In his book “The Rise and Decline of the State,” Martin van Creveld describes the decline of the state as beginning in 1975.
While reading the chapter “The Decline of the State: 1975 –” I struggled with grasping his message. The picture he paints of the decline is complex – sometimes confusing. Perhaps it was so due to the general views I hold about where we are headed clouding my ability to read his views with an open mind. Perhaps it was confusing because, inherently, the decline (and transition) will be confusing for those who live through it, as we are (and will be for decades or longer); it need not be said that – even living through it – a description of even the present, let alone the future, is not very simple.
After reading his conclusion, I decided it makes sense to begin here – with the conclusion in mind perhaps it will aid me in interpreting his message in the chapter that precedes it.
As presented in this study, government and state are emphatically not the same. The former is a person or group which makes peace, wages war, enacts laws, exercises justice, raises revenue, determines the currency, and looks after internal security on behalf of society as a whole…. The latter is merely one of the forms which, historically speaking, the organization of government has assumed, and which, accordingly, need not be considered eternal and self-evident any more than the previous ones.
The unique characteristic of the state is that it has its own life (a body) – a life independent of any ruler. It is a corporation, an entity separate from those who manage it at any given moment.
Corporation: an association of individuals, created by law or under authority of law, having a continuous existence independent of the existences of its members, and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its members.
Word origin and history: noun of action from past participle stem of Latin corporare "to embody" (see corporate).
Before the state, there was always hope that the government – the person – might be survived by those being governed. The new boss might actually be different than the old boss. So, while van Creveld describes the decline of the state, this does not necessarily imply a decline in government.
Van Creveld describes as the most important characteristics of the state as compared to previous forms of government:
First, being sovereign, it refuses to share any of the above functions with others but concentrates all of them in its own hands. Secondly, being territorial, it exercises such powers over all the people who live within its borders and over them only. Thirdly, and most important, it is an abstract organization.
It is these characteristics that are threatened; it then seems possible to conclude that future governance-providing entities a) will share power, b) may not be exclusively territorial, and c) may not be limited to abstract organizations.
Van Creveld sees the main threat to this corporate government – this state – as coming from other corporations, thereby supporting a) and b) above, but opposing c).
…from such “artificial men” as share its own nature but differ from it both in respect to their control over territory and in regard to the exercise of sovereignty.
From this, I can find something that fits within my comfort zone – governance via private entities (corporations) such as insurance companies and homeowners associations; perhaps a role such as the church played during the European Middle Ages. So far, so good.
A few of the corporations in question are of a territorial nature, but the majority are not. Some are regional and larger than states, others smaller and merely local.
Again, I can interpret this to fit within my anticipation / hopes for the future. I can also interpret it to mean increasing forms of world governance – where today’s states cede some portion of sovereignty to another entity, e.g. as has been happening in Europe with the EU, or in the United States (as regarding authorization for war) with the UN.
The issue is…this is the battle through which we are living – forces of centralization fighting forces of decentralization. I know which side I believe will win, on balance; I hope I can maintain an open mind while considering van Creveld’s views.
In many instances the retreat of the state is voluntary.
As mentioned, we see this in the various moves toward global government, although “voluntary” can certainly include both financial payoffs to state leaders and concerns by those same leaders about being blackmailed.
The obverse side of this coin is the feeling, which is prevalent among the citizens of many developed countries, that when the time for delivery comes the state just does not keep its promises, that it pays, if at all, in false coin.
It is this that I believe is inevitable – too many and increasing numbers of dependent (meaning politically-derived-income-skimmers) living on the backs of fewer and fewer independent (meaning market-derived-income-producers). Eventually the shell games of the politicians and central bankers will run into this reality – how many can be supported by how few?
As other organizations step into the shoes of the retreating state, they will no doubt seek to fill its roles in many of these respects. …most of them will probably be unable to exercise exclusive control over a given territory; instead they will be forced to share that control with other organizations.
As used to be the case before 1648, all these organizations will interact with each other and bargain with each other.
