Why Society Doesn’t Need the State

  • January 12, 2024
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The nineteenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hill Green was one of the key figures in the transition from classical liberalism to “modern” liberalism, in which the state, no longer a mere “night watchman,” if it ever was that, takes on a much more active role. The state in Green’s view ought to aid people in realizing their “real selves,” and doing this often involves supplying them with various goods and services. For this reason, Green is regarded as one of the intellectual founders of the “welfare” state. But for Green the state was much more than a provider of welfare. Its function was to train people to regard themselves as free and equal citizens. Just as parents educate their children in virtuous behavior, so should the state promote a virtuous citizenry.

To establish that a state is needed to promote a virtuous citizenry, Green needed to overcome an obstacle. According to John Locke, human beings already regard themselves as free and equal in the “state of nature”: they recognize the authority of natural law. Why do they need a state? The challenge to Green’s account of the state is clear, and Green endeavors to respond to it in his posthumous book, Lectures on the Principle of Political Obligation. He tries to refute Locke’s doctrine of natural law. Sometimes in an argument there are one or two sentences in which the author “gives it away”: the weakness of the argument becomes apparent. In this week’s column, I’m going to try to show that this is true of Green’s criticism of Lockean natural law.

The basic fallacy in Green’s argument comes out in section 53 of his lecture on Locke. He says:

No equality in freedom is possible except for members of a society of whom each recognizes a good of the whole which is also his own, and to which the free cooperation of all is necessary. But if such society is supposed in the state of nature—and otherwise the “pact” establishing political society would be impossible—it is already in principle the same as political society.

Green is saying that a society of people who recognize each other as free and equal is “in principle” already a state. (He doesn’t clarify what “in principle” means here.) But isn’t there an evident difference between such a society and a state; namely, that the society doesn’t have a central apparatus of enforcement?

Murray Rothbard identified the fallacy in the argument that people cannot recognize the equal rights of others without a state:

In a profound sense, no social system, whether anarchist or statist, can work at all unless most people are “good” in the sense that they are not all hell-bent upon assaulting and robbing their neighbors. If everyone were so disposed, no amount of protection, whether state or private, could succeed in staving off chaos. Furthermore, the more that people are disposed to be peaceful and not aggress against their neighbors, the more successfully any social system will work, and the fewer resources will need to be devoted to police protection. The anarchist view holds that, given the “nature of man,” given the degree of goodness or badness at any point in time, anarchism will maximize the opportunities for the good and minimize the channels for the bad. The rest depends on the values held by the individual members of society. The only further point that need be made is that by eliminating the living example and the social legitimacy of the massive legalized crime of the state, anarchism will to a large extent promote peaceful values in the minds of the public.

Green doesn’t think that a society of free and equal persons can exist in the absence of a state, but so far he hasn’t given us any reason to suppose this is true. In one passage, though, he does offer a consideration in support of his view. His argument hypothetically accepts Locke’s premise that people obey the law of nature before the state exists and on that basis claims that Locke doesn’t succeed in justifying the state. Green says:

To account for the possibility of the compact of all with all, [Locke’s argument that the state comes from the state of nature] has to assume a society subject to a law of nature prescribing the freedom and equality of all. But a society governed by such a law of nature, i.e., with no imponent but man’s consciousness, would have been a decline [from a society governed by a state], one in which there could have been no motive to the establishment of civil government. . . . Just so far as it realizes the conception of a society governed by a law of nature, as equivalent to that spontaneous recognition by each of the claims of others, without which the covenant of all with all is in fact unaccountable, it does away with any appearance of necessity for the transition from the state of nature to that of political society and tends to represent the latter as a decline from the former.

(By an “imponent” Green means a person or group having the power to enforce the law of nature.)

Green is obviously begging the question. He is saying that if people could follow the law of nature without the need for a government, then establishing a government would be a decline rather than progress. Why would people subject themselves to coercion if they could get along without it? Green’s suppressed premise is that establishing a state isn’t a decline. He no doubt believes this, but this isn’t much of an argument who those who reject the state.

Has Green at least the lesser consolation of making a good point against Locke, who is not an anarchist? He is saying to Locke, you take establishing a state to be progress, but if you are right, it wouldn’t be progress. It would be a decline. But I’m afraid we can’t give Green credit for much of a point even here. It would take another article to show this, but I think, following Eric Mack and A. John Simmons, that Locke is very close to being an anarchist.

Green hasn’t offered any good argument in favor of that green-eyed monster, the state.