Legitimacy of the State


Whether the state can be legitimized is a core concern in political philosophy and ideology. If it cannot, what is the alternative?

Most people today come to the 'obvious' conclusion that the state is the natural guardian of a modern, civilized society. With statelessness comes chaos ' anarchy. However, statists have a fundamental legitimacy problem not often taken under consideration. Philosophically, how can one legitimize centralized decision-making claiming full and unrestricted power and obedience within a certain territory? After all, the state is about who has the right to decide for a bunch of people, whether they agree or not.

Central to the legitimacy of the state is the existence of the state. Thus, asking which issues are justified tasks for the apparatus of a state cannot legitimize the state per se. Any legitimate task for a state implies already answering 'yes' to the question 'is the state legitimate?'

Hence, the fundamental question to be asked is whether a state is necessary at all, i.e. considering the qualities and capacities of the state in comparison with the qualities of what is called 'the state of nature.' This is not a newfangled idea; John Locke and Thomas Hobbes pondered this question a few hundred years ago, and John Rawls did so in the late 20th century. The problem is they drew the wrong conclusions.

Evaluating the state of nature and the rising of the apparatus of the state includes drawing conclusions about man. The fundamental question to be put is whether man is fundamentally good or evil. Good may include qualities such as rationality and morality, while evil must be comprised of irrationality and/or immorality.

If one comes to the conclusion that man is inherently good, there is philosophically no need for a state upholding justice and freedom. Good people will not intentionally harm others, start wars or violate individual rights. A state of nature populated with good people is thus a society in harmonious anarchy. It is a fairy-tale society with no problems, which cannot be solved by the people involved. Thus, anarcho-capitalism or libertarianism at its best.

Instead, if one follows the Lockean and Hobbesian tradition in recognizing man as a fundamentally irrational, egotistical being, one can easily come to the conclusion there is need for a neutral guarantee (a state) upholding peace, individual rights and justice. This is what Hobbes concluded; there is a fundamental need for government of people (a state) to uphold natural rights and bring order to the chaotic state of nature.

However, if man is inherently evil, i.e. egotistical in a short-sighted, irrational and immoral way, how can he set up a neutral, so-called 'proper,' government? It would be in his 'irrational self-interest' to set up a government safeguarding his personal interests, oppressing others. Even though he might anticipate others would lay claim to his power and try to conquer his governmental structures, it can only be considered rational to cooperate with others in their common interests. But rationality has already been discarded as a non-human characteristic.

Since it is in everybody's interest in the Hobbesian state of nature to form a personal government oppressing others for ones own well-being, any society would still degenerate into warfare and chaos. Thus, the Hobbesian theory of the formation of government in the state of nature leads only back to the chaotic state of nature. It forms an eternal circle of oppression and war.

The conclusion of this fundamental question whether man is inherently good or evil is that there is no place for a state ' no matter what we consider being the fundamental qualities of man. Either man is good, which means there is no need for government, or man is evil, which means there is no hope of forming a government. Thus, government can only be somewhat justified as a means to forcibly mold a society into whatever one prefers.

Socialists and conservatives never consider the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the state; they take the state for granted. Doing so, they expose their ignorance of the very nature of man. They do not even try to define what is human and what is not ' what is important to them is not what is, or what has been, but what society they can forcibly create in the future. Thus, their ideology is as well-founded and reasonable as any religion. Based on a fictitious fact, one can come to any conclusion!

What is problematic to socialism is its fundamental contradiction. They are using the state, as a natural and philosophically defensible organization of force, to reach their fundamental value of equality among men. But the state can, as we have seen, only be justified as a practical means to force ones ideals upon others ' it is not fundamentally justified from the inherent qualities of man. Thus, they are trying to use the institution of a force-based aristocracy (the state) to create equality. Socialism, simply, does not make sense.

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Per Bylund's picture
Columns on STR: 63

Has a passion for justice.


Samarami's picture

Ten years late on this, Per -- and hope you're still "lurking" here on STR -- but it was (and is) a good essay. I used it to link to a comment on the current STR page. Many thanks.