Re-reading Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” as I work on my American Government book, I was struck by something that is very openly expressed there, but which I had never really caught and thought about before, which is that government is not defined by what it does.
Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state.
I think this is important, because so much of the justification for the state that is thrown up in response to libertarianism assumes that the state is about particular ends, most of which can be organized under three broad categories (or so, I think, off the top of my head): the punishment of malefactors, collective defense, provision of infrastructure (which often overlaps the other two, to the extent that a legal system is partly infrastructure, and transportation systems designed in part with defense in mind).
For example, my friend PJ once said that he believes cities should set up internet access for their citizens because the internet is infrastructure and “government does infrastructure.” Ironically, PJ is considerably more well-versed in Weber than I am. But he had to concede when I pointed out that our telephone systems and many of our water and electric systems in the U.S. were provided by private companies, rather than by government. Government does do infrastructure, but infrastructure is not “exclusive and peculiar” to government.
I slip into this assumption myself, when I argue that the existence of negative externalities, a market failure, requires–or at least justifies–state action.
But of course these things can all be done by non-state actors. I often point out to my students that I don’t necessarily need the government to protect me from burglars. I can build a high-walled compound with landmines and trip wires around my house, and teach everyone in my family how to shoot. Likewise, a non-governmental response such negative externalities as, say, a major oil spill, might be to simply shoot the executives involved, which both punishes them and sends a warning to other executives considering cutting corners.
Most people respond to such suggestion with horror, because they are violent solutions. But as Weber goes on to say, government is based on “successfully claim[ing] the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (italics in original). The governmental solution is based on force no less than the non-governmental solution. It’s just that somehow government has managed to persuade people that its force is legitimate.
It seems to me that the justification of government becomes simply a benefit-cost calculation, with little direct moral consideration. Which system gives the greatest benefit in reducing the type of social problems we’re trying to solve while exerting the least amount of force? Perhaps there’s a moral element, too, in that we can ask which uses force most fairly and with the least amount of abuse, but I’m not sure that’s really any different in substance from the benefit-cost calculation.
I don’t think that calculation is easy to make. I certainly don’t think it’s as easy as either my pro-state friends or my anti-state libertarian acquaintances think. The former discount the horrendous abuses of government as correctable errors, rather than inevitable consequences. The latter underestimate the likelihood of violence in an anarchic system. I think the calculus lies in favor of a slightly more than minimal state. But don’t ask me to prove it.