The Shrinking State

Author: Gary Hart

KnowledgeFor 350 years the basic political building-block has been the nation-state.  The nation-state evolved in the mid-17th century from a bargain between the people (the nation) and governments (the state) that, in return for their loyalty, the state would protect the nation.  To ensure its side of the bargain, the state or the government had to possess a monopoly on violence.  No other individual or group could make war or conduct violent actions.  Otherwise, the state could not keep its side of the bargain.

In the late 20th century this historic bargain began to break down and governments could no longer guarantee the safety of their citizens.  As symbolized by the 9.11 terrorist attacks, even the most militarily powerful government in history could not protect its citizens.  Though there are many reasons for this, the most basic is that the nature of warfare and conflict is changing.  Nation-states rarely go to war against each other anymore, for territory or power, but non-uniformed, often suicidal stateless nations (“non-state actors”) are now the new warrior/criminals.  Significant parts of the world, including in places such as Mexico, are now “governed” by tribes, clans, and gangs.  That also includes major urban areas.

All this leads to profound implications.  If governments cannot guarantee the security of their people, the people will stockpile their own weapons and possibly create their own militias or private security forces.  All the while, they are losing confidence in, and often mistrusting, their own government.  This also means that, in fragile nation-states like Pakistan and many others, the army increasingly withdraws to protection of the nation’s capital, its government, and its elites.  Thus the government loses further credibility in the countryside and whole segments of countries begin to seek their own sub-governments.  This, of course, produces failed and failing states.

Those of us seriously concerned with ominous trends and tides in recent years will find this trend one of most ominous.  Too many of the so-called foreign policy experts still pontificate as if the traditional political building-blocks, the nation-states, will last forever.  They better begin to think again.

17 Responses to “The Shrinking State”

  1. Gary Hart: The Shrinking State | News from: The Huffington Post - Breaking News and Opinion Says:

    […] Posted from Senator Hart’s new blog.  To comment, please visit Matters of Principle. […]

  2. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    You can sure say that again, only shout it loud to those who are able to change the direction we are headed, before we hit an iceberg.

  3. Aaron Kinney Says:

    Accordign to the Supreme Court in Deshaney v.Winnebago County Department Of Social Services, the government is NOT obligated to protect the citizens.

    Legal precedent aside, it’s not feasible for the government to protect everyone. nor should citizens expect it. The only thing left is for the government to abandon it’s monopoly claim on the use of force and the responsibility of defense of the land.

    Why do we even have a government at all, at this point? What are they good for? They are a protection racket, and a bad one at that. I get better protection from organized crime than from the police and military.

  4. Tony Griffin Says:

    Of course mercenaries are nothing new, but for sure a troubling trend along these lines is the development of companies like Blackwater, or U.S. Training Center, or whatever they are calling themselves these days, i.e., defense services to the highest bidder.

    Although I agree with Sen. Hart’s post, not all hope is lost. The Zogby Report on trends for future suggests that the millennial generation possess a strong notion of responsiblity as a global citizen. A view of the nation-state as a contract (or quid pro quo) must be countermanded with a strong notion of the common good. Perhaps this new generation possesses the seeds for revisioning the common good. Will the right leaders rise to the top to shape this future?

  5. Akira Bergman Says:

    The nation-states are not able to address the climate change either. A global democracy is the obvious solution, but how do we get there without being opposed by the nation-states and their capitalist sponsors?

  6. Michael Califra Says:

    The nature of war is changing, but terrorism as has been around for centuries. As far as 9/11 is concerned, it was quite possible for the government to have protected us from that event. Let’s remember that on that day, the United States was attacked by 19 guys with box cutters. The people in this country who are stockpiling arms and ammunition are doing so because they are being incited against their own government by media demagogues, not because they are in any real danger. No government can possible prevent all attacks on its citizens, any more than it can stop all crime. But US government is perfectly capable of providing to its citizens more than enough protection so they can lead their lives without excessive fear of terrorism – that’s if the people in charge are efficient and apolitical with the allocation of resources. Both elements were lacking in the last administration, which seemed only interested in using the threat of terrorism as a political club with which to bludgeon its opponents. The big challenge for Americans is, of course, how best to guarantee the protections of the Constitution with new security requirements.

    In other places in the world the real threat is from rampant official corruption, which is often inseparably tied to the question of security, and I don’t know that there is much the US government can do about that. Even in places that we are occupying militarily, it is impossible to stop the official corruption from eating away at the authority of the state.

    Maybe the best way to insure American security is to stop meddling politically in places we don’t belong. That’s a lesson we should have learned long before 9/11.

  7. Concerned Says:

    Senator Hart has touched the tip of the iceberg. Extreme libertarians, especially those in their American cocoons, seem unable to envision the “state of nature” or brutal retribalization that occurs in event of the state’s demise. We need only look at what has happened in weak or failed states around the world. The moms and dads of Iraq and other places are forced to look for alternative, less optimal, forms of protection.

    Some groups have an interest in destroying the state: organized crime, multinational corporations, and extreme religious cults. They often wage propaganda war against the state.

    Not all states have successfully balanced the rights of the communities, economic units, and individuals. But the United States has been remarkably successful in that respect. We need to protect it from political and religious extremists, selfish economic interests, and organized crime. We need to unmask those who work daily to undermine the American national state and its ability to solve our problems.

