Musings on The Future of the State

cathedral.jpgI love the little corners of the law that is ancient rights and privileges. They illustrate ways in which our institutions have evolved, and from where they came, we can learn much about where they may go. That’s why I was delighted to read “Russian-Israeli who Left Newfoundland and Labrador Church Sanctuary Is Deported.” Church sanctuary! In 2006! What a great living fossil of the days when the Church in Rome was an important power, equal to or even superior to local Lords. That power was shattered by a series of wars (‘the thirty years war‘) for what was called freedom of conscience. More properly, it was freedom of christian conscience: Jews were barely, if at all tolerated, and Muslims, pagans, and infidels were still anathema.

Today, where those wars were won, even if there is a a `state religion,’ contributions are optional–a right Thomas Jefferson had to argue for in Virginia. Heretics of all sorts, even atheists, are tolerated. Freedom of conscience has turned from a controversy that engulfed Europe into a settled tenet of modern liberalism. The role of the Church has been quite sharply curtailed.

Perhaps something similar is happening to the state. Since this isn’t my area of expertise, I hesitate to try to speak definitevely, but I see a possibility that expansion of communication networks, re-globalization of economies, strong disagreements about the appropriate limits of power, catastrophic failures of response to events like hurricane Katrina, modern migratory trends, etc will combine to transform the state to the point where its architects, from Cardinal Richelieu to Kaiser Willhelm, would not recognize it.

(Oviedo Cathedral, photograph by R. Duran, “Torre de San Salvador,” on Flickr.)

3 thoughts on “Musings on The Future of the State

  1. Contrary to what we were brought up to believe, the state is not inevitable. But it is quite tenacious. The state came about primarily as a way of securing agricultural land, goods, and persons. Organized militaries are especially useful for defending (or attacking) agricultural land due to economies of scale in securing land.
    The state continues in the developed world because there are similar kinds of important wealth today that have economies of scale in security: oil and other mineral fields, commercial and residential real estate being the major ones. Unsurprisingly these forms of wealth that depend most on the state for their security are also the most subject to “rent-seeking” via taxation, regulation, or outright government ownership.
    The state is also still important to protect goods and persons, although security technology can greatly change the economies and diseconomies of scale in securing those. OTOH it’s not clear that information security is best done by the state: usually it’s either cheap to do individually or pairwise or in small groups (e.g. encrypting a transmission link) or it’s too expensive for the state to do effectively (e.g. track down crackers or pirates from a distant foreign land through multiple proxies in multiple countries). That doesn’t mean the state won’t be tenacious in trying to gain power for itself on the Internet (e.g. the Great Firewall of China).
    Even if the security rationale for the state went away, popular ideology would severely lag such developments. Furthermore, modern “progressive” ideology has other reasons for promoting a state, e.g. Rawlsian insurance (or redistribution, or theft, depending on your POV).

  2. Nick,
    I think this is highly dependant on what you mean by “the state.” Following van Creveld, I think of the state as a corporate being, seperated from both the ruler and the people. That is, the King, who could say L’etat, est Moi is not the head of a state in the way that a President is.
    From that definition, organized force protecting property long predates the state.
    PS: you don’t need to lie about your email–you can leave that field empty.

  3. In fact, the concept of sanctuary far predates the Catholic church. There are sanctuary cities described in the Bible.
    In the US, several years ago, there were sanctuaries established in (usually Protestant) churches to protect illegal immigrants from Central and south America who were in fear of their lives if they were deported back to their home countries.

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