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Freedom and Theories of State Power

Dictionaries describe the state a political association sovereign across a geographic area and population. Before the 20th century it was common for states to be ruled by monarchs whose theory was that their realm, their state, their rule, was created by God. This theory is known as the Divine Right of Kings.

A rival theory of state originated among those opposed to monarchical rule. A couple of Englishmen in the late 1600s, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, rejected the old Divine Right of Kings theory and described the state as a social contract. Hobbes believing that an authoritarian monarch was the best possible head of state. Locke believed in a liberal, constitutional, monarch, a monarch with limited powers. In the 1700s, Jean Jacque Rousseau came along and advocated a contractual state that was a republic. And, at the end of Rousseau's century, revolutionaries created a contractual, federated, republican state called the United States of America.

Some in the United States were to describe their state as having divine origins, as created by God for His purposes, with the armies of revolution and the writers of the constitution as His instruments – compatible with the often spoken declaration that "God wills it." Some of them see the state as a necessary evil and want God's creation – the state – to be as limited in its powers as possible.

Rival theories of the state followed the American Revolution. There was Karl Marx later in the 1800s who defined the state as the institution used by the ruling class to maintain the conditions of its rule. Marx was followed by Max Weber, who described the state as an organization with an effective monopoly on the use of violence within its geographic area. And Weber was followed by Fascists and racists who viewed the state as an organic cultural and national construct.

Into the 21st century, the state continues to embody laws that smooth over societal conflicts. In Stone Age societies neighbors had disputes with each other that were often exercises in violence. Clans fought clans, and tribes fought tribes, and there were cycles of revenge. In Africa today, tribal conflicts still exist and states less than half a century old are trying to impose their authority over these conflicts. Conflicts down through history sometimes arose from religious differences or were sometimes exacerbated by religious or ethnic differences. Sometimes state power has managed the differences and enabled people to live together productively and in peace. Sometimes not.

In a democratic society, state power lies ultimately with the mass of its people. It is an historical phenomenon quite apart from Plato's republic and its elite gang of philosopher-rulers. It can be as imperfect as the brief democracy of Ancient Athtens. It is derived from the attitude of people who thought it best to take power away from monarchs.

There was the Jewish state more than two thousand years ago ruled by a hereditary priesthood. And there are states today that depend on a combined religious and state authority – in Iran for example. Democratic states are different. The democratic state recognizes that its citizens have different beliefs, values and interests and allows its citizens freedom from any unified body of belief – commonly called totalitarianism.

In modern industrialized and democratic societies, religion is subordinate to state power – something that humanity has worked out from experience over time. The state supplies people with various freedoms that includes religious worship, the freedom of expression of ideas and the right to be treated equally by state laws. Regardless of religious belief, one is obliged to obey the law. A believer cannot take it upon himself to punish someone who behaves contrary to their morality – as in assaulting homosexuals or abortion doctors. Punishment is the state's prerogative. But people can participate in efforts to change laws as they see fit. In democratic societies, people are free to organize politically and to vote.

There are those who think that freedom is possible only with no government. Breakdown in state power has produced nothing better than local gangsters exercising a rule that involves blocking roadways and shaking down motorists. The anarchist's belief in freedom has been a delusion.

In the modern democratic works because freedom is limited for everyone and a good portion of freedom is guaranteed for everyone. The democratic state works when those holding a minority opinion accept the political success of the majority view and when they have the freedom to complain and to organize politically. Modern, democratic states contain much diversity in opinion and require tolerance regarding opinion and intolerance regarding breaking the state laws – no matter how passionate one holds a minority view or associates his view with divine authority.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.