Characteristics and Functions of the State
Read these articles. What is the difference between a state and a nation? Compare and contrast the different political theories on the role of government in society.
Characteristics of the State
A state is an organized political community acting under a government. States differ in sovereignty, governance, geography, and interests.
Discuss the central characteristics that define the state.
- Federated states differ from sovereign states in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.
- Under the rule of law, no one person can rule and even top government officials are bound by the law.
- A nation refers to a large geographical area and the people living there who perceive themselves as having a common identity.
- A nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit.
- Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.
- Nation State: A political entity (state) associated with a particular cultural entity (nation).
- Civil Society: A community of citizens that is linked together by shared interests and collective activity, including institutions, corporate bodies, and voluntary organizations.
- Sovereign State: A political organization with a centralized government that has supreme independent authority over a geographic area.
- To understand the differences between a state and a nation, consider the example of Poland. While the Polish people formed a nation many centuries ago, with a shared language and culture, outside neighboring countries have frequently invaded its political borders. The areas that are adjacent to these actual borders have changed government hands many times throughout history (including partitions by Austria, Germany, Prussia, and Russia). Today, Poland's boundaries are roughly aligned with the geographical area where the people of the Polish nation live. Consequently, we think of Poland a nation state.
We classify states as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, another power or state. States are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony, when ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.
A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community that is part of a federation. These states differ from sovereign states, because they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.
The concept of the state is different from a government. A government describes the group of people who control the state apparatus at a given time. In other words, state power is employed through the government, such as when they apply the rule of law.
The rule of law is a legal maxim in which government decisions are enforced through the application of legal principles. In a democratic republic, no one person creates, rules, or enforces the rule of law, such as in an absolute monarchy. Even top government officials must respect and abide by the rule of law.
The concept of a state also differs from a nation. A state is a political and geopolitical entity, whereas a nation refers to a cultural or ethnic group that lives in a large geographical area where the inhabitants share a common identity.
A nation state combines both concepts and implies the nation and a state coincide in a geographic region. The state self-identifies and derives its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation, and as a sovereign territorial unit.
In classical thought, the state was identified with political society and civil society as a form of political community. In contrast, modern thought distinguishes the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society. Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the third sector of society, distinct from government and business.
In the United States, the state is governed by a government headed by an elected president. Pictured here are, from left to right, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.
Functions of the State
Classify the different political theories concerning the function of the state in society
- Liberal and conservative theories of the state tend to believe the state is a neutral entity, separated from society and the economy. These theories assume a capitalist economic system exists.
- Marxist theorists believe the state is a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class. Marxists see a close relationship between political and economic power.
- Anarchists would like to completely dismantle the state apparatus and replace it with an alternative set of social relations that are not based on state power.
- Pluralists view the state as a neutral body that simply enacts the will of the groups who dominate the electoral process.
- A polyarchy, a concept Robert Dahl developed, refers to the idea that the modern democratic state acts in response to the pressures a variety of organized interests apply.
- Anarchist: a person who believes in and advocates for the absence of hierarchy and authority in most forms (compare anarchism).
- Pluralist: a person who believes many different groups or sources of authority control government.
- Polyarchy: a government by many people, who can come from several different orders and economic classes.
- Many people consider the United States to be a pluralist state. Even the currency includes the Latin phrase, "epluribus unum," which means, out of many, one. Accordingly, different electoral or special interest groups compete to encourage policymakers and legislators to pass legislation that supports their given agenda. For example, interest groups or lobbyists come from specific companies (a pharmaceutical, chemical, or natural gas company), represent industries (relators, doctors, or legal attorneys), or promote various non-profit causes (education, libraries, or retired persons).
- Marxists believe the state only acts in ways that benefit the ruling economic classes, at the expense of the working class. Politicians make laws to benefit the wealthier classes and is not afraid of using government force, including the police or national guard, to restrict members of the working class and labor unions who may want to mobilize a strike to obtain higher wages for their workers.
A state is an organized political community that has a government. States are classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. States are considered to be subject to external sovereignty, or hegemony, if their ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial, constitutional community that forms part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government. Americans live in a federal system of 50 states that, together, make up the United Sates of America.
Theories of the State
Most political theories of the state can roughly be classified into two categories. The first, which includes liberal or conservative theories, treats capitalism as a given, and concentrates on the function of states in a capitalist society. Theories of this variety view the state as a neutral entity distinct from both society and the economy.
Marxist theory, on the other hand, sees politics as intimately intermingled with economic relations, and emphasizes the relationship between economic power and political power. Marxists view the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper classes. Marx and Engels were clear that communism's goal was a classless society, in which the state will have "withered away. " For Marxist theorists, the role of the non-socialist state is determined by its function in the global capitalist order. Marx's early writings portrayed the state as "parasitic," built upon the superstructure of the economy and working against the public interest. He believed the state mirrored societal class relations, that it regulated and repressed class struggle, and that was a tool of political power and domination for the ruling class.
Anarchism is a political philosophy that considers states immoral and instead promotes a stateless society, anarchy. Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists believe that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled and an alternative set of social relations created, which would be unrelated to state power.
Pluralists view society as a collection of individuals and groups competing for political power. They then view the state as a neutral body that simply enacts the will of whichever group dominates the electoral process. Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl developed the theory of the state as a neutral arena for contending interests. He also viewed governmental agencies as simply another set of competing interest groups. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state acts in response to pressures that are applied by a variety of organized interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy.
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