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Friday, October 24, 2008

The Bear Necessities

I would like to begin by explaining my usage of the two major keywords you’ll see in this article today.


A state as an entity is probably best defined as a group of people who want to be considered a State. However, for the purposes of this article, which are more practical than philosophical, a State is an entity which has a monopoly on the use of force in a given region. You’ll see in a moment that this begs the question a bit, but I don’t particularly feel like arguing semantics today. As Quine put it, “'Our argument is not flatly circular, but something like it. It has the form, figuratively speaking, of a closed curve in space.”

Monopoly on use of force is the one thing that all states have in common from beginning to end, a thing which defines and in truth demarcates the beginning and end of a “State” in the sense used in this article. I am here deliberately avoiding any argument regarding exactly what a State is, because such an argument would distract from the essential purpose of this article, and for the purposes of this article the definition of “State” that I use is sufficient.


Often a part of a State, possessed of the function of creating and enforcing Laws, be they so simple as feudal taxation or as needlessly complicated as Roe vs. Wade. A government must enforce these laws, and people living under the government’s rule must obviously know the laws in order not to break them, so the government must also have a mechanism for educating the public.

A friend of mine recently put up the feudal system as an example of a system of governance in which education was not an essential component. But feudalism was a contract, in essence, between peasants and lords, lords and kings, kings and Pope. The church was a necessary component in feudalism (if nothing else, divine right of kings requires divinity) and it acted as the ultimate authority. Education was most certainly a component of the church, and it was the education passed down by the church which gave kings their authority.

Kings often ignored the pope for their own personal reasons, but excommunication was a catastrophe for a king, and such instances were more analogous to an argument on the senate floor than a laughing denial of authority. That the church had authority was not in question, because the authority of kings flowed from the church in the same manner that the authority of lords flowed from the kings.

It is meaningless to argue about whether this is actually the case. If it is not the case, then the system of which you speak is not feudal. If the system is not feudal, then the ultimate authority does not go to the church, but instead to the government. If the ultimate authority goes to the government, it must be above the church. If it is above the church, and the church teaches the laws of the land, then the church is a state institution (England). If the church is independent from the government altogether, preaches against the ruling authority and is simultaneously the sole source of education, then the government quickly loses legitimacy and its denizens cease to identify with it. Rebellion becomes inevitable.

A Government, then, is defined by its ability to enforce Law and provide Education. Education legitimizes Law, Law legitimizes internal monopoly of force. A government is a tool a State uses to maintain a monopoly on the use of force.

From that reasoning I extrapolate that the essential services provided by the kind of state under which we live, and the kind of government under which we live, include:

1. Defense
2. Education
3. Law
4. Law enforcement

Offensive capability is nice, of course, but so long as our borders are defended, waging war is not to be considered a necessary function. I say this so as to specify that when I speak of “Defense” I speak of defense, not a runaway “defense” budget.

With these four services taken care of, our government and our State (the combination of which I heretofore shall dub “S/G”) can exist as such. It wouldn’t do much, but it would exist.

This is, however, bare bones. For our government to suitably perform the function for which it is ultimately intended, the following come highly recommended as well:

1. Market Controls (Trust busting, some oversight and occasional intervention to prevent bank failures like the one we just saw averted).
2. Research Funding (I’ll lay out a priorities chart for this in a later article, the issue is large enough to merit one of its own)
3. Road building, maintenance and repair (including railroads)
4. Mail Service (this should arguably be listed under necessaries, but that category is restrictive for a reason and the inclusion of Mail in this category should serve to elevate your impression of what I mean by “highly recommended”)
5. Safety Net
6. Intelligence Network

Most of these are obviously necessary, and I seriously doubt anyone at this point would say that complete government non-intervention (which would allow monopolies, strong-arm tactics, copyright violation and patent theft) is healthy for markets, so hopefully I won’t have to waste time arguing for number 1 too much. I considered including 6 as part of “necessary” 1 (Defense) but opted not to mostly because I wanted to emphasize its importance, but also because it’s technically possible for a state to get along without one.

I do think it’s necessary to make the case for number 5 as an abstract concept. The safety net enables risk-taking, risk-taking enables capitalism. If you don’t have one, the other doesn’t work. People argue over how wide the net should be, and what it should be made of, but they shouldn’t be arguing about whether it should exist.

My overarching point, I think, is that our government does all these things, does them at least competently (mail arrives), and is probably going to continue doing these things for the foreseeable future. Everything in the highly recommended category is presently accounted for, and everything in the “necessary” category is accounted for to the minimum necessary, at least.

This frees us up to consider improvements in other areas, and to view budget cutbacks to things that do not fall into one of these categories non-fatal.

More to the point, it frees us to consider the relationship between the necessary, the highly recommended, and everything else. By this I mean to imply that When the necessaries are doing well, and the highly recommended categories are doing well, everything else is doing well. When everything else is doing poorly, something is awry in one of the categories above. Since everything not in these categories (I may have missed a few, feel free to remind me of any that come to mind) can be taken care of in the private sector, it’s safe to say that one of the best things we could be doing is diverting funds from unnecessary expenses (the war in Iraq, building bridges to islands with a population of 50, squabbling endlessly on the senate floor over the definition of “marriage,” propping up dictators and intervening in military coups in nations with gross national products that couldn’t buy a plane ticket to New York if they had the inclination) to the necessary and highly recommended ones.

You’ll notice something about the necessary and highly recommended categories as well. With the exception of HR6, they’re all domestic. This might indicate a bias on my part, but I don’t think so. A state which performs all functions expected of it at home and adopts an isolationist foreign policy is still a state. A state which performs all functions expected of it abroad and fails to do all the things necessary at home is at best an occupying force.

Right now, I think Education is our weakest link, in the long term, followed shortly by foreign oil dependency, which falls under one necessary and one HR category, Defense and Research respectively.

At present, Law enforcement, Law, Market Controls (yes, I realize the economy is crashing, but I’m in the camp that considers this a symptom, not a disease), Road repair, Mail, and Intelligence are fairly healthy. The Safety Net could use some work, but honestly I think the problems with the safety net are closely linked to the problem in Education. Solving Education should fix both the safety net and the economic issues we face. It should also help with R&D related to alternative energy, in the long run.

We don’t really have that long, however, so at present we need to shift funding, resources and attention away from non-necessary and non-HR categories and into Education and Research. Research should, in solving the energy crisis, simultaneously fix the defense issue (dependence on foreign oil means that foreign embargo can turn our lights out at will) associated with energy.

That means non-essential programs should be ready to tighten their belts for awhile. Those who can do with a little less for a time should be ready to pay higher taxes (sorry rich folks, but that doesn’t include people who get by on 20k per year in roach-infested apartments). In the short term it'll hurt a bit, but in the long term you'll get back what you lost. As the Wiccan say, threefold return for good or for ill. Really can't figure out why people have such a problem with that religion... it's full of simple ways of saying common sense.

That's my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: The promised Philosophical rambling.

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