A modern view on ‘Anatomy of the State’

How the State Transcends Its Limits

Certainly the most ambitious attempt to impose limits on the State has been the Bill of Rights and other restrictive parts of the American Constitution, in which written limits on government became the fundamental law to be interpreted by a judiciary supposedly independent of the other branches of government. All Americans are familiar with the process by which the construction of limits in the Constitution has been inexorably broadened over the last century. But few have been as keen as Professor Charles Black to see that the State has, in the process, largely transformed judicial review itself from a limiting device to yet another instrument for furnishing ideological legitimacy to the government’s actions. For if a judicial decree of “unconstitutional” is a mighty check to government power, an implicit or explicit verdict of “constitutional” is a mighty weapon for fostering public acceptance of ever-greater government power.

Professor Black begins his analysis by pointing out the crucial necessity of “legitimacy” for any government to endure, this legitimation signifying basic majority acceptance of the government and its actions. Acceptance of legitimacy becomes a particular problem in a country such as the United States, where “substantive limitations are built into the theory on which the government rests”. What is needed, adds Black, is a means by which the government can assure the public that its increasing powers are, indeed, “constitutional”. And this, he concludes, has been the major historic function of judicial review.

One of the few political scientists who appreciated Calhoun’s analysis of the Constitution was Professor J. Allen Smith. Smith noted that the Constitution was designed with checks and balances to limit any one governmental power and yet had then developed a Supreme Court with the monopoly of ultimate interpreting power. If the Federal Government was created to check invasions of individual liberty by the separate states, who was to check the Federal power? Smith maintained that implicit in the check-and-balance idea of the Constitution was the concomitant view that no one branch of government may be conceded the ultimate power of interpretation: “It was assumed by the people that the new government could not be permitted to determine the limits of its own authority, since this would make it, and not the Constitution, supreme.”1It was obvious that where a provision of the Constitution was designed to limit the powers of a governmental organ, it could be effectively nullified if its interpretation and enforcement are left to the authorities as it designed to restrain. Clearly, common sense required that no organ of the government should be able to determine its own powers. (J. Allen Smith, The Growth and Decadence of Constitutional Government)
Obama Constitution

In theory, the ensuing constitutional system would assure that the Federal Government check any state invasion of individual rights, while the states would check excessive Federal power over the individual. And yet, while limitations would undoubtedly be more effective than at present, there are many difficulties and problems in the Calhoun solution. If, indeed, a subordinate interest should rightfully have a veto over matters concerning it, then why stop with the states? Why not place veto power in counties, cities, wards? Furthermore, interests are not only sectional, they are also occupational, social, etc. What of bakers or taxi drivers or any other occupation? Should they not be permitted a veto power over their own lives? This brings us to the important point that the nullification theory confines its checks to agencies of government itself. Let us not forget that federal and state governments, and their respective branches, are still states, are still guided by their own state interests rather than by the interests of the private citizens. What is to prevent the Calhoun system from working in reverse, with states tyrannizing over their citizens and only vetoing the federal government when it tries to intervene to stop that state tyranny? Or for states to acquiesce in federal tyranny? What is to prevent federal and state governments from forming mutually profitable alliances for the joint exploitation of the citizenry? And even if the private occupational groupings were to be given some form of “functional” representation in government, what is to prevent them from using the State to gain subsidies and other special privileges for themselves or from imposing compulsory cartels on their own members?

In short, Calhoun does not push his pathbreaking theory on concurrence far enough: he does not push it down to the individual himself. If the individual, after all, is the one whose rights are to be protected, then a consistent theory of concurrence would imply veto power by every individual; that is, some form of “unanimity principle”. When Calhoun wrote that it should be “impossible to put or to keep it [the government] in action without the concurrent consent of all”, he was, perhaps unwittingly, implying just such a conclusion. But such speculation begins to take us away from our subject, for down this path lie political systems which could hardly be called “States” at all. For one thing, just as the right of nullification for a state logically implies its right of secession, so a right of individual nullification would imply the right of any individual to “secede” from the State under which he lives.

Thus, the State has invariably shown a striking talent for the expansion of its powers beyond any limits that might be imposed upon it. Since the State necessarily lives by the compulsory confiscation of private capital, and since its expansion necessarily involves ever-greater incursions on private individuals and private enterprise, we must assert that the State is profoundly and inherently anticapitalist. In a sense, our position is the reverse of the Marxist dictum that the State is the “executive committee” of the ruling class in the present day, supposedly the capitalists. Instead, the State — the organization of the political means–constitutes, and is the source of, the “ruling class” (rather, ruling caste), and is in permanent opposition to genuinely private capital. We may, therefore, say with de Jouvenel:

Only those who know nothing of any time but their own, who are completely in the dark as to the manner of Power’s behaving through thousands of years, would regard these proceedings [nationalization, the income tax, etc.] as the fruit of a particular set of doctrines. They are in fact the normal manifestations of Power, and differ not at all in their nature from Henry VIII’s confiscation of the monasteries. The same principle is at work; the hunger for authority, the thirst for resources; and in all of these operations the same characteristics are present, including the rapid elevation of the dividers of the spoils. Whether it is Socialist or whether it is not, Power must always be at war with the capitalist authorities and despoil the capitalists of their accumulated wealth; in doing so it obeys the law of its nature.

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