The state as a Collective Interpretive Framework?

Hi William!

In the article Would You Press the Button? you argue against definitions of the state that see it as a particular kind of human community. You suggest that the state is a collective interpretive framework (CIF) — such a framework consists of patterns of behaviour and ways of interpreting behaviour.

In spare moments over the last week I’ve been thinking about the merits of defining the state this way. Here, I’ll dump a few of my thoughts on that.

This definition is a hopeful one for libertarians; since patterns of behaviour and ways of interpreting them seem like classes of things we have a fighting chance at changing. That makes this redefinition initially appealing.

I notice that you advance an idea about what kind of thing the state is, but don’t yet specify the state’s unique qualities. That seems important to me. What is the content of this CIF? what makes it distinguishable from other CIFs?

The state is a CIF, not a belief. It is a mechanism for making sense of external stimuli, as distinct from a set of beliefs about external stimuli. CIFs are typically invisible to us because they are not what we see, but what we see through — especially when they’ve been so deeply embedded for so long, like a pair of glasses you’ve never removed from your eyes and which you don’t even know are there. Something this fundamental is mostly impenetrable to logical argument.

I’m not convinced that the concept of beliefs can be disentangled from a CIF. If we exclude beliefs entirely from the definition then it’s not clear to me what the ‘stuff’ of a CIF is. How can such a mechanism work if not through beliefs?

Logical argument is not only practically ineffective, but also necessarily insufficient. Based on how we defined the state, people aren’t ready for statelessness until they have it: since they don’t have it now, they aren’t ready for it now. So convincing people that statelessness is possible or desirable is not enough. By definition, people need to view society through a stateless CIF in order for the state to end.

I know that argument and rhetoric can be effective because they were absolutely decisive in my transition from implicit statism to anarchism. I held one set of beliefs, albeit implicitly, and through being exposed to a set of arguments those initial beliefs were replaced by a competing set which better accorded with reality as I understand it. I don’t see an explanatory benefit to be had from recasting this change in way that (a little too strenuously I think) avoids talking about beliefs.

These problems aside, I still think Pressing the Button is an inspiring paper. It gave me lots to think about and helped clarify my views. At the moment I’m not convinced by the CIF angle. Here’s a alternative definition that I think works quite well.

To me the state is a (fuzzily bounded) human pattern of organisation. A structure, manned by people, through which control is exercised over a relatively large population. This control flows from the widespread assumption that certain people, when acting in accordance with the structure’s rules, may legitimately act as ultimate arbiters of all conflicts within the population. Political power is distributed in a gradient throughout those manning the state.

Tomasz

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