Saturday, July 20, 2013

On Max Weber's Definition of the State (Incomplete)

     If we are to struggle against the attempts of states to define us, we must be deliberate and explicit in our definition of the state.

Weber's Definition of the State
     In his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation”, sociologist Max Weber writes that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly [emphasis Weber's] of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”
     Explaining his definition, Weber calls the state “a compulsory association which organizes domination [and] has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.”
     Weber's definition of “state” is perhaps the most frequently cited definition thereof in sociology and political theory.
     In 2008 – shortly before becoming president of the United States – Barack Obama alluded to Weber's definition in an interview with Military Times magazine. The interview was regarding the U.S. military's use of private security contracting firms – employees of which are derisively referred to as “mercenaries” by critics of the practice – in the Iraqi theater of America's ongoing War on Terror.
     Obama used a simplified description of what something must possess in order to be considered a “state”; the term “monopoly on violence”. Although this description may be memorable – and therefore convenient – it would be terribly inconvenient to risk not being explicit enough.
     The “monopoly on violence” description is lacking because – as Weber wrote – “territory is one of the characteristics of the state”. That is, the “monopoly on violence” is specific to one locality or territory; the state wields a monopoly on violence within some given set of delineated geographic and/or spatial boundaries.
     Moreover, that which the state possesses is a “local monopoly on legitimate violence”; the means of physical force which it employs in order to enforce its rule are not perceived as acts of violent criminal aggression by those to whom the state has legitimized itself and its actions.
     For the purposes of this essay, “local monopoly on legitimate violence” will suffice as that which a state must possess (or, at least, appear to possess) in order to be described as such [i.e., as a state]. Additional clarification of what each of these terms means – in light of the remainder of the definition of the state – will be provided throughout.
     For much of the remainder of “Politics as a Vocation”, Weber discusses “professional politicians”; and focuses on the “legitimacy” aspect of the state's “legitimate violence”. In his “tripartite classification of authority”, Weber differentiates three types of justifications and legitimations of domination: traditional, charismatic, and legal authority.
     However, Max Weber's “tripartite classification of authority” is of no import to this essay. Unfortunately for the students of sociology and political theory from 1919 to the present, Weber did not develop the components of his definition of the state into any sort of explicit “tripartite classification of characteristics of the state”. That is what this essay is about.

The Components of the State

     I contend that the “local monopoly on legitimate violence” is best broken-down into three components: 1) monopoly, 2) legitimacy of force, and 3) territory. More explicitly; 1) monopoly, as well as oligopoly which is sanctioned, established, protected, enabled, and / or legitimized by monopoly, 2) apparent and perceived success of legitimation of domination, and 3) territorial integrity.
     The reader may notice that the word “violence” did not find its way into this set of components. Here, the word “violence” has been replaced by “force”, the term Weber used alongside “domination” and “dominion” to describe organized violence committed by the state in the enforcement of its rule.
     Had Weber mentioned “aggression” or “coercion” – or had he addressed the difference between initiatory versus retaliatory use of physical force – anywhere in “Politics as a Vocation”, then these concepts would have made it into the set of components. But rest assured that these concepts shall not remain unaddressed by the end of this essay.
     In terms of legitimacy – and for the purposes of making clear various definitions – the differences between force used by the state and force used by other agencies will gradually become clearer throughout the essay. For now it shall suffice to know that Weber wrote that “force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state... but force is a means specific to the state”, and also that “[s]ociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends... only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association[;] namely, the use of physical force”.
     Being that the aforementioned components of the States are just that (i.e., components) – rather than types of States, or types of authority, or anything else – each component can only be explained in relation to the other two.
     That is to say that we shall next explore: 1) monopoly in regards to the legitimate force within a given territory, 2) apparent success of legitimation of force in regards to the local monopoly, and 3) territorial integrity in regards to the monopoly on legitimate force.

