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essays

Sep 1, 1978

State and Society

“The twentieth century’s major political developments flow from the coercive nature of the state.”

State and Society. Menlo Park, California: Institute for Humane Studies (1978) 27 pp.

Since Aristotle, political thinkers have blurred and confused the distinctions between State and Society. The etymology of society in the Latin word socius (meaning companion) suggests the gulf that separates society as a voluntary association, from the state as an externally enforced association. The institutions of society—family, church, press, school, businesses, unions, and other cooperatives—are characterized by free contract and individual liberty; the state, conversely, creates a [46] status and hierarchical differentiation among individuals by coercion. The contrasts between state and society appear in such paired antitheses as coercive power vs. voluntarism, morality vs. Machiavellianism, love vs. hostility, pluralism vs. conformity, and liberty vs. servitude.

The twentieth century’s major political developments flow from the coercive nature of the state: the state has sought to aggrandize its power at the expense of individuals and their voluntary organizations or societies. Increasingly, the state has controlled, disciplined, and subordinated man and society. The American Constitution, through its checks and balances, aimed to curb the growth of state power. Its Ninth and Tenth Amendments, reserving rights and powers “to the people,” marked off the boundaries between the state and society. These constitutional barriers to state growth have become largely dead letters with the emergence of the welfare-warfare nation-state.

The state also poses three inherent dangers for individuals and society because of its amoral quest for power. It tends to monopolize and usurp any rival power. Its ambitions lure it into conflict with other states and entice it to wage war. Its third danger is its tendency to usurp moral authority. Assuming itself to be permanent and immortal, the state lacks conscience and consistently aspires to aggrandize material power. Practicing a “Machiavellian” policy, the state divorces intellectual ability and power from moral considerations. To sustain its survival, the state demands conformity and regulation; it suspects all unregimented thought and suppresses dissent.

The state also stands opposed to the forces of religion and democracy. Religious sentiments such as love and brotherhood are universal and cannot be nationalized; they stand opposed to power, hostility, and parochialism. Similarly, democratic theory values social solidarity among humans as more important than political differentiation and conflict.

In sum, the state subjects persons, whereas society associates them voluntarily. The disciplinary power of social organizations is always limited and not physically punitive. Unlike the state, society’s penalties do not effectively constrain individual liberty. In cost-benefit terms, members of society judge that the “income” derived from their voluntary cooperation and association exceeds the “outlay” entailed by such interaction. The state, by forcing men to involuntarily interact, confesses that individuals thereby lose more than they gain.

A number of works have significantly analyzed these contrasts between state and society: Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State; Randolph Bourne, The State; Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State; Edward S. Corwin, Liberty Against Government; Bertrand De Jouvenel, Power; Peter Kropotkin, The State; Albert J. Nock, Our Enemy the State; Franz Oppenheimer, The State; Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society; and Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State.