War and the Rise of the State

2003-12-22

Whence the state? Big or small, nation-states are the dominant form of political organization on the planet today. But it wasn't always that way. Even in Europe, original breeding ground of the nation-state, the political order was once much more polycentric: principalities, towns, the Church, the Holy Roman Empire, merchant leagues, guilds, and other centers of power vied for influence, made their own rules and laws, and kept each other in check. That all began to change in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, as the polycentric order gave way to a monocentric order driven by the birth of powerful nation-states. In War and the Rise of the State, Bruce D. Porter argues that the trend toward centralization was driven in large measure by matters military. As wars became more expensive and complex, only the most powerful princes could afford to wage it, leading to greater consolidation of power. Eventually, that process of consolidation led to the formation of states -- France, Spain, eventually even Germany and Italy -- in Europe. But consolidation and centralization did not stop with the creation of nation-states. The same military trends generated a spiral of increasing bureaucratization and centralization within states, in response to both international conflicts and civil wars alike. Thus Europe witnessed the rise of absolutist states such as those of France and Spain. Certain states, especially those with more or less natural borders (such as England behind the Channel and Switzerland in the Alps), resisted absolutism for longer than others and maintained the kind of balance of powers (including constitutionalism and local control) that we associate more with medieval times. But other states, particularly those whose geography left them open to frequent invasion, turned toward ever-greater centralization, eventually resulting in totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

One fascinating insight from Porter's book is the push given to cradle-to-grave welfare programs by the mass, industrialized warfare waged by the modern nation-state. Even the United States, heir to the most radical distrust of centralizing state-formation in the European tradition, has not been able to resist the welfare-warfare dynamic. Consider (as Porter points out) that most Cabinet-level federal agencies and sub-departments in the USA were created in wartime:

So-called conservatives celebrate America's warmaking prowess but might tout it less if they realized that historically it has led inevitably to greatly expanded government. So-called liberals celebrate the welfare state but might hesitate to do so if they realized that its origins were stained in blood.

The lesson of history is clear: if you want freedom, work for peace. (The converse is also true, but that's a topic for another blog entry.)


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal