Peace and the Federal State

Richard Laming, speaking at Ventotene

By Richard Laming, based on a speech at the Ventotene seminar, 2 September 1998

I am delighted to have been asked to speak this year on the subject of peace and the federal state. It is one of the most important aspects of the whole week – looking at the basic purpose of federalism and the movement in which we all work. Luisa’s introduction has outlined the basic points extremely clearly, and I do not intend to repeat them.

I intend to look at each of the individual words in the title of this session – “peace”, and “state”, and “federal” – and examine what they mean. For it is important to be able to clarify the meanings of these words if we are really to understand the full implications of the federalist case, both what it means and, importantly, what it does not mean.

But first, I want to say a little about my approach to the whole subject.

As some of you may know, I studied not political science but physics at university. And one of the first things we covered in physics was thermodynamics. Now thermodynamics is the science of heat, and of heat flow. You study a theory in which you expand and compress gases and watch how their temperature changes as you do so. You put hot bodies next to each other and measure the flow of heat from one to the other. All this science assumes that the surroundings have no effect on the bodies or gases you are studying. That’s what makes the theory work.

In the real world, of course, the surroundings do make a difference. Energy leaks out into the rest of the world and the perfect insulation does not in fact exist. Real world results start to diverge from those predicted by the theory. But that does not make the theory redundant. You can start to understand what is going on in the real world by comparing it with the theory. The theory is a useful guide to understanding the world. It does not have to be correct: the test is whether or not it is useful.

And as with thermodynamics, so with federalism. To me, federalism is a useful theory. It does not explain everything, and it does not explain things perfectly, but it is a useful aid to understanding the world. And, as a political movement, we have to understand the world before we can start to change it.

So, let us try to understand the word “peace”. As identified by Immanuel Kant, peace is not the absence of war. It is not even the absence of the threat of war. It is the absence of the possibility of war.

The scale and scope of modern warfare completely overwhelms any other policy objectives. Modern war rules out any other aspect of policy. You cannot build hospitals or invest in schools if at the same time you are fighting a modern war. Spinelli wrote in the early 1940s that ruling out the possibility of such a war is therefore a precondition for any other objective of democratic politics.

That is what we mean by peace. It’s not a moral objection to the practise of war, but a political objection to its consequences. We are not pacifists. We see the possibility of war not merely in the behaviour of mankind, but also – and here’s the second word in the title of the session – in the actions of the “state”.

The importance to us of the state is very clear. Because states are the entities that can make war. No other entity can: only the state.

Other types of entity in the world can have disputes – think of the rivalry between Microsoft and Netscape, or General Motors and Volkswagen, or even between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. But these disputes do not lead to war, because their protagonists are not states.

It is useful to look at the special features of a state. What gives a state this extraordinary power to make war?

Max Weber defined a state as possessing a monopoly of legitimate violence. I prefer to use an alternative form of words from Charles Murray, an American writer, who refers to the state as possessing a “police power”. I think this gives a better picture of what we are talking about.

It is worth looking some detail at what this police power means, for this is at the very heart of the federalist case. It is the police power that enables the state to carry out its functions. There are essentially three core activities that the state must carry out – it enforces the criminal law, to protect property and the person; it enforces the civil law, which makes possible commercial activity; and it provides collective services on the basis of collective taxation. In each case, the police power is an essential precondition.

The criminal law obviously requires the power to compel people to do things against their will – such as not stealing. The enforcement of civil law requires the same power: if someone fails to fulfil a contract, the last resort of redress must in the end include the appropriation of their property by force. And the power to levy taxes is an extraordinary power all of its own. It’s not like a commercial contract, where the money you pay is money you have agreed to pay. In the case of taxation, the money you pay is money other people have agreed you should pay, backed up by the police power of the state. For if you don’t pay your taxes, the state can imprison you, and if you try to escape from prison, there are armed guards on the walls. That is very different from normal commerce.

P J O’Rourke, an American conservative writer, has taken this argument to its extreme to suggest that levying taxation is equivalent to taking money from your grandmother at gunpoint. He says this because he wants to condemn taxation and reduce the things that it is used to pay for. This is an extreme example, but the logic is nonetheless undeniable.

So, the state has a police power, essential to maintain order in society. Without the police power – without the state – you have anarchy. And looking at real world examples of anarchy, the people who benefit most from anarchy are young men with guns. You don’t see many elderly people, or disabled people, or young mothers, exercising armed authority in an anarchic system. Anarchy leads inevitably to inequality, despite its proponents’ claims to the contrary. Federalism is based fundamentally on the state: it aims to control the police power.

And one of the most important points of this session – and indeed the whole seminar – is that that is all it does. Federalism seeks to control the police power, and no more than that.

It may turn out that the federal authority might also be a good place to provide other collective services on the basis of federal taxation, but this point is incidental rather than fundamental to the federalist case. This is quite a change to the traditional view of what government should be for.

For example, Article 18 of the Chechen constitution states that “The Chechen-Ingush Republic has the attributes of a sovereign state: citizenship, a crest, a flag, a national anthem and a capital.” Federalists would disagree. The attribute of a sovereign state is that it has the police power. It might have other features too, but they do not necessarily signify a sovereign state.

Our concern about the police power lies in the fourth use to which it can be put: namely, the conduct of war against other states. That is why the police power must be brought under control.

And this leads me to the third word in the title of this session. “federal”. For the world is, and will remain, full of governments. There are lots of them, all doing different things, and all exercising the police power in various different ways. When their interests diverge, they work alone. When their interests coincide, they can work happily together. But when their interests conflict, they turn to their police powers for resolution.

And federalists would say that this is wrong. We want to create a level of authority to protect governments from each other. The police power should be exercised not by governments but over them. Only a federal state can do this.

So, to conclude, the pursuit of peace is an activity that makes possible other political activities. Without peace, there can be no other type of democratic politics at all.

The state is the essential guarantor of order in society – it has a police power that enables it to protect individual rights and freedoms.

And a federal state is the only means to control those governments which exercise these functions. And that’s why we’re federalists.

I said at the beginning, it’s a theory. It doesn’t have to be correct: it merely has to be useful. The discussions you have during this week – in the other seminar sessions, in the working groups, in the bar and on the beach – will show whether it’s useful or not. I think it is: I hope you agree.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. Last updated 29/09/98.

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