The origin and character of the State

One finds an astonishing degree of agreement among scholars that the state and violence are intimately related.

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…One finds an astonishing degree of agreement among scholars that the state and violence are intimately related. If you were to ask David Hume how the state originated he would say that ‘Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally in usurpation or conquest or both, without any pretense of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people.’

Charles Tilly, too, is not guilty of reticence on this matter, for the very title of his seminal 1985 article is ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.’ Anthony de Jasay writes that, as a matter of fact, the real life states that people actually endure have come into existence because their ancestors ‘were beaten into obedience by an invader, and sometimes due to Hobson’s choice’ had to take one king so as to escape the threat of getting another while Crispin Sartwell remarks that ‘Almost any realistic view of the origin of states will attribute their founding or at any rate their development and preservation, to the large-scale application of violence’.

The renowned attorney Clarence S. Darrow rejects as a fairy story for children the idea that states came into existence to discourage and punish the evil and the lawless and to protect the weak and helpless. On the contrary, he claims, history shows that ‘the state was born in aggression, and that in all the various stages through which it has passed its essential characteristics have been preserved”. The action of the state ‘rests on violence and force; is sustained by soldiers, policemen, and courts; and is contrary to the ideal peace and order that make for the happiness and progress of the human race’.

Although the emergence of what Oppenheimer terms the political means and the economic means must coincide in large part with the increase in productivity made possible by the agricultural revolution, our historical knowledge of precisely what happened and when is necessarily speculative. Our earliest records show the presence of modes of social organization that could be regarded as states of some sort dating back almost ten thousand years in the area known as the Fertile Crescent.

These early states took the form of cities surrounded and supported by a productive tribute-paying hinterland. Some thousands of years later we witness the emergence from these city- states of the first empires subsisting on tribute exacted by force from conquered neighbours. James Scott notes that ‘much, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress’. To live in such a state rendered one liable for ‘taxes, conscription, corvée labor’ and implied for most of its inhabitants a ‘condition of servitude’. In substance, then, these early states were ‘warmaking machines . . . producing hemorrhages of subjects fleeingconscription, invasion and plunder’

States of one kind or another may have been around for some ten thousand years or so but the state in its modern and contemporary form is of relatively recent vintage. Harold Berman, in his now classic Law and Revolution, argues for the emergence of the West from events that happened in the eleventh century. Tilly too, sees our modern world as having its origin around the year 1000 AD. Someone looking over what is now Europe at that time could not have predicted that a thousand years later it would have the political configuration is now has. ‘In 990 nothing about the world of manors, local lords, military raiders, fortified villages, trading towns, city-states, and monasteries foretold a consolidation into the national state.’A thousand years ago, rulers – kings or otherwise – were supposed to subsist on revenues from their own properties and to fund their routine governing activities in the same way. A king might, with the consent of the would- be taxpayers, be allowed to gather revenue for some extraordinary purpose such as a war, but such revenues had to be assented to by those who would bear the burden of them.

The English Parliament developed as a body to represent potential taxpayers in considering such extraordinary requests for funding from the King. ‘Parliament respected the feudal obligation to give the king what he needed in war, but it reserved the right to decide the extent of royal needs. . . . Parliament claimed the right to decide whether it would pay for wars which sent the king’s army across the Channel.’In the development of the modern European state, tax systems have their origin in the state’s need for extraordinary revenues. Where the extraordinary was ordinary – where, for example war was more or less permanent, as in Castile during the reconquista or in France during the Hundred Years’ War – then the taxes were correspondingly permanent; where war was intermittent, the granting of taxes was generally subject to the consent of those about to be taxed either directly or through representative bodies such as parliaments, as in England.

The extraordinary revenues granted to the king in time of war (purportedly for the provision of defence against external aggression) were intended to be once-off subsidies and subject to parliamentary approval. When such approval was not forthcoming ‘government used financial expedients: forced loans, borrowing from foreign bankers, currency debasement, and the sale of assets’. War taxes were temporary and conditional; kings wanted them to be permanent and unconditional. The solution? Well, then – let war be perpetual! In France, by the middle of the fifteenth century, given the condition of almost perpetual war in which the country found itself, the once extraordinary taxes had become ordinary in England, by contrast, extraordinary royal taxes did not escape the watchful eye of Parliament. It is one of history’s ironies that when Parliament succeeded in theseventeenth-century struggle between King and Commons, it would give rise to a situation in which the new national executive would be drawn from the ranks of parliamentarians so that there was no longer any real distinction between the tax seekers and the tax approvers and thus no possibility of resistance to the now ordinary extraordinary taxation.

In the end, however, the ever-increasing costs of war steadily eroded the distinction between the extraordinary and the ordinary not just in England but more or less everywhere in Europe. The transition from feudal levies to professional armies connected with the displacement of cavalry and its replacement with massed infantry required substantial financial support: ‘the birth of tax systems in Western Europe is tied to this military transition. . . . modern taxation supplanted feudal dues in part because of the need for liquid funds to pay modern standing armies. . . .’

Francis Fukuyama notes that the bulk of the budgets of early modern states went on military expenses :

Ninety percent of the budget of the Dutch Republic was spent on war in the period of their long struggle with the Spanish King; 98 percent of the Habsburg Empire’s budget went to finance its wars with Turkey and the Protestant powers in the seventeenth century. From the beginning of the seventeenth century to its end, the budget of France rose five- to eightfold, while the British budget increased sixteen-fold from 1590 to 1670. The size of the French army increased proportionately, from 12,000 men in the thirteenth century to 50,000 in the sixteenth, to 150,000 in the 1630s, to 400,000 in Louis XIV’s reign.

Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State (Continuum, 2012) 


The origin and character of the State by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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