Monopoly and Enterprise

     First, monopoly in regards to the legitimate force within a given territory.
     As stated above, Barack Obama alluded to Max Weber's definition of the State in an interview. Said Obama, “I am troubled by the use of private contractors when it comes to potential armed engagement. creates some difficult morale issues when... private contractors... are getting paid ten times what an army private's getting paid for work that... carries similar risk.. You can't blame [members of our best-trained special forces] if they can make much more if they're working for Blackwater than they can working as a master sergeant. ...that I think is a problem.”
     He continued, “I am not arguing that there are never going to be uses for private contractors in some circumstances. What I am saying is, if you start building... a military premised on the use of private contractors... [or] making decisions about armed engagement based on the availability of private contractors to fill holes in gaps... you are eroding the core of our military's relationship to the nation and how accountability is structured; you are privatizing something that is what essentially sets a nation-State apart, which is a monopoly on violence...”.
     Points aside about which candidate or political party is right about the budgetary and military-tactical pros and cons of private versus public military personnel in regards to military infrastructure and armed engagement, and about the ramifications of pertinent policy on the economic well-being of military and private-contractor families; there is an unexposed underlying assumption in Obama's rhetoric; an assumption about the relationship between the public and private sectors.
     First off, to summarize Obama's argument, to privatize the jobs of those whose job descriptions put them at risk of armed conflict risks dismantling the structure of accountability in the American military, and undermines the American nation-state's “(local) monopoly on (legitimate) violence”.
     To confront this idea head-on, we must resolve to put aside two last things; 1) whether President Obama believes that only armed physical conflict (and not practices such as military recruitment of non-combatant employees from a “reserve army of labor” artificially created through a series of undue state interventions in the economy, and implied threats of coercion by armed police officers and bureaucrats in order to exact taxes and enforce the law) constitutes “violent” coercion, and 2) by what stretch of the imagination the land of the nation of Iraq qualifies as “local” in regards to the sphere of exclusive control of the United States of America.
     Getting back to the issue at hand, the unaddressed underlying assumption in Obama's rhetoric is that privatization results in decreased accountability. This is an assumption that describes the dichotomy of the “unaccountable private tyranny” versus the accountable, transparent, responsible and responsive public agency; the republic (literally, “thing of the public”).
     What Obama and the consumers of the aforementioned assumption routinely fail to address is to what degree governments – with the systems of property rights and the sets of property rights laws that come along with them – are responsible for establishing, sanctioning, legitimizing, enabling, and protecting the property rights and other legal rights of private enterprise (in this example, contractors providing security privately).
     Customers of the above-explained dichotomy routinely fail to consider that the individual property owner who is ambitious of becoming an entrepreneur, is not always an ardent defender and supporter of the state when it comes to which of them [i.e., the state or the individual] knows how to best protect and defend the property rights and other legal rights – and how to best make planning decisions about the firm – of the ambitious entrepreneurialist.
     Those who permit others to sell them this dichotomy routinely fail to consider the weight and magnitude of the various burdens and barriers which the state places on and in front of those seeking to establish a business and to engage in trade and commerce, in exchange for the “right” (read: “privilege”) to do so “as they please”.
     These burdens and barriers include, but are not limited to: licensure requirements; permit requirements; approval processes; quality standards; examination requirements; unionization requirements; commercial barriers; bonding regulations; charter agreements; zoning laws; legal strings attached to inconspicuous subsidization; tariffs; and statutes, guidelines, and precedents regarding physical and intellectual private property rights.
     All of this is not to mention extrajudicial personal threats by “rogue” officials demanding patronage and favors in exchange for “protection” (this term is typically employed as a euphemism for “not wrecking-up and pillaging the place too often, and maybe providing a little actual protection every now and then”).
     When such “protection” is not provided by “rogue” agents and agencies, and instead through apparently legitimate, judicial avenues – that is, when the state's organized violence is not so apparently “disorganized” that it can only be logically referred to as “organized crime” – the (intended) effect of the various burdens and barriers involved in starting a legitimate business and engaging in trade, is to provide actual protections for all parties involved in the legitimation of the business.
     That is, the effect is to systematically uphold the property rights of the business owner, in exchange for his fulfillment of various responsibilities to the consumer, the community, and the state. Hence, this collaboration between state and business is intended to be a two-way street, with each serving to keep the other honest, for the benefit of the remainder of society.
     The privileges to continue to own (or rent) commercial property and to run one's business in the manner in which one sees fit (within a reasonable limit) are the “incentives” which the state offers the business owner in exchange for “co-operating” with the state. However, the language of “co-operation” is not only used by agents of the state, but also by the aforementioned “rogue” officials, who use the term as a euphemism for “capitulation”. The only “incentive” which the business owner has to uphold his end of the bargain is to avoid broken bones.