Will these organizations be more local or more global (or some of each)? Will this framework allow for more than one avenue for an aggrieved individual to submit petition? Will an individual be able to voluntarily make choices regarding safety and security from among several competing organizations? These are the questions which concern me.
I find a clue in the following:
For people and organizations who are limited to individual states and dependent on them for their defense, livelihood, education, and other services, such a situation represents bad news. For groups as diverse as government employees and the recipients of social security (particularly those who hope to receive benefits in the future), the writing is on the wall. Either they start looking elsewhere for their economic status and, in some cases, even their physical protection; or else there is probably no future of them.
If this is true, and I believe it is, then it is difficult to interpret van Creveld as meaning that even larger, more centralizing, global governance will be possible. If the productive capacity is insufficient to support the existing layers of bureaucracy, how on earth can additional layers be supported?
As was also the case during previous periods when empires fell apart and feudal structures emerged, often looking elsewhere will mean losing their freedom by becoming the clients of the strong and the rich…
During the drawn-out fall of Rome, many free men voluntarily turned to becoming slaves of wealthy landowners on the fringes of the collapsing empire. Who can say if such a collapse requiring such a solution will be necessary in the future of those living today and in the time of this transition.
However, becoming a client does not necessarily equate to losing freedom. I am a client of many corporations today. Through these corporations – more specifically, through their products and services – I find my freedom enhanced, not diminished.
Van Creveld offers the range of possibilities:
In some places change will be accomplished peacefully. The result will be unprecedented prosperity as national borders become less significant…
In other places, the retreat of the state will have less fortunate consequences. At best, the reemergence of the “market” at the expense of administrative controls and welfare will mean diminished security and often enough greater turmoil. At worst, the tables may be turned, and people may find themselves living under, or governed by, organizations that are less accountable and more authoritarian.
Rothbard suggests it will be the former, at least in the developed economies:
…libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of ma n and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually out.
The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.
But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured. For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy. In short…in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity. For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work.
As an aside, van Creveld agrees with my view that…
…World War III – meaning a large-scale clash between superpowers each of which dominates the better part of a continent or hemisphere – will almost certainly not take place.
The reason he gives? The same one I offer: the risk of nukes.
So much for the conclusion; now to go back one chapter to the decline.
Van Creveld offers several reasons why he sees that the state is in decline. He begins by offering the raison d'être for the state: war. From the time of Hobbes, one of the most important functions of the state was to wage war:
Had it not been for the need to wage war, then almost certainly the centralization of powers in the hands of the great monarchs would have been much harder to bring about.
…states can develop a strong appeal to the emotions only so long as they prepare for, and wage, war. If, for any reason, they should cease to do so, then there will be no point in people remaining loyal to them any more than, for example, to General Motors or IBM….
It is on this topic of war where van Creveld begins.
The Waning of Major War
The waning of major interstate war, which during the closing years of the century is still underway, was brought about primarily by the introduction of nuclear weapons.
The caution between and among nuclear powers was not so evident until the episode of the Cuban Missile Crisis – when the possibility of global nuclear war came close to becoming a reality. Van Creveld suggests that this event poured cold water on the more hawkish elements in government (believe it or not, we have been living with the less hawkish elements since then).
Van Creveld describes the vast increases in nuclear weapons and their destructive power. The numbers are so staggering as to make retaliatory and second strikes almost a certainty – enough of the inventory would survive a first-strike to turn the potential of retaliation into reality.
For such reasons, the nuclear arsenal tended to act as an inhibiting factor to war between nuclear powers – and certainly inhibiting to major, or even global, war. While several states possess such weapons today, it is clear that any state of even modest technological capability could produce such weapons if it was decided to do so.
After nuclear weapons, van Creveld turns to the size of regular troops in the armed forces of the major powers. In virtually every case, the numbers active and deployed are significantly fewer than at any time in recent history.
As another example of the waning of major war, van Creveld offers that no major capital of any first- or second-rate military power has been occupied since the end of the Second World War (when, at various times, several capitals were occupied). In fact, no major army has attempted an advance of a distance as far as either Germany or the Soviets did in that war.
Van Creveld notes that there have, of course, been conflicts since World War II. However, none have come close to approaching the magnitude of military operations that existed at virtually any time in the first half of the last century.
Whatever might be said of wars in the last 70 years, one thing is certain – the death and destruction has been almost continuously decreasing.
The Retreat of Welfare
The second factor offered by van Creveld is the retreat of welfare. On the surface, this seems not quite right, yet he offers certain evidence in support of his views.
He begins by describing the vast expanse of the welfare state in the early- to mid-decades of the twentieth century; he notes the cover offered by Keynes in this regard. He sees as part of the retreat the decrease in benefits measured in real-terms, adjustments to the formulas for payments, etc.
He includes in his definition of welfare the great nationalization of industry that occurred in many countries throughout the world during these decades. He notes the reversal that occurred in this regard – not only in Western Europe, but by definition with the fall of the formerly communist states.
We continue to live through this struggle today – industries, if not nationalized, certainly subsidized; an increase in transfer payments due to the economic events especially of 2007/2008; central bank support in unprecedented quantities.
I don’t think this represents a reversal of the trends seen and described by van Creveld at the time he wrote the book (1999); instead, it represents perhaps the late stages of that which has always been unsustainable. In other words, it eventually had to come to this; it eventually had to result in a final gasp of desperation – a kick-the-can attempt in reaction to the economic calamity.
But is it the final gasp? I return to Rothbard, from the same link noted above:
In the twentieth century, Mises demonstrated (a) that all statist intervention distorts and cripples the market and leads, if not reversed, to socialism; and (b) that socialism is a disaster because it cannot plan an industrial economy for lack of profit-and-loss incentives, and for lack of a genuine price system or property rights in capital, land, and other means of production.
We do not have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here at every hand.
But now statism has advanced so far and been in power so long that the cushion is worn thin; as Mises pointed out as long ago as the 1940s, the “reserve fund” created by laissez- faire has been “exhausted.”
Indeed, we can confidently say that the United States has now entered a permanent crisis situation, and we can even pinpoint the years of origin of that crisis: 1973–1975. Happily for the cause of liberty, not only has a crisis of statism arrived in the United States, but it has fortuitously struck across the board of society, in many different spheres of life at about the same time.
As I commented at the time, Rothbard’s comments are four decades old, and Mises’ comments are even older: “Perhaps this serves to demonstrate the vast amount of wealth in reserve available to be destroyed.…”
Who can say how long this will run? It will run until it cannot. That day, with certainty, will come.
Technology Goes International
Technology ignores borders:
In theory each state was, and still is, free to exercise its sovereignty and build its own networks to its own standards, however idiosyncratic, while and the same time ignoring those of its neighbors and refusing to integrate with them.
Van Creveld points to North Korea as the perfect example of a state that has made this choice. As to much of the rest of the world, it is highly unlikely that this trend of integrated technology will be reversed via the state by force – again, refer to the Rothbard cite above.
This is one of the topics that lead to some confusion in my mind about the possible future as seen by van Creveld; as these advancements are inherently global, regulating and governing these has fallen to global organizations like the United Nations. One world government, and all that.
Yet, per van Creveld: “…the obstacles to globalization remain formidable.”
Additionally, unlike in Orwell’s 1984…
…it seems that modern technology has not ushered in and age of hermetically sealed empires, Engsoc, and thought control.
East Germans watched West German television; various state-controlled western radio outlets (RFE, VOA) were heard in the USSR prior to the fall. And all of this is before the advent of the internet, today allowing for an almost compete avoidance of the gatekeepers regarding access to information.
The Threat to Internal Order
This has been a characteristic in certain Third World countries; such countries have not been successfully able to take “violence out of the hands of people and organizations and monopolizing it in their own.” Van Creveld sees this reality in the future for developed countries as well:
…technological and economic developments are to some extent causing governments in the developed world to lose, or surrender, their ability to wage interstate war, provide welfare, dominate their economies, and control their citizens’ thoughts. Therefore the question might well be asked: will they be able to retain their monopoly on the maintenance of law and order?
These states are failing at everything else; why not this?
Van Creveld makes an interesting point: the guerillas almost always win:
Over the last half-century [published in 1999], the change that has taken place is momentous. From France to the United States, there has scarcely been one “advanced” government in Europe and North America whose armed forces have not suffered defeat at the hands of underequipped, ill-trained, ill-organized, often even ill-clad, underfed, and illiterate freedom fighters or guerillas or terrorists….
The state has an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to weaponry – both due to financial resources and through legislation, the state can outgun those outside of the state. While the process has been devastating to the victims, van Creveld points out that it is often the developed state that has, in the end, suffered defeat.
As this is true when one state takes war half-way around the world; it seems that those in the state feel it will be equally true at home. Perhaps this is one explanation of the growing weaponry and intimidation, as demonstrated in recent years in Boston and Ferguson – attempts to condition the population that they cannot win.
Further, actions taken by state actors indicate their concerns about maintaining internal order:
Entire city blocks in which presidents and prime ministers live and work, and which until not so long ago were open to pedestrian and vehicular traffic, are being sealed off and turned into fortresses….
This was written before 9/11; the situation has grown exponentially since.
It is the kind of security…which, a generation or two ago, was only considered necessary to protect some of the world’s worst dictators such as Hitler and Stalin.
Perhaps it is the world’s worst dictators of today who feel the same need – perhaps a chart of annual security expenditures per president / prime minister might reveal just who the worst might be? It isn’t the Swiss president, after all, that flies in a 747 fortress escorted by F-15s.
Van Creveld sees an increase in the use of private security; he offers many statistics to back this view. He identifies private gated communities as one example; the numbers employed by private security forces as another. He concludes:
The provision of security – which since at least Thomas Hobbes has been recognized as the most important function of the corporation known as the state – will again be shared out among other entities.
The devil’s bargain that was struck in the seventeenth century, and in which the state offered its citizens much improved day-to-day security in return for their willingness to sacrifice themselves on its behalf if called upon, may be coming to an end.
Van Creveld is not sorrowful of this possibility:
Nor, considering that the number of those who died during the six years of World War II stood at approximately 30,000 people per day, is its demise necessarily to be lamented.
The Withdrawal of Faith
Hegel, in 1830, praised bureaucracy as the “objective class.” Otto Hintze sang “the lofty virtues” of civil servants. To Max Weber: “goal-oriented rationality.” According to van Creveld, no longer:
…today there is probably not an individual left in the world who believes that such are its attributes.
While perhaps a bit of an overstatement, van Creveld offers evidence from “study after study” produced since the 1960s, describing the bureaucrats:
…endlessly demanding (the bureaucratic solution to any problem is more bureaucracy), self-serving, prone to lie in order to cover the blunders that they commit, arbitrary, capricious, impersonal, petty, inefficient, resistant to change, and heartless.
“Publicly owned,” he suggests, is virtually synonymous with “second-rate.” Despite promises to the contrary, paperwork and bureaucracy are never cut; welfare benefits often have been.
This the evidence is that, whether overtly and brazenly or covertly and on the sly, the majority of modern states are demanding more and more while offering less and less.
Is there any doubt that this trend will continue, if not accelerate, in the future?
Possibly by way of compensating for their growing impotence, many states have also developed a disturbing habit of meddling in the most minute details of people’s lives.
Perhaps this is to distract us from the failures?
Finally, the most obvious sign of people’s feelings toward the state has been their declining willingness to fight on its behalf, with the result that in one country after another conscription has been brought to an end.
Conclusion, Take Two
So, what do I take away from this? Van Creveld certainly sees a decline of the state; he sees centralization in some things, decentralization in others; given that he sees it will be government employees that are most greatly negatively affected, I suspect he sees far more decentralization than centralization.
I offer a view from Dr. North, supportive in general to this conclusion – perhaps not surprisingly so, given both his views in general about markets and specifically regarding this book by van Creveld:
It should be obvious by now that the institution that is going to be changed the most radically is the Western nation-state. It is bureaucratic. It is not efficient. It has made enormous economic promises to the voters that cannot possibly be fulfilled. It will suffer a massive decline in legitimacy. Yet legitimacy is the foundation of modern politics. It is the foundation of all politics throughout history. As the legitimacy of the modern nation-state declines, along with the economic performance of the nation-state, there will be new institutional arrangements that replace it. The trouble is, we do not know what these will be. The fundamental fact of social institutions is this: they cannot be designed successfully from the top down. They always arise out of the competition and exchange that prevail within the overall society. They are not developed through committees.
I have a few takeaways from Dr. North’s comments: the Western nation-state is dying; there will be new institutional arrangements, yet we do not know today what these will be; these new arrangements will be designed from below, not above. In other words, we are headed toward more decentralization, on balance.
Back to van Creveld: while he sees a decline in the state, he does not equate this to a decline in government – however, I will use the term “governance.” Governance can, and I believe in the future will, come in many forms – via market forces and again reverting, hopefully, to community, family, and perhaps even church.
Van Creveld points to the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 as the keystone event in the idea of “state.” This series of treaties, perhaps more than any other event, signified the end of the feudal society that was the Middle Ages (perhaps the beginning of the end can be marked by the Condemnation of 1277).
As van Creveld now foresees the end of the state, perhaps we will be fortunate enough to return to a decentralization as existed during the time preceding the treaties.
Martin van Creveld and Jacques Barzun reach similar conclusions via two very different means. While van Creveld’s lens is focused on politics, forms of government, and the like, Barzun considers the culture.
Both see the end of the nation-state.
Addendum: I did not intend to point to current events in this post; there is a danger in suggesting “see, this is proof.” While there are many examples of decentralization in the last 25 years, and we are living through further possibilities today, I keep in mind the substantial tools that the elite have in order to hold things together. I remember that, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, it didn’t fall in one day either.
But this issue of Scottish independence is too juicy to pass up – not because I predict it will pass with a majority “yes” vote, or that I believe its failure (if this happens) will destroy my general views. It is too juicy to pass up because there are too many important people taking the possibility too seriously – as a grave danger.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is out with a post on this topic; the fear-mongering is substantial:
Europe is disintegrating. Two large and ancient kingdoms are near the point of rupture as Spain follows Britain into constitutional crisis, joined like Siamese twins.
Former Nato chief Lord Robertson warns that a British break-up is doubly dangerous, setting off "Balkanisation" dominoes across Europe, and amounting to a body blow for global security at a time when the Middle East is out of control and China is testing its power in Asian waters.
Scotland's refusal to allow nuclear weapons on its soil means that no US warship would be able to dock in Scottish ports…
The Scottish precedent threatens - or promises, depending on your view - to set off a chain reaction. "If the Scots votes Yes, it will be an earthquake in Spain," said Quim Aranda, from the Catalan newspaper Punt Avui.
"If the Scots and Catalans go, the Flemish will follow. The precedent creates so much pressure," says Paul Belien, a Belgian author and Flemish nationalist.
"Scotland is our example," says Eva Klotz, leader of Süd-Tiroler Freiheit movement in the Italian Dolomites.
This is Europe in September 2014. The borders are breaking.
If Scotland votes to separate, there is little doubt that the elites of the West will punish it – if for no other reason than to make of it an example. But, sooner or later, Dr. North’s statement will be proven correct: “The fundamental fact of social institutions is this: they cannot be designed successfully from the top down.” As so eloquently stated by La Boétie, every form of governance requires the consent of the governed.
I don’t know what will happen in the next week or month or year – maybe not even decade. But there is certainty that the house of cards is unsustainable; the only hope is a leap of technology so great as to make the recent telecommunications revolution and integration of low-cost manufacturing centers such as China, Mexico, and Eastern Europe pale in comparison (this will allow for another round of skimming the benefits of productivity for political purposes).
We enjoyed this revolution over the last twenty years, and will continue to benefit from incremental gains. The last such industrial revolution occurred 200 years prior – there is no reason to believe our generation will be so-blessed twice in twenty or thirty years.
In other words, I believe there is no hope of holding the current system together.