Notes for January 21

Main points

After running through the syllabus we talked a bit about the Diamond article.

The aim was to identify some of the features that distinguish societies that have states from those that do not have them. We also got a start with one of the chief ways of trying to show that the state is valuable. This involves showing that people who don’t have a state would want to create one if they could. The idea is to use this fact to address the concerns that people who live with states have about them. Whether that kind of argument is successful is something we’ll want to discuss.

What is a state?

A state involves hierarchy, a mechanism for resolving disputes, and a monopoly on coercive force.

We talked a bit about what those things might involve. The New Guinea Highland tribes, for instance, clearly have some kind of hierarchy: the two unfortunate uncles are described as leaders. But they don’t seem to have a hierarchy that involves what I called authority, meaning there is no one who other members of the society are required to obey. Furthermore, those who occupy higher positions in the Highland society are not superior to the whole society. Rather, the society is made up of independent clans and tribes. The hierarchy they have isn’t as uniform or centralized as the hierarchy characteristic of state societies.

The monopoly on force is easy to recognize but tricky to spell out. It can’t mean that no one else in the society can use force: plenty of societies have both states and muggers. It probably should be taken to mean that the state’s force is superior to that of any other group inside the society.

In addition, the monopoly only has to be local: it’s a monopoly inside the society. States face other states and, as was pointed out, international relations has many of the same problems as the New Guinea Highland clans face.

Other perspectives

Diamond makes claims about the state that are controversial among anthropologists. Some anthropologists believe that the state causes the sorts of tribal warfare that Diamond observed. They also think that his estimates about the rates of violent death in non-state societies are wrong.

Brian Ferguson is a prominent advocate of this view. I put a short article that he wrote on the sakai site to provide the other side.

I also put an article from Science on the Sakai site. It discusses a lawsuit surrounding the Diamond article.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted January 21, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy