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This article discusses states as sovereign political entities. For other meanings, see state (disambiguation).

In international law and international relations, a state is a political entity possessing sovereignty, i.e. not being subject to any higher political authority. But, as noted below, the "state" can also be defined in terms of domestic conditions, specifically the role of the monopolization of force within a country. Of course, different political philosophies differ in their interpretation of the actual and ideal roles of the state.

The definition of "state" in the meaning of a political subdivisions of some countries, is related as it emphasizes the intention of a confederation where these state governments are seen as possessing some powers independently of the federal government. Often these states existed before their creation of a federal régime.

In casual language, the idea of a "state" and a "country" are usually regarded as synonymous, although some speakers, notably in the United States, make efforts to use "country" or "nation" for the sovereign entities. Others would primarily understand "the State" as a synonym for "the Government", or be careful to distinguish between a territorial "country" and a "nation" of people. Confusingly, the terms "national" and "international" are both used as technical terms applying to states, see country.

1 The international point of view

2 The domestic point of view

3 Philosophies of the state

4 See also

Table of contents

The international point of view

The legal criteria for statehood are not obvious. A document that is often quoted on the matter to is the Montevideo Convention from 1933, whose article 1 states:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Also, in article 3 it very clearly states that statehood is independent of recognition by other states. This is the declarative theory of statehood. While the Montevideo is a regional American convention and has no legal effect outside the Americas, some have nonetheless seen it as an accurate statement of customary international law.

On the other hand, article 3 of the convention is attacked by the advocates of the constitutive theory of statehood, where a state exists only insofar as it is recognized by other states. Which theory is correct is a controversial issue in international law. An example in practice was the collapse of central government in Somalia in the early 1990s: the Montevideo convention would imply that the state of Somalia no longer existed, and the subsequently declared republic of Somaliland (comprising part of the so-called "former" Somalia) may meet the criteria for statehood. However the self-declared republic has not achieved recognition by other states.

The domestic point of view

Looked at from the point of view of an individual nation, the state is a centralized organization of the whole country. Its students emphasize the relationship between the state and its people. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in order to avoid a multi-sided civil war, in which life was "nasty, brutish, and short," individuals must surrender many of their rights -- including that of attacking each other -- to the Leviathan, a unified and centralized state. In this tradition, Max Weber and Norbert Elias defined the state as an organization of people that has a monopoly on legitimate violence in a particular geographic area. In this tradition, the state differs from the "government": the latter refers to the group of people who make decisions for the state.

For Weber, this was an "ideal type" or model or pure case of the state. Many institutions that have been called "states" do not live up to this definition. For example, a country such as Iraq (in June-July 2004) would not be seen as truly having a state since the ability to use violence was shared between the U.S. occupiers and various militias and terrorist groups, while order and security was not maintained. The official Iraqi government had very limited military or police power of its own. (This situation has been called that of a "failed state.") The official Iraqi government also lacked sovereignty because of the important role of U.S. domination.

One of the most basic characteristics of a state is regulation of property rights, investment, trade and the commodity markets (in food, fuel, etc.) typically using its own currency. Although states (by their free will) increasingly cede these powers to trade bloc entities, e.g. North American Free Trade Agreement, European Union, it is always controversial to do so, and opens the question of whether these blocs are in fact simply larger states. The study of political economy which evolved into the modern study of economics studies these specific questions in more detail.

However, although states often are influenced in this way, they are nonetheless much stronger in relation to international organizations or to other states than lower (substate) political subdivisions normally are. But the trend at the moment is for the power of superstate levels of governance to increase, and there is no sign of this increase abating. Many (especially those who favour constitutional theories of international law) therefore reject as outdated the idea of sovereignty, and view the state as just the chief political subdivision of the planet.

Philosophies of the state

Different political philosophies have different opinions concerning the state as a domestic organization monopolizing force. In broadly-defined liberal thinking, the role of the state is to express the public interest, the interests of the whole society, and to reconcile that with those of individuals. (This job seems best performed by a democratically-controlled state, where different types of liberalism put different meanings on the word "democracy.") The state provides public goods and other kinds of collective consumption, while preventing individuals from free-riding (taking advantage of collective consumption without paying) by forcing them to pay taxes.

Within this school, there is a wide variety of differences of opinion, varying from free-market libertarianism to modern, New Deal, or statist liberalism. The main debate along this spectrum concerns the ideal size and role of the state. While libertarians argue for a small or "minimal state" which simply protects property rights and enforces individual contracts, the New Deal liberals argue that the state has a greater positive role to play, given the problems of market failure and gross inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

In Marxian thinking, the main role of the state is to use force to defend the existing system of class domination and exploitation. Under such systems as feudalism, the lords used their own military force to exploit their vassals. Under capitalism, on the other hand, the use of force is centralized in a specialized organization which protects the capitalists' class monopoly of ownership of the means of production, allowing the exploitation of those without such ownership. In modern Marxian theory, such class domination can coincide with other forms of domination such as patriarchy and ethnic hierarchies.

Further, in Marxian theory, when classes and other forms of domination are abolished, the state will "wither away" in the sense that it will be dominated democratically by the people rather than being a force that coerces people to accept relationships of domination and exploitation.

In some conservative thinking, the existing structure of tradition and hierarchies (of class, patriarchy, ethnic dominance, etc.) are seen as benefiting society as a whole. So these conservatives merge the Marxist perspective with that of the liberals: the state forces people to accept class and other kinds of domination, but this is seen as being good for them. Further, as with the liberals, the state is seen as always existing and/or "natural." "Withering away" will never happpen.

In anarchist thinking, the state is nothing but an unnecessary and exploitative segment of society. Totally rejecting Hobbesian ideas, anarchists argue that if the state and its restrictions on individual freedom were abolished, people could figure out how to work together peacefully while individual creativity would be unleashed. Rejecting the Marxian perspective, the anarchists hope that the withering away of the state can and will precede -- or coincide with -- the abolition of non-state forms of domination.

The anarchist vision is only vaguely similar to the free-market libertarian (classical liberal) view: the "libertarians" want to minimize the role of the state, but want to keep its use of force to protect property rights and to enforce contracts (while providing national defense). In truth, the libertarians are part of the broadly-defined liberal tradition discussed above, putting more limits on the role of the ideal state than do other liberals.

See also