Idealism and the State


Watson, John. In The State in Peace and War, 202–12. Glasgow: J. Maclehose, 1919.


Now, if I have made at all clear the conception of the State on which the idealist doctrine rests, it must be manifest that the main contention here set forth is one which is endorsed and has been repeatedly stated by the exponents of idealism. The general will is not expressed in any one institution, but in all the institutions, voluntary or involuntary, which form the very complex web of modern society. We may, if we please, call other institutions the Community, not the State, but things are not made different by attaching to them different names. The main point for which we contend is not that the political organisation is absolutely supreme over other forms of organisation, but that it is the final means by which the other institutions are brought into harmony with one another, and prevented from interfering with the rights which it is the especial business of the State as a political organisation to provide. The political organisation is not supreme in the sense of including all other institutions; on the contrary, it is its function to see that these are allowed perfect freedom to manage their own affairs,—always provided they do not clash with one another, and do not destroy the liberty of the individual. It is admitted that one institution may be subordinate to another, and this admission seems to imply that ultimately the institutions so subordinate are not of coordinate authority with one another. It cannot be fairly contended that the Church is absolutely independent of the State in the sense that it can interfere with the rights of citizens,—rights which are guaranteed, not by the Church but by the State. Nor can it be justly maintained that the Church is not subordinate to the State in relation to its property. The control of property is essentially a matter for State action. It is perfectly true, as has been already indicated, that the State cannot interfere with the religion of the citizen, or at least ought not to interfere with it, but the reason lies in the character of State action, which is limited to the external conditions of the good life. It is also true that the central authority cannot determine the character of artistic products or dictate the conclusions of a man of science—though it may turn his attention to the application of science to industrial pursuits—but it does take care that the artist or the man of science shall not trespass on the rights of their fellow-citizens. Will it be said that the United States was not justified in abolishing polygamy, on the ground that it was contrary to the conditions essential to civilised life ? Will it be argued that should a Church arrogate the right to punish anyone who does not accept its creed, a stop may not be put to this arrogant and unjust procedure? It is hard, therefore, to see how the new theory of the community is in essence different from the old. Nor is the relation of the State to municipal councils and provincial governments at all inconsistent with the claim to sovereignty. For Parliament is not to be confused with the State. The State is the totality of institutions by which the common weal is secured, and it is a matter of no importance, so far as the question of sovereignty is concerned, whether the government is carried on by one central organisation or distributed among several; in either case the sovereignty does not lie in either, but in the common will. As Sir Frederick Pollock says : “The minimisers of the State’s function appear not to sufficiently distinguish the action of the State in general from its centralising action. There are many things which the State cannot do in the way of central government, or not effectually, but which can be very well done by the action of local governing bodies. But this is a question between the direct and the delegated activity of the State, not between State action and individual enterprise.” Nevertheless the final decision rests with the organ which represents the summing up of the general will. The central government, representing the final will of the citizens, so far as it is made explicit, is the final authority for determining the functions of the decentralised bodies, though the complete will of the citizens expresses itself through all the organisations of society. The adjustment of the proper relations between the central government and local or provincial governing bodies is a matter of practical experience. It is of importance that the central government should not be overburdened with detail, but on the other hand many good measures may be inoperative from the remissness of local bodies.


It will be understood from what has been said that there is no intention of undervaluing the importance of subordinate institutions. As Mr. Bosanquet has clearly pointed out, it is by means of these subordinate forms of social life that the experimental and inventive element is prepared for embodiment in legislation, the work of the central government being mainly to endorse the results of social cooperation. Nevertheless, as he rightly holds, all society is under the final control of the State, which includes the whole field of social cooperation, its special task being to adjust and reconcile the institutions which it contains in a self-consistent system. Why this view should be accused of some terrible crime in identifying in this sense the State with the whole group of organisations by which the whole life of a people is carried on it is difficult to understand, unless a claim is made for absolute non-interference with them. Such a claim, however, does not seem to be made, and it must be by confusing the legitimate control by the State of other forms of association, in which the general will is partially realised, with an absolute control which not only adjusts their relations to one another and to the rights of individuals, but absolutely determines their actions, that the idealistic doctrine can for a moment be supposed to be inconsistent with the importance attached to these subordinate forms of organisation. As Mr. A. C. Bradley points out, “The citizens are not a mere collection or aggregate but form an organised whole, performing a multitude of different functions which should, and more or less do, so complement and play into one another that they make a common life and produce a common good.” At the present day there are an enormous number of associations of every kind: political, economic, religious, educational, scientific, artistic, literary, and recreational; and these are in their combination distinctive of the modern as distinguished from the ancient State, and add to the intensity and complexity of modern life. The State as sovereign does not seek to suppress these, but on the contrary welcomes them as means of fuller life. Only if the members of any of these associations act in a way that is prejudicial to the common good does the State, if it is wise, attempt to interfere with them; but the fact that it may interfere shows that it is the ultimate court of appeal for its own citizens. That the members of the association number in their ranks men of other nationalities will be permitted, provided the foreign element is not injurious to the conditions that have been established for the common good of the citizens; nor will it object to the international character of an association unless the constitution of the association is incompatible with its own autonomy. Thus over its own citizens the State has complete control. It seems to me to be entirely misleading to contrast the limited area of a State with the wider area of a Community; for the action of a State extends in principle beyond its own area. Each of the different nationalities represented in a Labour Union, for example, is subject to the control of its own State, and it is as little to the purpose to say that the association is supranational as to speak as if the internal organisations different from the political were outside the sphere and influence of the State. Normally no State will interfere with the actions of the citizens of another State, but it will interfere with those of its own citizens, or on their behalf, who are temporarily living abroad, unless they have abandoned their allegiance to itself. Of course a nation is the custodian of the interests of those living within the boundary of its own territory, but its action is not limited to its own territory; it makes laws or passes resolutions which involve relations to other nations; but this does not interfere with its right to see that its citizens do not transgress the laws of their own country. It thus seems to me that the control exercised by the State is just as wide as that of the Community. The citizen who belongs to an international association does not thereby escape from its supervision and control, so far as the State has any right to exercise supervision and control over him.


It cannot, then, be admitted that the State is sovereign in the sense that it has an unlimited power of regulating the life of its citizens. Hegel, indeed, allots to the power of the State, as acting through its officials, an amount of power over the individual which would be intolerable to an Englishman or an American or a Canadian. But this cannot be said to arise from his identification of the State with society—an identification which he does not make— but from his belief that it is essential to the realisation of good will. Hegel argues that the trained official is better able to judge what is for the public good than the unenlightened citizen. This may be admitted without any admission of the corollary that society must be entirely regulated from above. It is only in the sense that the final adjustment of other institutions is necessary, on the ground that there must be some ultimate court of appeal, that the State is said to include all the institutions of society. But this does not allow to it an absolute right to determine the action of the subordinate institutions. Freedom of life to citizens to form what associations they please, and to construct rules for their own guidance, is implied in the whole conception of the State as the organisation by which the best life is realised. It is by the free action of various subordinate forms of association that progress is made possible in the community, and the function of the State is not to dictate to those institutions their action or to impede its exercise, but to aid them in every way compatible with their harmony with one another and with itself. For this reason the various institutions of society must be under State supervision. It is obvious that on this view no claim is made to defend an absolutism which would regulate every department of life. On the contrary a Socialist would certainly say that the theory outlined errs in not allowing sufficient regulative power to society.


