Liberty Matters

Political Realism and Evolutionary Orders: Two Contrasting Ideas of State


In his last contribution, Lottieri draws our attention to the political writings of Leoni. He was the dean of the faculty of political sciences and taught the Dottrina dello Stato (Theory of the State). As these courses are not available in other languages, I rely entirely on the headlines of Leoni’s theory, as outlined by Lottieri. It seems to me that Leoni’s theory of the state was still in its “scaffolds” and waited for further elaboration. His early death probably put an abrupt end to this interesting research.
Leoni and Lottieri are right to say that the term state carried many meanings throughout the centuries. It derives from the Latin term status, which means position, condition, something that stands (from the verb stare). In medieval politics a state referred to a body of inhabitants (clergy, nobility, citizens-burghers) of a political unit (a kingdom, a duchy, a county, a city…) whose representatives could participate to some extent in the government (the states, les états, die Standen). The union of all recognized states was called the states-general, more or less the precursor of the later parliaments.
The term state seems to have been first used in its modern sense by Niccolò Macchiavelli. In his famous The Prince,[43] the state is a political community existing in a territory under one ruler. This definition applied well to the larger political units in Europe which developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. A pivotal moment in this evolution is indeed, as Lottieri remarks, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, in which the “serious players” (France, Spain, Habsburgs, Sweden, etc.) made a deal about the power division in Europe, thereby excluding the “non-serious players” like the Church and the Deutsche Hansa. Since then the international game has been one among states in the Machiavellian sense. All other political models were thrown out of the game.[44] The dynastic states evolved between 1789 and 1920 into nation-states. These states claim to be an emanation of the “nation,” of the “people.” Max Weber refined the definition of state by defining it as an organization exerting a monopoly of violence in a given territory and towards a given population.[45] The Weberian definition is more or less accepted in present international law as the norm for recognition of states and membership in the United Nations.
Weber’s definition is not wrong for it indeed grasps key features of the dominating political units since the 16th and 17th centuries. That definition is, however, static for it tells us nothing about the interaction of the state with “society.” At this point it is interesting to bring in Leoni’s view on the stato in its original, premodern sense. Leoni’s political realism, as Lottieri calls it, focused on the interaction between, on one side, the vertical relationships of the state and its citizens, and, on the other, the horizontal relationships among citizens in society, based on exchange and reciprocity. According to Leoni, the state is only able to maintain itself when its actions are more or less in line with the common opinions in the horizontal dimensions of society.
As a positive explanatory statement about the relationship between state and society, this viewpoint certainly contains a great deal of truth. A major example in this respect relates to the remarkable stability of social welfare states during the period 1945 -1975 (les trentes glorieuses). These welfare states are characterized by ever-increasing taxation and regulation unseen before in human history. Yet these high levels of taxation and regulation were more or less accepted by the majority of the population. A major factor explaining this stability resides in the strong link between proper state organizations (parliament, bureaucracy, justice, and army) and deep-rooted social organizations (unions, mutualist societies, charitable organizations, leisure clubs, etc.). Such organizations, which mostly first developed completely beside the state as voluntary associations, often through religious inspiration, were integrated into state policies by awarding them subsidies and delegations of state power (for example, reimbursing medical expenses and paying out benefits for unemployment). The Dutch political theorist Ari Lijphart calls this a consensus-democracy as contrasted with majoritarian democracies.[46] A consensus democracy develops policy through a consensus among the ruling elites of these large social organizations, with the political parties leaning on them (mostly Christian- and social-democratic parties). The Sozialstaat, as German scholars call it, reaches a high level of “internalization.” Because the individual, in important aspects of his life, participates in these organizations, and because these organizations participate in turn in the formation of state policy, the individual feels as if the state is his/hers and that he/she is the state. The saying of Louis XIV, l’état c’est moi, is thus replicated in the minds of many citizens of social welfare states.
Since the 1980s and ’90s, this model has been gradually collapsing. A major explanation of this collapse is related to wrong Keynesian policies and short-term exploitation of the state by pressure groups.[47] Also, deeper evolutions in the horizontal layers of society qualify as a cause. Immigration (internal and external) makes the population less homogeneous, eliminating former group cohesion. The increase of wealth makes people less dependent on the cultural and leisure activities offered by the classical social organizations. Electronic networking provides multiple opportunities for socializing outside the classical networks sustaining the social welfare state.
Politically this leads to the rise of so-called populist parties that directly appeal to the populace, bypassing the intermediaries of the social welfare state. In the long term these deep changes could also lead to societal networks which are less dependent on the state and which open up new prospects for a more libertarian society. Leoni’s “unfinished symphony” about state and society is more than helpful in understanding these perspectives.
[43.]Niccolò Macchiavelli, The Prince, (London: Penguin Books, 2014).
[44.]This process is well analyzed by Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and its Competitors. An Analysis of Systems Change, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).
[45.]Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, ed. Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
[46.]Arend Lijphart, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-one Countries, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.)
[47.]For this we can refer to the wide literature on public choice economics. A pioneering book here was Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).