SAFETY, FREEDOM, RULES...
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM A STATE?
BY ISABEL WINNWA
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Name: Isabel Winnwa
Field: Political Science, European Politics
Occupation: Doctoral Student at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences
Research Interests: EU Policy-Making, EU Institutions, Decision-making Processes, Justice and Home Affairs, Social and Employment policy
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▐ What is the role of a state? An important question, which occupies the minds of politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists and population alike.
There are many possible answers, and the question can be approached from many sides: there is the empirical angle, which would focus on what the state actually does - the policy, the law-making, the politics, the decisions taken by elected officials, etc. And then, there is the normative dimension, which focuses on what we actually expect from a state. In fact, we could bring both dimensions together, if we first asked ourselves what is expected of a state and then investigated what it did. From an individual point of view, our most basic expectation would probably be that a state provides us with rules and guidance for our public life and ensures the protection of our private one. Public life includes our workplace and everything that happens in the public sphere. Private life includes family, personal activities, privacy. All this should be done in the general interest and reflect the collective will, thereby being fair and equitable. This does not, however, fully answer the question concerning the expectations we have towards a state. What does providing guidance for the public and protection of the private sphere actually mean? In politics, this means making and shaping the law, regulating what can and cannot be done - both in public and in private life. In economics, it means providing a framework for a well-functioning economy. From a legal point of view, the state is to ascertain that everything is in order and that the rules are being respected. On this macro level, objectivity is key. The state should remain impartial and immune to personal preferences as much as possible.
The State in particular is turned into a quasi-animate personality from whom everything is expected. In reality it is only a camouflage for those individuals who know how to manipulate it.
- Carl Gustav Jung
We see that, in theory, the competence of a state to create, apply, and change rules can be extensive or restrictive. There is no general agreement on what people expect from the state: the more liberal you are, the less you would expect a state to interfere both with public and private life; the more protectionist you are, the more you expect the state to intervene not only reactively, to solve problems, but also proactively, through different kinds of rules, policies and guidelines. Every citizen might have a different notion regarding this matter, and the aggregate individual preferences of the people often tend to be very inaccurate. Simply put, the population does not have a clear-cut collective will and therefore does not give a clear mandate for what the role of the state should be. This is what Carl Gustav Jung meant with his “camouflage”, which provides a loophole, a window of opportunity, for those who are in power. If you have a wide range of possibilities and no clear mandate, you benefit from a large amount of discretion. This applies to all domains of the state, but it is most visible in politics, economics and law. Because there is no clear definition of what we expect from a state, there is also no general rule of what its role should be.
Let’s start with politics, a domain with plenty of power-wielding actors, mainly known as the politicians and policy-makers. Let’s consider two recent examples as an illustration of my argument. In Europe, we have been facing a sudden influx of migrants, which has challenged our understanding of the concepts of immigration and national borders. European states have responded quite differently to the situation. In these contexts, the concept of a state refers primarily to the current political elite and its select interests. The Eastern European countries strongly advocated a restrictive policy, closing borders and refusing a quota system for a fair distribution of migrants. Other European states, such as Germany, have adopted a more liberal approach. This resulted in a highly polarized European public opinion and an increase in fascist and extremist tendencies across the whole continent. Should we therefore conclude that the state did not act according to people’s expectations? Can such a judgment even be made when there is such divergence of preferences among the people? Another prominent example is the fight against terrorism, increasingly relevant to the European people since the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice. The states are expected to protect their citizens, but the people strongly disagree as to what measures should be used for this purpose: some want closed borders, others do not; some want data storage, others are strongly against it. Again, the public opinion is polarized and the decision is left to those currently in power to act as they see fit.
Perhaps we should have begun our discussion with the economic perspective, as the business and finance sectors have arguably become much more important than the political sphere, and state affairs are mostly dictated by economic matters. The global banking crisis has occupied politicians’, as well as economic experts’ and citizens’ attention ever since it first hit in 2007. Individual banks had to be bailed out at first, and, eventually, even an entire country - Greece. Decisions involving large sums of public money and significant breaches of state sovereignty were made without public consent - be it in Germany, or in Greece. Understandably, this also greatly polarized the public: expectations went from forgiving Greece’s debt and putting a solidary European safety net in place to letting the Greek economy fail and even excluding the country from the Eurozone. Ultimately, decisions were made by very few select actors, and they made many ordinary citizens very unhappy.