     It is extremely frustrating to keen critics of the state-corporate complex that – when confronted about offenses perpetrated by ostensibly rogue officials operating under extrajudicial protection by government agencies, or by ostensibly unaccountable private tyrannies which have gone through rigorous government licensing and approval processes – defenders of the state often dismiss the notion that the state is the primary cause of such offenses.
     However, it must be made clear that even when the state does not actively cause such offenses, because the state and its officials openly admit the desire to seek to monopolize the legitimate use of force in the administration of the state's rule (going so far as to routinely put on flagrant displays of force and threats thereof in order to drive home that it intends to act upon this stated desire), the state is still responsible for being passive when such offenses occur.
     As Lysander Spooner put it, “[the Constitution] has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.” As I have put it, “privileges are no less unearned because they are bestowed than because they are unchecked.”
     To put it another way, the state has the same amount of responsibility to ensure that police officers and private security contractors follow the various rules and regulations required of their positions and professions, as it does to refrain from intervening in the market for security in the first place.
     That is, the state has zero responsibility to do either, because – as the state's claim of legitimacy largely rests on its reputation for, and history of, successfully exerting exclusive sovereign power, which can be appealed to no one except its own high court – the state can be neither expected nor trusted to be responsive (i.e., responsible) to no one and no thing, save for the contrived internal logic which it uses to complement its physically-expressed claims of legitimacy.
     In other words, there is nothing for the state – in its sovereignty and supremacy – to be responsive and responsible to (save for, ideally and hypothetically, “the people” over which it wields and exercises that sovereignty and supremacy).
     Returning to the earlier point about privilege conferred by the state actively versus passively, the consumers and purveyors of the “unaccountable private tyranny versus accountable thing of the public” dichotomy fail to address to what degree the socioeconomic problems of our civil society – e.g., unemployment, poverty – are structural.
     This is to say that when these problems are not caused through obviously active undue regulatory intervention by civic institutions (with respected and established power to employ and threaten the use of legitimate physical conflict in the enforcement of their rule), they are caused through resolution by the state to selectively “regulate” (which today unfortunately means “enact legislation regarding”, rather than “keep regular”) certain industries and areas of public policy.
     That is, the state deliberately over-regulates in some areas, and deliberately under-regulates in others, in order to increase the power and promote the economic interests of politicians and agencies representing organized capital and labor. Much to the chagrin of proponents of limited government, the state is usually able to disguise this broad yet selective interference as on-the-whole “de-regulation”.
     Those who use – and are themselves used by – the aforementioned dichotomy, fail to address the impact of the considerable degrees of government influence over the socioeconomic environments in which private persons and businesses conduct trade; the distortive impact on the calculation of prices and costs, supply and demand, the feasibility of competition, and other factors which would otherwise be determined through catallaxy (or “market forces”; that is, the emergent order resulting from the mutual adjustment of many individual household economies to one-another).
     Such distortion is virtually assured when government has the power to set prices, and / or to compel persons to purchase some specific good or service, or type thereof (the individual health insurance purchase mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 serves as an obvious and frightening example). The only exception is when government pricing boards are funded through means other than coercion, can operate cheaply and without unjustifiable bureaucratic overhead and costs of transaction, and set prices equal to marginal costs so as to promote Pareto efficiency, as in forms of Market Socialism.
     All the requirements and regulations incumbent upon those seeking to engage in commerce in exchange for permission to “compete” on the “open” marketplace do not render those who engage in legitimate trade complicit in empowering an “unaccountable private tyranny”; on the contrary, they are participants in a partnership between the public and private interests, both of which are empowered to some extent and in some manner.
     A public-private partnership (or PPP, or P3) is a collaboration between governmental agencies which provide public services and one or more private business ventures. The idea is that, with public permission and approval, government invests public taxpayer money in such “private” business ventures, and protects those public funds against risk – and keeps the companies accountable – by arranging to have the companies take on the risks of venture themselves.
     Of course, our maturing understanding of crony capitalism as “privatizing the gains and socializing the losses” would lead us to conclude that joint ventures between government and private enterprise have not thus far resulted in a reputation of public-private partnerships as protecting the public from the ostensibly unpredictable ebb-and-flow of the financial tides which cause economic insecurity, but rather in a reputation of exposing taxpayers to needless economic risk, which is deliberately contrived so as to increase the gains of the venture capitalists (with further subsidization and bail-outs as back-ups), as well as of the politicians, political consultants, and political action committees responsible for drafting the legislation that leads to the creation of such partnerships. Sadly, there is little about collusion between government and business which is more predictable than this.
     So whom is at fault here? Is public government corrupting private enterprise, or is private enterprise corrupting public government? Whose presence renders the other unaccountable? Might it be that government and business are more accountable the more separate they are? Furthermore, who could have foreseen that government would have so much influence over commerce (provision of security included)?
