Who Says It’s Necessary?


Author: Kirkpatrick Sale

This essay is taken from Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future by Kirkpatrick Sale, published this month.

Historically there have been four general arguments for the necessity of the state:

  1. To provide defense in case of attack and to guarantee peace and security.
  2. To provide economic regulation and development.
  3. To provide public services beyond the competence of the community and the individual.
  4. To assure social justice and protect the rights of the individual.

These arguments have a persuasive feel to them—they should, they’ve been drummed into us for centuries—but it is fair to ask: do they stand up? are they sufficient justifications for the existence of the state?

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Traditionally the state’s initial claim to necessity was that it prevented warfare by erecting firm barriers of defense. This is tommyrot: the duration and severity of war has always increased with an increase in state power. Larger states, far from providing peace, merely provide larger wars, having more human and material resources to pour into them. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne has said, precisely because it provides the excuse for increased state power and the means by which to achieve it.

Insofar as “defense” implies security, the state is the instrument least capable of providing this. Indeed, in the contemporary world of massed nuclear weapons, there simply is no defense of the citizens from a hostile aggressor.  The very presence of the state and its huge pile of threatening weapons endangers rather than protects the populace, by inviting pre-emptive strikes.

Moreover, in the course of attempting to provide its defense the state exercises its own forms of coercion and violence. The U.S., for example, entices some 2 million young people into its military and deploys them overseas as often as it likes; it forces the wider popula­tion to pay for warfare and its preparation through increased taxation; it sustains a military-industrial complex organized to promote violence and does not diminish in peacetime. And such a state, preoccupied with defense, begins to justify all acts, however dangerous, in its name –when all you own is a hammer, as Mark Twain once said, all problems begin to look like nails.

In sum, the long human record suggests that the problem of defense and warfare is exacerbated, not solved, by the large state.


The justification for the state in classical economic theory is that it is supposed to stabilize economies over wide geographic areas, standardize currencies and measurements, establish protective tariff barriers and regulate international trade, and ultimately promote economic development and stability. To which we may add a contemporary responsibility, the regulation of businesses on behalf of the public so that it is not recklessly overcharged and endangered, fleeced and fummeled.

Of course the easy response is that if this is what the state is so vital for, it does not seem to have proved its worth. What has characterized all large national governments, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first  centuries, is their clear inability to provide economic stability, security, or employment, to secure people against the dangers of depression and inflation, in either capitalist or “socialist” worlds. A nation like the United States, assumed to be the most powerful of all, though it has a truly mighty GNP and has recently enjoyed a period of high imperial prosperity, has not been able to forestall regular depressions, prevent inflation, maintain the dollar, regulate trade to the benefit of national industries, provide either jobs or income security, create a stable retirement system, or manage any but the most meager protections against the corporate contaminations of food, air, water, waste, or soil.

International trade? Nothing that couldn’t be done without the state, as is amply demonstrated by the history of Europe between 1000 and 1500, a period of the most extensive and elaborate sort of trade relations, fundamental to the development of capitalism, quite separate from any national machineries. In fact, is being done—for the operations of the current multinational corporations, as any number of studies have shown, are essentially beyond the control of any serious governmental regulation of any kind.  Moreover, the various components of the current international trade system have proven seriously damaging for American manufacturing industries and for the white middle class whose incomes have suffered over the past five decades (and who made up much of Trump’s armies).

Regulation? Aside from added costs to consumer and taxpayer, the trouble with governmental regulation is that it is always a catch-up operation, fighting the problem at the wrong end after the damage has been done. If the only criteria in the economy are those that capitalism dictates, as they are, then of course there will be those problems that no amount of government law or supervision can correct; if the primary purpose of the government is to protect the smooth workings of the corporate system, as it is, then of course its duodenary attempt to restrain its excesses by patchwork edicts is always doomed to failure.

But wouldn’t the consumer be in ever more trouble without government regulation, however expensive and inept? Perhaps so. But probably not if at the same time the myriad government supports favoring large (and therefore largely unresponsive) businesses were withdrawn and the small firms in the market had to offer—as they did in an earlier age—“good goods at a fair price” in order to compete successfully.


The argument here is that the state is ultimately necessary on grounds of the “criterion of competence”:  only it can supply public goods in the common interest, which individuals and communities won’t do by themselves. Who but the state can control population growth, say, or feed the starving, secure public health, build highway systems, provide welfare, offer disaster relief, distribute scarce supplies? Who but the state—to pick the most commonly cited example—can control pollution?

The hidden assumption here, of course, is that the Federal government is in fact a solution. In real life it doesn’t quite work out that way. The first problem is to get the government to take any action at all, to rouse the politicians or the bureaucrats somehow, to force the courts to intervene, and that may be an expensive and time-consuming task for any individual, especially since the object of the appeal is probably  miles away in Washington, D.C.

The next problem is to see to it that the action will be appropriate, that the decisions of all these people will be wise. Immediately following comes the problem of making sure that the wise decision can actually be carried out, that the competence to do the job is in human, or at least bureaucratic, hands in the first place; the inability of any government to keep the various oil spills from polluting Alaskan and Gulf beaches  suggests that there are some matters as yet beyond its skills to solve. And making sure that it is carried out, and carried out properly, by government officials whose interest in the task may be minimal and whose budgets may be small, without any unintended side effects. And the final problem is keeping the govern­ment always around to make sure that the elegant solutions stay in place and the errant polluters don’t backslide when no one is looking—since the solutions have been imposed on them by a higher authority rather than drawn from them by cooperation and negotiation. Oh—and paying for it all.

But there is a further point to that process that is pertinent here; in the words of British philosopher Michael Taylor:

The state … in order to expand domestic markets, facilitate common defence, and so on, encourages the weakening of local communities in favour of the national community. In doing so, it relieves individuals of the necessity to cooperate voluntarily amongst themselves on a local basis, making them more dependent upon the state. The result is that altruism and cooperative behaviour gradually decay. The state is thereby strengthened and made more effective in its work of weakening the local community.

This is important: there is not social service one, not one. that has not in the past been the province of the community or some agency within the community (family, church, guild) and that has been taken on by the state only because it first destroyed that province. There is not  one of them that could not be re-absorbed by a community in control of its own destiny and able to see what its natural humanitarian obligations, its human­itarian opportunities, would be. Indeed, there is not one public service, not one, that could not be better supplied at the local level, where the problem is understood best and quickest, the solutions are most accessible, the refinements and adjustments are easiest to make, the monitoring is most convenient.


The final argument for the necessity of the state is that it alone can provide social justice for all its citizens and guarantee civil rights and liberties to every individual.

To be sure, it doesn’t, not anywhere in the world. Even in this country, so concerned with these matters, the areas of social injustice and individual repression are wide, and certain people—American Indians, poor blacks, prisoners, Latinos, and, until recently, homosexuals among them—are particularly ill-served by the state. Indeed the case could easily be made that over the years as many inequities and injustices have been caused or fostered by the government with its left hand—let’s mention only slavery, Indian genocide, union suppression, the Palmer Raids, Japanese prison camps, FBI and CIA illegalities, Watergate, illegal NSA intrusions, skyhigh black incarceration—as are prevented by its right.

But still, the state presumably means to protect its individuals, and presumably they would be worse off without state intervention. Didn’t the American government abolish slavery, establish civil rights for blacks, outlaw segregated schools, and work to end racial discrimination in housing, hoteling, hiring? Hasn’t it treated minorities—the Inuit in Alaska, the chicanos in Texas—better than they would have been treated in racist local communities?

Perhaps. The record is by no means perfect even here on its more positive side, and many would say that alacrity was not among its notable features—but yes, the American government has effected certain reforms and has maintained certain freedoms. But who exactly would want to say that this is because of the state, that the government accomplished these goals by sighting a problem on its own, tackling it boldly, wresting a solution? I cannot think of a single victory in this area that has not been extracted by force from the government, has not been achieved by the affected parties themselves, pushing, cajoling, petitioning, suing, marching, demonstrating, usually quite on their own; and as often as not they did so against the agents and stated policies of the national government.

What we generally have, in other words, is another example of the state, having taken power into its own hands, sitting on those hands until somebody shoves it off. That minorities are protected as much as they are is due mostly to minorities; that individuals have the opportunities they have is due mostly to individuals; that the press has its freedoms is due mostly to the press. The Bill of Rights, we must not forget, was put there not as an instrument of the state for the citizens but as a means of protecting the citizens from the state.

In a hierarchy of necessities, the things provided by the family, the neighborhood, the community, the small city, would certainly come first: love, fraternity, security, cooperation, sex, comfort, order, esteem, above all rootedness. Those provided by the state—taxation, standing armies, police, regulations, bureaucracies, courts, politicians, nuclear power, corporate subsidies, moonshots—especially when taken in balance with its deficiencies, would no doubt come last. Looked at that way, they just may not even be necessities at all.

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