Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Getting the State Right

In his 1940 essay "Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist," Reinhold Niebuhr argued that one of the problems with pacifism is that by avoiding the anarchy of war it gives those, like Hitler, who would impose tyranny through war (or the threat of war) a free pass.  Those concerned with justice, Niebuhr suggested, must oppose both anarchy and tyranny.  "The political life of man," he wrote, "must constantly steer between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny."

Niebuhr's essay appeared as Nazi Germany was extending Hitler's tyranny over vast stretches of Europe.  Britain was enduring an aerial assault and the United States was, as yet, committed only to the sale of weapons to anti-Nazi forces.  Niebuhr's concern, at least in this essay, was for international anarchy--war--and international tyranny--conquest--rather than for internal manifestations of anarchy and tyranny.  But his observation about steering between the two extremes seems especially relevant, in a world moving beyond war, to the problems that remain within states.

The state, it seems, is a difficult thing to get right.  It must ensure order, on the one hand, while protecting freedom, on the other.  Put differently, it must apply sufficient constraints--that is, it must be strong enough--to eliminate anarchy without going so far as to impose tyranny.  In our time, Somalia has been the prime example of a state incapable of governing its own territory effectively so as to eliminate anarchy.  But it is not the only one.  Following soon after the end of the Cold War, the phenomenon of state failure appeared so widespread that some began to separate the cases into the categories of weak states, failed states, and collapsed states.

At the other end of the spectrum lies North Korea, which is likely not only the most secretive but the most repressive contemporary state.  Anarchy is hardly the problem in North Korea, but life is no better there--and perhaps much worse for many people--than it would be in a collapsed state.

Human rights are possible only in the passage between "the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny."  Democracy, in fact, appears in the middle, although not at a single, fixed point between anarchy and tyranny.  States that allow for a full range of human rights appear at various points along the spectrum of state authority, but are never too far from the center.

Perhaps we can call this "the Goldilocks problem" in international politics.  Some states are too hard, some are too soft, but others are just right.  Or at least close enough to "just right" for human rights to flourish.