     In “Politics as a Vocation”, Max Weber wrote that under the control of the state, “the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it”. It is in this manner that an established monopoly (control or ownership by one) enables and legitimizes an oligopoly (control by the few).
     The benefits of establishing a business which is deemed legitimate in the eyes of the state notwithstanding, considering the litany of obstacles which must be overcome in order to establish a legitimate business – and the fact that private employers and owners of private establishments are increasingly being held responsible by government to help root out illegal immigrants [as in private participation in the “E-Verify” program] and patrons in possession of drugs [as in the “rave” component of the Amber / R.A.V.E. Act] (that is, to do government's policing work for it) – there appears to be little reason why private businesses should not be placed in the set of “other institutions” which Weber says the State may permit to use physical force.
     This is to say that under the control of the state, businesses, their employees, and independent individual actors unaffiliated with any established businesses, are not to be understood as having a right to use physical violence unless they have permission from the established local sovereign to do so. As explained above, where they do not have explicit permission which is given actively, they have tacit understanding that government will provide them protection while pretending to “look the other way”.
     The implication of this is that any firm engaging in trade in a manner which is checked and legitimized by government in any set of the many manners enumerated above – that is, any such firm which provides services involving the use of physical force in the provision of security or justice – is acting as an agent of the state. As such, such a firm is (at least potentially, to the degree to which the government is caring and beneficent) accountable to the public, rather than an “unaccountable, tyrannical” private organization.
     This category – government-legitimized firms using permitted force to provide security or justice – potentially encompasses a wide range of agencies; from the military, police, and bureaucratic agencies of governments (national and local alike) to private security contractors such as Blackwater (as well as less “scary” security businesses, like those which employ security guards at malls and on the properties of other enterprises). And wider still, as explained above, when we consider that private business owners are increasingly doing work normally ascribed to police.
     Weber's observation about the legitimation of force through permission reveals the potential of conflict between the state and the independent individual actor seeking to become a private provider of security (more generally, of any good or service). This conflict is, of course, intensified when the state and the individual have differing viewpoints about how to best protect the persons in and property of the firm, how to make planning decisions for the firm, and whether all the regulations and requirements of establishing the firm are necessary and appropriate.
     Barriers to trade and the risk of planning and organizational conflict may even drive potential entrepreneurs to decide to engage in trade without first earning a business license and taking the other ostensibly necessary and appropriate steps. In such a case, the entrepreneur perceives that the potential economic and/or reputational benefits of operating without a license outweigh the risks thereof.
     Most troublingly to an agency whose mission statement explicitly includes the monopolization of the legitimate use of force [i.e., the state], when the individual deems it necessary to protect himself – and/or deems it in his economic and/or reputational interest to provide security to others in exchange for a fee – he will employ physical force in order to do so, without consulting the state for permission. This renders his self-defense and his defense of others illegitimate and unduly exercised in the eyes of the state.
     When the individual or business owner does not obey the state, the disagreement plays out as conflict, although not always (at least not immediately) through physical violence; credible threats of violence typically proceed the use of violence itself. These threats can be as obvious as an officer saying “don't move or I'll shoot”, as subtle as an officer simply standing and acting calmly with the intent to use physical force if it comes to seem necessary and appropriate, or as innocuous as a president reciting his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution...”.
     Earlier in this essay, I resolved not to ask whether Barack Obama believes that only armed physical conflict should be considered the kind of state-permitted “violence” alluded to in his gross oversimplification of Weber's description of what something must wield in order to be considered a state.
     To summarize: as I have made clear, not only does state-permitted violence include military combat; but also legislation, adjudication, and administration of the law; “private” business owners assisting in police work; and general assent to participate in a controlled system of trade and property privileges, regardless of whether a business provides actual physical security or some other good or service instead.
     Above, I have used the term “firm” to denote agencies engaging in trade; in this usage, “firm” is not intended to mean solely “businesses” in the manner in which we perceive them today, but also “governments”, which engage in trade by providing goods and services to their citizens in exchange for fees paid through taxes, extracted through coercive and compulsory methods (as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Weber described the state as “a compulsory association”).
     I contend that governmental firms which garner funding through coercive means are no less involved in trade and commerce – and, therefore, are nonetheless “businesses” – than are “private” enterprises (although this is only true provided that one assigns any “values”, even symbolic, to freedom and liberty).
     The purpose of describing governments and businesses alike as “firms” qualifying as among the “other institutions” to which Weber says states ascribe the legitimate use use physical force, is to introduce a form of transmission of permission to use legitimate force which is distinct from that which goes from governments to enterprises; namely, that which goes from governments to smaller governments.

Monopoly and Government

     In federalist governments, political power is shared between the national government and more local governments considered to be at subnational levels. In the United States, for example, the United States federal Government in Washington, D.C. Is the central, national government, and the states are what are called “first-level (or first-order) administrative divisions (or subdivisions)”.
     Federalist systems which balance the powers of the federal government with the governments of first-level administrative divisions are “dual federalist” systems. Federalist systems which balance the powers of the federal government with the governments of first and second-level administrative divisions (in the U.S., county or municipal governments) are “triple federalist” systems.
     In dual and triple federalism, the power-sharing which is practiced is intended to afford each participating government a “parallel sovereignty”, or “co-equal sovereignty”, meaning that power is shared on the principle that each government is to be sovereign and supreme in only those spheres of territory and policy matter in which they are expressly delegated authority to enforce order.
     The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States [i.e., the federal government], nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”. The Tenth Amendment is an expression of dual federalism, and of the need for balance between the central versus the more local governments.
     But the Tenth Amendment is not the only part of the U.S. Constitution which was designed to balance central and local political power; until the 17th Amendment was ratified, United States senators were elected by the legislatures of the states which they represent, rather than directly through popular elections.
     Although the influence of the state governments on representation in the federal government has been eroded by the 17th Amendment, the body of the Senate remains, as does the arrangement of the electoral college, which is based on the two-body U.S. Congress.
     Aside from balancing power, the intent of the Tenth Amendment is to ensure that the states are in a position to permit or deny explicit authority and power to the federal government. Considering that “powers... are reserved... to the States... or to the people”, it may not be a stretch to suggest that the Tenth Amendment implies that “the [American] people” constitute third-level administrative jurisdictions.
     If Weber's theory that “the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it” holds true, then as long as states grant sufficient privileges to the people (most importantly, the privilege to use physical force with legitimate authority), the people truly do constitute a third level of government, and every man's home is his castle.
     As long as states grant enough privileges of parenting and of management of the home to the homeowner, privileges of management of the business to the entrepreneur, privilege to assist government to arrest immigrants who work for legitimate businesses and people in possession of drugs who come onto the private property of businesses serving the public, privilege to treat any person who comes onto their property as an intruder without fear of having to pay criminal or civil restitution, and privilege to conduct citizens' arrests, then everything is in its proper place.
     That is, the federal and state governments share power, and check one-another's power, the people govern the states as they are governed by them, all the people and governments have judged not lest they have consigned to be judged themselves, human beings and government agencies are on equal footing in terms of political influence, and all is right and just about the structures of the federal governments of the world.
     However, this is not the case, at least not in the United States. This is because, for the most part, individuals are now dominated by local governments, local governments are dominated by state governments, and state governments are dominated by national governments.
     Additionally, the notion that the authorization and consent of the individual is necessary to justify the delegation of legitimate use of physical force by the collective – and especially the notion that that idea should be construed to mean that legitimized collective force “trumps” or “outweighs” the individual right to self-defense – has been assailed and dismissed.

The remainder of this essay will appear on this page at a later date.

Originally Written in July 2013
Originally Published on July 20th, 2013

Edited on April 17th, 2019


  1. I have a question for my political science class " According to Max Weber, a state is, ultimately, sovereign because it has a monopoly on________" So the correct answer would be violence, right?

    1. yes! sorry, just saw this comment. this won't be helpful anymore, but yes, violence, legitimate violence, and coercive power are all correct answers.

      short answer: violence. long answer, what it really means: the legitimate (legal) use of coercive violence within a given territory.

      the government assumes itself to be the "last resort" when it comes to resolving people's disputes. that's why the government inserts itself in so many of our problems, and sometimes even forces us (or our insurance companies) to sue each other when we don't want to

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