___ The Law
The law always seems to be the least exciting object of discussion, and wrongly so. As Foucault so eloquently stated, the state possesses a huge legal power over its population by the simple fact of being able to decide over crime and punishment. Deficiencies and malfunctions in the legal system might be less obvious to the untrained eye, but their consequences can be truly dire. Let’s just focus on one example: racial profiling. Caucasians are not incessantly required to produce their IDs, visas, or residence permits. They are not harassed by police patrols or, worst of all, shot dead because of their skin color. But these things happen every day. The law seems to be on the side of the fair-skinned members of the population. Non-whites are more likely to be accused of crimes than white people - and more likely to die of police violence. Little has been done on the state level to remedy the situation. And sadly, this issue also strongly polarizes the public opinion, as the majority of the privileged citizens do not see an immediate need for state intervention in favor of protecting the citizens of ethnic origin. Once again, the issue is left to the goodwill of those in power.
___ Public (Opinion)
Admittedly, this is a very general and maybe also somewhat biased description of what has been and is being done in the name of the state. But even if different examples were picked, the question always remains: does the state act as we expect it to? Certainly, not always, especially from the perspective of the individual. A safe assumption, given the decrease in voter participation and the general dissatisfaction with politics, the grievances against greedy businesses, the corrupt finance sector, and the complaints about malfunctioning legal systems. We seem to be unhappy with the state, either because it does too much, or because it acts too little on behalf of its citizens, or simply makes the wrong decisions in their opinion. Yet, we still seem to be quite attached to the idea of a nation state. So much so that we increasingly demand for it to be protected from potential threats. This is nicely reflected in the current debate about ‘Brexit’ and the future of the European Union. The British people have, by a slim majority, voted to exit the European Union. The main argument of the leave camp was that, if Britain gets its sovereignty back, the British state could take decisions, which are more favorable to its people. Half of the British fervently supported this, the other half did not. And now that they are actually bound to exit, the leave camp has acknowledged that most of the promises were not likely to be upheld and most of the leading politicians shied away from the responsibility of seeing ‘Brexit’ through.
Taking a step back, or rather forward:
what is our role as individuals in a state?
This seems to be a good moment to circle back to one of the main questions raised in the beginning: what do we expect from state? And by now, it should be abundantly clear that there is no clear-cut answer to this. The “we” does not have one will, but many. What might be good for the many might strongly disadvantage the few. The legitimacy of a state is based on the existence of a "we", a general or collective will, yet our Western societies are advocating individualism and the primacy of self-interest. And again, to paraphrase Carl Gustav Jung: the state is not a big caring, protective Leviathan, but a camouflage for the interests of the most powerful groups. And these groups benefit immensely from the tension between general and individual will and the ambiguity this entails. Jung also seems to be right when he says that we expect everything from state and more often than not, we blame it for any kind of failure. We blame the state for failing in school, losing our job, paying too much tax, not having a place to put our kids when we work, not being safe from terrorist attacks. But do we want to profoundly change the education system? Provide for stricter employment laws and regulate business more rigorously? Decrease public spending or live on credit to be able to lower taxes? Legislate on whether or not parents should be encouraged to return to work immediately and use child-care services? Allow the authorities to screen, use and store data to monitor potential serious criminal offenders?
The somewhat defeatist conclusion is that there will always be two sides to the proverbial medal that is the role of the state. To get what we want from the state, as individuals, we often have to accept quite a few things that we actually did not bargain for. The slightly more optimistic conclusion is that we can have a say in defining the role of the state. We seem to have forgotten, as individuals, business men and women, voters and subjects of law, that we are the public will. Those who scream loudest might often be wrong, but even more often, they get what they want. For better or worse, to have an impact, to define the role of the state, we have to be engaged. As regards politics, however limited our power as people might be, once we have cast our vote, we actually get to elect those who represent us and if we think carefully about what we expect from the state and what this entails, our vote will matter: majorities and policies can change. If voting is not sufficient, there are manifold ways of political participation, from manifestations, to movements and non-governmentak political organization. In economics and law, direct influence by the population at large is slightly more difficult, but let’s not forget that often we are leaders ourselves, at present or in the future. We, or the people we know, are the CEOs, judges, hedge fund managers, policemen and -women of today and tomorrow.
Thinking carefully about what we expect as individuals and how we define our role in society will impact how we perceive and shape the role of the state. The first step towards clarifying the role of the state should therefore be a step back: to asking ourselves what where we personally stand on the many issues the world faces and what our role in society should be. Then, we can pass on to discussing our perceptions with those around us. As a consequence, we will shape the role of the state we desire and give a clearer and more solid mandate for its governors. But the first step will always be self-reflexion and engagement. ◼
Image Credits: © Matthew Henry