What is the role of the state?

Update: Read Martin Wolf’s response to readers’ comments

It is summer – a good time to ask a big question. So I intend to ask the biggest question in political economy: what is the role of the state?

This question has concerned western thinkers at least since Plato (5th-4th century BCE). It has also concerned thinkers in other cultural traditions: Confucius (6th-5th century BCE); China’s legalist tradition; and India’s Kautilya (4th-3rd century BCE). The perspective here is that of the contemporary democratic west.

The core purpose of the state is protection. This view would be shared by everybody, except anarchists, who believe that the protective role of the state is unnecessary or, more precisely, that people can rely on purely voluntary arrangements. Most people accept that protection against predators, both external and internal, is a natural monopoly: the presence of more than one such organisation within a given territory is a recipe for unbridled lawlessness, civil war, or both.

Contemporary Somalia shows the horrors that can befall a stateless society. Yet horrors can also befall a society with an over-mighty state. It is evident, because it is the story of post-tribal humanity that the powers of the state can be abused for the benefit of those who control it.

In his final book, Power and Prosperity, the late Mancur Olson argued that the state was a “stationary bandit”. A stationary bandit is better than a “roving bandit”, because the latter has no interest in developing the economy, while the former does. But it may not be much better, because those who control the state will seek to extract the surplus over subsistence generated by those under their control.

In the contemporary west, there are three protections against undue exploitation by the stationary bandit: exit, voice (on the first two of these, see this on Albert Hirschman) and restraint. By “exit”, I mean the possibility of escaping from the control of a given jurisdiction, by emigration, capital flight or some form of market exchange. By “voice”, I mean a degree of control over, the state, most obviously by voting. By “restraint”, I mean independent courts, division of powers, federalism and entrenched rights.

This, then, is a brief background to what I consider to be the problem, which is defining what a democratic state, viewed precisely as such a constrained protective arrangement, is entitled to do. My short answer is that this is precisely what politics must be about.

There exists a strand in classical liberal or, in contemporary US parlance, libertarian thought which believes the answer is to define the role of the state so narrowly and the rights of individuals so broadly that many political choices (the income tax or universal health care, for example) would be ruled out a priori. In other words, it seeks to abolish much of politics through constitutional restraints.

I view this as a hopeless strategy, both intellectually and politically.

It is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not “wrong”. The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so.

It is hopeless politically, because democracy necessitates debate among widely divergent opinions. Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.

So what ought the protective role of the state to include? Again, in such a discussion, classical liberals would argue for the “night-watchman” role. The government’s responsibilities are limited to protecting individuals from coercion, fraud and theft and to defending the country from foreign aggression.

Yet once one has accepted the legitimacy of using coercion (taxation) to provide the goods listed above, there is no reason in principle why one should not accept it for the provision of other goods that cannot be provided as well, or at all, by non-political means.

Those other measures would include addressing a range of externalities (e.g. pollution), providing information and supplying insurance against otherwise uninsurable risks, such as unemployment, spousal abandonment and so forth. The subsidisation or public provision of childcare and education is a way to promote equality of opportunity. The subsidisation or public provision of health insurance is a way to preserve life, unquestionably one of the purposes of the state. Safety standards are a way to protect people against the carelessness or malevolence of others or (more controversially) themselves. All these, then, are legitimate protective measures. The more complex the society and economy, the greater the range of the protections that will be sought.

What, then, are the objections to such actions? The answers might be: the proposed measures are ineffective, compared with what would happen in the absence of state intervention; the measures are unaffordable and might lead to state bankruptcy; the measures encourage irresponsible behaviour; and, at the limit, the measures restrict individual autonomy to an unacceptable degree. These are all, we should note, questions of consequences.

The vote is more evenly distributed than wealth and income. Thus, one would expect the tenor of democratic policymaking to be redistributive and so, indeed, it is. Those with wealth and income to protect will then make political power expensive to acquire and encourage potential supporters to focus on common enemies (inside and outside the country) and on cultural values. The more unequal are incomes and wealth and the more determined are the “haves” to avoid being compelled to support the “have-nots”, the more politics will take on such characteristics.

What are my personal views on how far the protective role of the state should go? In the 1970s, the view that democracy would collapse under the weight of its excessive promises seemed to me disturbingly true. I am no longer convinced of this: as Adam Smith said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. Moreover, the capacity for learning by democracies is greater than I had realised. The conservative movements of the 1980s were part of that learning. But they went too far in their confidence in market arrangements and their indifference to the social and political consequences of inequality. I would support state pensions, state-funded health insurance and state regulation of environmental and other externalities. I am happy to debate details.

The ancient Athenians called someone who had a purely private life “idiotes”. This is, of course, the origin of our word “idiot”. Individual liberty does indeed matter. But it is not the only thing that matters. The market is a remarkable social institution. But it is far from perfect. Democratic politics can be destructive. But it is much better than the alternatives. Each of us has an obligation, as a citizen, to make politics work as well as he (or she) can and to embrace the debate over a wide range of difficult choices that this entails.