The state

On Monday 13th May, I participated in a debate on austerity organised by the New York Review of Books, held in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. The motion was: “Austerity in the Eurozone and the UK: Kill or Cure?”. Those arguing in defence of austerity were Meghnad (Lord) Desai and Sir John Redwood MP. On my side was Lord (Robert) Skidelsky. Here is the speech I presented – a version of which was published in the New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013, Volume 60, Number 12. It can also be found at www.nybooks.com. 

Anniversaries are a time to take stock, to ask where we have been and where we might be going. 2011 offers three remarkable anniversaries: the economic reform of India and the fall of the Soviet Union, both in 1991; and the terrorist attack on the US on 9/11/2001. What should we think about these three events, today? Here are a few tentative answers.

Is it too soon to tell? Yes. It always is. Each generation changes its view of the past in light of the present. That will continue, if not forever, at least indefinitely. We might well disagree about the significance of events that took place centuries ago. It is far too early to tell what these events might mean. Today, for example, 9/11 looks far less significant than it did at the time. One significant act of nuclear terrorism would transform that judgement.

Which of these events might posterity view as the most important? My guess is that it will be the economic reforms in India. The decision of the Indian government, under prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his then finance minister Manmohan Singh (the present prime minister of India) to launch fundamental economic reforms on July 24 1991, in response to a severe balance of payments crisis, was a world-transforming event, in at least five respects. 

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.