  8. sue kurrle Says:

    come see the marshal law in metro detroit militia 101 has certainly nothing on our states populice of 50 percent joblessness and border patrol workers taking over every town ,,cheney or haney we got em thank you G>W>

  9. isaac mooers Says:

    Government which exercises an monopoly on violence, uses this monopoly as the justification for all other governmental functions. Without the monopoly on violence, others related to so called “natural monopolies” law creation, arbitration etc. will all fall by the wayside. Anything the state can do a voluntary non profit can do better. There is no reason to continue using a feudal model for the production of such vitally important goods and services as those currently entrusted to the state via social contract theory. We should as a society embrace allowing multiple competing organizations to fulfill these functions. Monopoly is wasteful and the collusion between the state an corporate interests creates the inequality of our system.

  10. crispin sartwell Says:

    the nation state is the biggest calamity in human history. the world wars and genocides of the twentieth century were performed by nation states. only the nation state, with its infinite cash derived from coerced taxation and its patriotic scientists, could have developed technology sufficient to exterminate life on earth. if the idea is in fact disintegrating, the process would be chaotic, but the outcome is almost self-evidently desirable.

    gary, you might want to check out my book “against the state” (state university of new york press 2008).

  11. Jeff Simpson Says:

    The evolution of conflict dictates that tactics must change. Removing financial backing as a means of combating stateless threats will require sacrificing some business interests: We cannot install and prop up pro-business leaders and substitute force for legitimacy. As for Mexico, legalization of drugs — admittedly an onerous act that many will resist — would remove the money that allows drug cartels to function.

    Modern warfare policy first needs revamping at home. We cannot prop up a corrupt Karzai administration for the sake of the continuity of inter-administration foreign policy (and that oil pipeline our business interests so covet). Karzai does not enjoy widespread domestic support, and therefore is unviable. We need to admit this hard truth, this gross mistake, and move on.

  12. Gary Hart Says:

    Though I can’t respond to each comment individually, I thank you all for making this post and discussion exactly what I hoped this site would become–thoughtful, intelligent, informed, and serious. Please stay tuned in, invite like-minded friends, and, despite serious challenges to us all, happy holidays to all. Thank you.

  13. Kevin W. Says:

    I shudder to think of what would replace the Westphalian concept of the nation-state, which has served our world so (relatively) well for the past 350+ years. Feudal states, tribal regions, and independent principalities have a less-than enviable track record for providing basic security to their constituents, particularly over time.

    The cultivation of a shared sense of sacrifice for the good of our nation, as contemplated through some nature of mandated community service, is potentially our best defense against our country descending into self-defined individual units of allegiance. If we all contribute to our nation’s well-being in some tangible way, we will still have our disagreements, much like families do. However, also in the manner of families, we will be more able to transcend our disagreements and pursue a common goal, or compartmentalize those disagreements under the broader auspices of what unites us.

    Best wishes to all in 2010!

  14. Lubna Dovel Says:

    Government I think is a necessity, if only to preserve civility, otherwise we would be in pandemonium with mercenaries and small militias everywhere as they are often in Africa. I am all for the government imposing regulations to protect the people from the capitalist schemes and greed of large corporations and those all too willing to ruthlessly use the methods at their disposal to take advantage of the public. That said, other than ensuring that the people have their individual rights and such, I do wish that the government would step out of people’s individual lives, especially that in the bedroom. I am all for laws criminalizing child abuse and molestation, but do not see how anything that I or anyone else does in one’s home that does not hurt another person is any of the governments business, or why one person’s religion must be the basis of the country’s laws when we say that we (supposedly) respect the religious (or lack of) rights of others with different beliefs. For example, it amazes me that people still think that all Mormons can still have multiple wives or that all Muslims believe in jihad against non-believers (the Qu’ran expresses great empathy and tolerance for other peoples of the Book [Torah and Bible]).

  15. Lubna Dovel Says:

    As an additional note, as a naturalized citizen that was born in the Middle East, even though I, like many others, do grumble about the government and what problems it poses, I would like to remind everyone that our extremely imperfect nation and its politicians for the most part are still so much better than even the most progressive of Asia; I think it takes living or visiting another country sometimes to make us realize how grateful we should be for what we have, as in many other countries, blogs like this would be shut down, and the people posting on it jailed for crimes against the state. Here is to a good year of trying to make this a better place for our children, and may you and yours have a blessed year.

  16. Shepard Humphries Says:

    You make a great point, and it spreads even further. Not only have all governments failed at protecting their people, they have also failed at other endeavors such as providing education, infrastructure, alms, and regulation of consumer products. It is not just the US that has failed; it is the nature of state.

    i also appreciate that while most of us likely agree that Bush and Obama are lousy folks, they are simply personnel in a failed system, and Bush-bashing or Obama-bashing distracts us from the deeper issue. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

  17. Angela Wheelock Says:

    Dear Mr. Humphries,
    No, I certainly don’t agree that President Obama and Bush are “lousy folks.”
    I am no fan of President Bush’s, but I believe that, under the circumstances he faced, he did what he thought was right. He made many, many mistakes, but writing him off as a lousy person is the easy way out. Anarchy is not a concept that I believe can be applied in the 21st century. Amongst other things, I teach writing to refugee students from Africa. I wish you had the opportunity to hear what can happen to those who live in failed states. Individuals and the private sector cannot replace government and more importantly, in places where government control is minimal it’s clear that they don’t want to or are unable to. The idea that a country of over 300 million people could exist without a nation-state government seems naive at best and terrifying taken to the extreme.

    As for President Obama, a man with his talents and intelligence does not have to put his life on the line every day to try and run an increasingly ungovernable country. I greatly admire his attempts to change the tone of politics and his clear understanding of what government needs to do to help the increasing number of people in this country who do not have the power to help themselves.

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