but the example works nonetheless). So it is not some abstract “government” who is throwing this person in a cage for refusing to pay taxes, it is an identifiable group of people who have a legal monopoly on using violence under the umbrella of “state” authority. So though I use the term “the state,” I always do have particular people in mind. “States” don’t act, people do. 

Some would say that “we” are the state since we vote for representatives, we fund the infrastructure of government through taxes, we use government services like roads, bridges, and schools, and we unofficially recognize the authority of the state by not moving to another country. None of these are logical arguments. If I don’t vote, or the person whom I vote for doesn’t win, then even though I have a “representative,” he or she cannot pretend to represent my interests since, A) they don’t know my interests or preferences since I gave them no signal (i.e. I didn’t vote for them, and thus I didn’t imply support for their programs or politics), and B) if I voted for someone else, then I was literally saying I wanted someone else to win and represent my interests besides the person that actually did win. If 51% of people vote for Mr. X, 30% for Mr. Y, and 19% didn’t vote, can Mr. X (the winner) logically claim to represent the interests of the other 49%? To the 49%, he is no different than a dictator, forced upon them without their consent. He may still be called their “representative,” but he doesn’t represent their interests. 

In terms of being the state by funding it through taxes, we don’t have a choice. Taxes are not voluntary and if you don’t pay them you will eventually be locked in a cage and have your property seized. You can vote for representatives who say they favor lower taxes, but if my preference is to have no taxes, then who represents my interest? What if my representative actually votes against all taxes, but is outvoted by other lawmakers? In that case, even though my representative truly represented my interests, it was still to no avail. I still have absolutely no recourse when it comes to paying taxes. It’s a strange argument to say that by paying mandatory taxes, we “are” the state. Am I part of a gang if one of its members steals my wallet? 

What about the argument that by using government services we act as part of the overall fabric of the state? In other words, if I call the police when there’s a thief in my house, for example, am I then admitting that I’m benefitting from/consenting to government services? Or if I drive on roads funded by tax dollars, or send my kids to public schools? The reply to this is no different than the previous one about taxes: just because I am forced to do something does not make me complicit in its existence, nor does it confer legitimacy on it. If a thief stole my wallet and then started a business, and I (for some reason) buy something from his business, does this mean I wanted him to steal my wallet in the first place? If the state acquires financing through compulsory taxes (backed by threat of force), and then uses those taxes to build roads, and then I drive on those roads, this in no way implies that I wanted to pay taxes in the first place, or that paying taxes was “voluntary.” If driving on government roads is de facto acceptance of the state, then what options do I have when just leaving my neighborhood means I’m driving on government roads? Should I wither away in my house because of my anti-state principles? Likewise, sending children to public schools does not mean that parents wouldn’t rather have those tax dollars back to use toward a school of their choosing. When our money and choices are limited by the state, it is no justification for the state for us to use the services that we were taxed to pay for in the first place. If a man locked someone in a room and gave him a pillow to sleep on, would using that pillow mean he consents to being locked away? It’s simply not a logical argument. 

Another argument that “we” are the state is usually that by not moving elsewhere, we at least admit that “it’s not that bad,” or that by staying within a state we agree to some social contract to abide by laws and civil authority. This is one of the most outrageous claims made in defense of the state, and yet it seems to be the most often parroted. Firstly, all human beings have no choice in their initial existence. We did not ask to be born, nor did we ask to be born where we were and into the family in which we came. For the first years of our lives, leaving the country (and thus the grip of the state) is impossible. Would we tell a seven year old that he is legitimizing the state by not moving to another country? If not, at what age does this argument take effect? 11 years old? 12? 17? But even using this argument against a grown adult is not a logical argument. In most cases, the cost of acquiring citizenship, housing, and employment are prohibitive. If I don’t have the means to move, then how is it logical to tell me I must move to escape the oppressive state into which I happened to be born? 

But what if I did have the means? To this, we must assess which came first, the state or the individual? Clearly, the individual came first, since the state is nothing more than a collection of individuals. There never was such a thing as “the state” simply birthed into existence all at once. If we agree with Thomas Jefferson that man has inalienable rights (unable to be given or taken away), then our individual rights both precede and supersede the state. This means that, according to the formulation in the Declaration of Independence, my rights to life and liberty cannot, in any ethical or defensible way, be given away or taken away by the state. And yet, the state can tax man into impoverishment, thus taking away his liberty, and it can conscript him to fight its wars, thus taking away his life. And it can do both of these things with impunity since the state has a presumptive claim to the use of coercive force and violence. So in saying that if I don’t leave I agree to the legitimacy of the state, this means that the state must have a legitimate claim to infringe my inalienable rights. It must mean that Jefferson was wrong and that I don’t have certain natural rights that cannot be violated. In essence, it means that the state owns me and my property since it can take either. Only the state claims this right, which is why the ethics by which it operates are distinct from every other realm of humanity. To reiterate, in saying that not moving means I agree to some social contract with the state, this is saying that the state is preeminent over the individual. Such a position makes a mockery of the inviolability of the individual and his or her natural rights. This is like telling a slave that he can go anywhere he wants on the plantation, and if he doesn’t like it, he should leave. Even today, if I had the means to leave, where am I going to go to escape the authority of modern nation-states? There is not a single square inch of the earth that is not claimed by some state. So if my position is that I am not born indebted to any particular state (i.e. I am not born a slave), the argument to “just move somewhere else” doesn’t even make sense; there is nowhere to go. 

So “we” are not “the state.” The state can pass laws, raise and collect taxes, seize your property, order you to appear in court, lock you in a cage, tell you what you can and can’t put in your body, tell you what you can or can’t sell, tell your kids where they have to be Monday through Friday, tell you how to run your business, tell you how much money you can or can’t make, tell you what kind of medicine you can try, and they can even conscript you to go fight their wars and sacrifice your life. They can do every single one of these things under the auspices of the legitimacy of the state. You and I cannot pass a law, we cannot raise or collect taxes, we cannot take people’s property, or throw them in jail, or make them fight for some cause that we’ve determined is necessary. We cannot tell others what they can or can’t put in their body, or what they can or can’t sell, or where their kids have to be and what they have to be doing. So there is a significant distinction between “the state” and everyone else. A policeman, for example—a state agent—can decide whether he wants to write you a ticket for going six miles over the speed limit, or he can choose to let you go. In essence, by fiat authority and personal discretion, he can decide whether or not to make you pay hundreds of dollars to the state for going a few miles over the speed limit. Even though your tax dollars pay for his salary, and the roads you drive on, and the metal that was used to make the speed limit sign, he can still demand you pay more if you’re caught “breaking the law.” You and I cannot do this, so we are clearly not the state. 

The point is that the ethics of the state are completely different than those by which you and I must abide. Whether we want to call it basic human reason, natural rights, or the Golden Rule, you and I generally follow certain parameters of interpersonal human behavior that limit violent interactions. This is not to say that people are never violent with each other; they often are and in those cases there are (or should be) repercussions and restitution; this is the concept of justice. But if someone is unjustifiably violent toward another person, they can’t claim that they acted out of a legally-granted “monopoly on violence.” They cannot say that what they did was permissible because of some title or umbrella of state authority. In short, under normal conditions, we cannot hit each other, kill each other, or take each other’s stuff. And yet, this is exactly how the state operates. Indeed, the state is predicated on a monopoly on violence. Even those who favor modern states understand this, because they know that without the monopoly on coercive force and violence, the state could not effectively enforce its laws. State agents can do a number of things that would be considered criminal were you and I to do them. I won’t repeat the previous list, but in short, they can take our stuff (taxation) and even act in ways that get us killed (conscription). If I take 30% of your income, you would call me a thief; when the government does it, we call it taxation. Can I park my car on the side of the highway and monitor your speed and write you a ticket if you’re going a few miles over the speed limit? If I tried, I would probably be the one getting in trouble. When a policeman does it, we call it keeping “law and order.” Can I knock down your door in the middle of the night and tear your house apart looking for contraband? If I did, I would be liable to get shot. When the government does it, we call it a “raid.” If I wanted to start a war in another country and I forced you to go fight for me, you would call it organized murder; when the government does it, we call it a draft. In terms of state-sanctioned war, only the government can give someone a “license to kill.” At almost no other time in life would we think it’s okay to murder someone, but if the state gives us permission, then all of the sudden we can legally kill people, and we can even justify it as “ethical” since it falls under the purview of state authority. 

If you believe in the necessity and efficacy of the state, then at the very least you have to admit that they operate with a different set of ethics than the rest of us. They can do things that none of us can, and they can do things that would be called criminal were you and I to do them. But if it’s generally wrong to hurt people and take their stuff, then why do we normalize it when a group of people calling themselves “the state” do it? Are right and wrong determined by what we call ourselves? The challenge for defenders of the state is to rationalize or justify why ethical norms are different for the state than for everyone else. The state is, after all, only a collection of individuals, so in saying that they can do things that no one else can, one is essentially saying that some people can violate ethical norms because of the group to which they belong. We’re long past the point of believing that some people are born slaves and some masters, and yet we live our entire lives believing that it’s natural for there to be rulers (the state) and ruled. If we reduce the concept of “rights” to its most basic form, it is the right to one’s life: the right to not be killed. So which is it, do we have the right to life, or does the state have the right to take our life? Those can’t coexist.