It is of great importance to recognise that the State cannot be identified with the Government, which is merely the organ through which the harmony of the various organisations included in the State is effected. “The State,” as Mr. Bosanquet says, “ includes the whole hierarchy of institutions by which life is determined, from the family to the trade, and from the trade to the Church and the University. It is the structure which gives life and meaning to the political whole.” This seems to me to dispose of the criticism of Mr. G. D. H. Cole, who correctly points out that Rousseau objected to every form of particular association, whereas the characteristic of modern associations is speciality of function. But Mr. Cole means to exclude these associations from the State, whereas the idealistic view is that they are required for the complete expression of the general will. Such an opposition would seem to imply that by the State is to be understood only by the governmental machine, and therefore a contrast is drawn between the State as one association, with which other and non-governmental associations are contrasted. But, if by the State we understand all the associations by which the general will is expressed, such an opposition is obviously inadmissible, since it would identify a part of the whole system of associations, namely, the Government, with the whole. It is true that the political organisation of a people must be distinguished from the State as a whole, the special function of the former being to reconcile conflicts of subordinate associations with one another or with itself. Such an organ is required, unless we are prepared to say that the conflict must remain unreconciled. Nor is there anything in this conception to prevent the appointment of special commissions to help in the adjustment of differences between the subordinate associations ; though ultimately they must be subject to the political organisation, if other means are found inadequate. It is therefore no real objection to this view to say that “the very existence of particular associations is sufficient proof that the State cannot fully express the associative will of man.” This is undoubtedly true, if we identify the State with the governmental machine, but obviously inept on a theory which regards these associations as an integral part of itself. “All social machinery,” says Mr. Cole, “alike in its agreements and in its conflicts, is a partial and more or less successful expression of the general will which every community possesses.” This may be at once admitted, but it does not affect the doctrine which has just been stated, that it is the general good which is the ultimate object of allegiance. This, of course, means that the Government is responsible to the people by whom it is elected, and in this sense the individual is not called upon to serve the State “with a loyalty surpassing and different in kind from other loyalties.” But the individual is bound to conform to the general will. No doubt it is not always easy to discover wherein this general will consist. But the whole history of man is the process by which the discovery is made, and it may be assumed that while the process does not result in absolute comprehension, it is in a well-organised State at least in the line of development towards it. If it is denied that there is any organ for the final expression of the general will, we place all associations on the same level; which leads to the conception of the various forms of organised life as related simply as a loose confederation, with no means of adjusting conflicts between them.


When we look beyond the internal affairs of a particular State we find, says Mr. Cole, that there are relations of individuals and of groups which extend beyond the boundaries of a single State, “Religion, industry, the arts, morality—all furnish instances of inter-State grouping, and all give rise to obligations which may conflict with loyalty to a State.” This view seems to depend for its plausibility on the identification of the State with the Government, and on the assumption that the former is limited to what concerns only a particular area. The State, however, we contend, is not the Government, but the whole system of organisations by which the general will is realised; and it is a false view which conceives of it as confined within a given area, merely because in the normal exercise of its function it legislates for a people so confined. An enlightened State, as we have said, will not attempt to coerce men in matters of religion, nor will it set limits to the free production of art by any assumed moral criterion, and in dealing with questions of trade and commerce it will have to consider the economic conditions of its people—though I believe it is an entire misunderstanding of the interests of its people to assume that questions of trade and commerce can be satisfactorily dealt with on the principle that a State must be self-sufficient. But while all this is true, it does not follow that there is no place for the effective control of religious institutions, of industry and of art. There is a definite sphere in which the State is supreme, and neither an ecclesiastical body, nor a trade union, nor an association of artists can contravene the conditions essential to the best life of the citizens. Within their own sphere these associations will not be interfered with by an enlightened State, but, on the other hand, they cannot be allowed to threaten its own existence. The State has the right to determine the conditions under which trade and commerce are carried on, so far as that is necessary in the interests of the whole body of its people. An enlightened State will not pass laws which assume that the economic good of its citizens is incompatible with the economic good of the citizens of other countries; but the reason is that such legislation is not in the interest of its own citizens any more than of those of foreign peoples. If, on the other hand, the Government is convinced of the opposite principle, believing that that which is good for its own citizens will inflict harm on the citizens of other States, there is no remedy for it but the enlightenment of the people, which may lead to more rational action. Meantime, no nation can be prevented from passing restrictive enactments which damage both itself and other nations. That is only part of the process by which an advance is made from less to more reasonable modes of action, and has nothing to do with the question of the limitation or non-limitation of State authority. The question in regard to art is of a similar nature. If a State, rightly or wrongly, regards a certain form of artistic production as contrary to the moral interests of its people, it is justified in placing restrictions upon it on that ground. This is a region, no doubt, in which there is great liability to error, but that does not prove that the supremacy of the State should therefore be limited: what it shows is that it should be enlightened

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