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The Rise of the Sovereign State | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on December 2, 2021

The history of liberty is rather to be found in the attempts to restrain the powers of the State, from the fight to preserve “medieval freedoms” and community privileges, to the struggle against the concentrations of power in a given center (whether a king or a parliament).

Luigi Marco BassaniCarlo Lottieri

The first myth one has to debunk in order to assess the relationship between the provision of law and order and the rise of the (modern) State is that this political institution is merely a natural and organic outgrowth of political power, as old as the history of mankind or of organized society. Actually, it would be wise to dispose of the qualifier “modern”: only the State is modern.1 Whether we see its cradle in the Italian system of States after the Peace of Lodi (1454), or in western Europe (Spain, France, and England) in the 1600s, one thing is clear: the State “gradually emerged in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and found its first mature form in the seventeenth.”2

After a summary of the chief traits of the State—organization, sovereignty, coercive control of the population, centralization, etc.—Gianfranco Poggi affirms: “strictly speaking the adjective ‘modern’ is pleonastic. For the set of features listed above is not found in any large-scale political entities rather than those which began to develop in the early-modern phase of European history.”3

Oakeshott seemed to be conscious of this peculiarity of the State when he affirmed that

[t]he somewhat novel association of human beings which came to be called the states of modern Europe emerged slowly, prefigured in earlier European history, but not without some dramatic passages in their emergence … for the most part, the territories of modern states were newly delineated. They were the outcome of movements of consolidation in which local independencies were destroyed and movements of disintegration in which states emerged from the break-up of medieval realms and empires.4

The second myth we must dispose of is the belief, shared by most historians, that the rise of the State contributed to the general cause of human liberty. In other words, that it has been a “progressive factor” in the history of mankind. Instead, it must be seen as a revolution that upset the old order, granting privileges, immunities, and rents to some and obliterating them for the rest of society. As Charles Tilly put it,

the European State-makers engaged in the work of combining, consolidating, neutralizing, manipulating a tough, complicated, and well-set web of political relations…. They had to tear or dissolve large parts of the web, and to face furious resistance as they did so.5

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