Friday, May 20, 2011

The Problem of Small Strong States

A strong state, said Max Weber in 1919, is one which has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. As many others have added since then (like Migdal in 1988), a strong state taxes the population in some way and reassigns these expropriations to the general purposes and for the general advantage of the population. Migdal also pointed out that a strong state, with its centralising authority structure, is opposed to a strong society, in which authority is decentralised. You can find variations of strong and weak states, and strong and weak societies, all over the world.

The USA is a superstate which balances the strong-state/strong-society dichotomy well. It has the advantage of being composed as a kind of federation of plausibly independent states. Hence there is a balance between the Federal centre and the functions of the USA on one hand, and the state epicentres and state functions on the other. This balance can be found to some extent in Germany and Switzerland, among others.

However, there is less latitude for tiny states. A small state like Andorra or Luxembourg, Monaco or Singapore, does not take decentralisation well because the web of relationships between various components is too tightly woven. Even if you artificially privatise everything, the state still needs to look after the integrity and needs of the overall polity. High-density city-states cannot survive as a bunch of separate but federated components — you cannot build a nation of independent farmer-soldiers or baronies when the population density is too high.

Eventually, individuals in a tiny state will bump into the web of relationships and be subsumed into the ruling establishment. There is little choice, because there is only one centre. Citizens can try to create separate centres of power and legitimacy, but these will only be mitochondria to the mighty nucleus of state government.

Strong states, however, need diversity to survive. Small strong states have the problem of obtaining sufficient diversity within their population limits. This means that, as with the smaller organisms, either asexual reproduction by splitting (probably not viable, but it's been tried before) or sexual reproduction by mingling imported genes must occur.

Most small states have been formed and continue to thrive by receiving external input. The problem is that frequently it isn't possible to tell when you're getting a 'junk' gene input that will never do you any good, a 'good' gene input that will help you do better, or a 'reservist' gene input that might be of use someday but not just yet. So a more diverse net must be cast, and yet more exacting filters must be used.

What a problem! How can small strong states survive? Quite often, they end up as members of an agglomerate, as parasites, or in some sort of mutual relationship where members all provide different functions to the whole. Very seldom do modern city-states thrive.

As of this century, only one full-fledged city-state remains.

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