A Moneychanger Book Review

The Rise and Decline of the State

by Martin van Creveld

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Paperback, 436 pages, index.

Once in a great while a book appears that offers a profoundly different view of the present and future and a path to break out of the conceptual blocks that stymie our thinking. Martin van Creveld, now a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has written not one, but two such books.

Van Creveld’s The Transformation of War (1991) argues that nuclear war has made war between first class powers impossible. Even total victory could not compensate for the inevitable losses wrought by nuclear weapons. At the same time, national armies resting on ultra-sophisticated technology have become so gigantic and unwieldy that they are no match for fast-hitting, quick-hiding guerrillas.


Building on The Transformation of War, van Creveld published The Rise and Decline of the State in 1999. Here he argues that the state since 1648 has become a creature different to any previous form of civil government. Before that time government was identical with some person or group of persons. After 1648 the state loses that personal identification and becomes a juridical person, a corporation. "As a corporation, it has an independent persona." (p. 416) All previous governments failed to make this crucial distinction between the person ruling and the ruling organisation. Louis XIV could say with much truth, "I am the state." Louis Napoleon could not.

As van Creveld made clear in statements I heard at Auburn, the abstractness of the modern state differentiates it from all previous governments. It is not a flesh-and-blood person but an artificial man made of laws and regulations. The modern state is much more powerful than any ruler, because it does not depend on flesh and blood. That makes it powerful and unique. A corporation, after all, consists of the worst of all worlds: eternal life and no conscience. For many readers, this seems like a distinction without a difference. However, as van Creveld shows, this transformation is crucial to understanding both the rise of the state and its impending decline.


He defines the state by three characteristics.

Sovereignty, by which claim the state "refuses to share any of [these] functions [waging war, making peace enacting laws, dispensing justice, raising revenue, determining the currency, and providing internal security] with others but concentrates all of them in its own hands."

Territoriality, "it exercises such powers over all the people who live within its borders and over them only."

Abstractness, "most importantly, it is an abstract organisation. Unlike any of its predecessors at any other time and place, it is not identical with either rulers nor ruled; it is neither a man nor a community, but an invisible being known as a corporation." (p. 416)


This last characteristic threatens now to make the state’s other two characteristics "redundant."

"In the main, the threat to the state does not come either from individuals or from groups of the kind which exercised the functions of government in various communities at various times and places before 1648. Instead it comes from other corporations: in other words, from such `artificial men’ as share its own nature but differ from it both in respect to their control over territory and in regard to the exercise of sovereignty. A few of the corporations in question are of a territorial nature, but the majority are not. Some are regional and larger than states, others smaller and merely local. Some are intergovernmental, others nongovernmental. Some are primarily political by nature, others dedicated to different ends such as making money, protecting the environment, spreading some religious message, or propagating some special cause which may range from reducing pollution to animal rights. … [Though] all have in common that they are more attuned to modern technology, communication and transportation in particular, than the state. As a result, some of them are able to grow much richer than most states; or take over some of the latter’s functions; or evade its control by establishing colonies and moving their resources outside its borders; or influence the opinions of its citizens more than governments can; or (as in the case of numerous guerrilla and terrorist organisations) successfully resist it weapon in hand; or, not seldom, some combination of all these things." (p. 416 – 417)

In some cases the state is voluntarily handing over its functions, cutting back on education, welfare, social security, education and even war, which van Creveld considers the primary reason for the state’s existence. Trade also integrates states in ways that require giving up some of the controls of sovereignty. In other cases, technology takes the steering wheel out of the state’s hands and simply bypasses it. Finally, the state just defaults, unable to make good on its promises (think of maintaining law and order, welfare, Social Security, and Medicare).


Now van Creveld could be right or wrong. We can only look at the facts and try to make some sense out of them in light of his theory. Certainly no one would deny that the state in this century has reached a level of power history has never before witnessed. Neither Egyptian pharaohs nor Nebuchadnezzar nor Roman emperors could command the wealth and lives of their citizens as Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia, or the US in World War II and since. Remember, however, precisely at the peak of power when an institution seems the most indestructible and invulnerable, signs of decay and disintegration appear.

My friend, Randy Uselton, my son, Justin, and I went down to Auburn October 6 & 7 for a Mises Institute seminar that featured van Creveld and numerous other excellent speakers. Of those in attendance, the most anarchistic types most opposed to the state seemed the most outraged at van Creveld’s thesis that the state is declining. Strange, I thought, that those most opposed to the state could least believe it might ever weaken. (If you don’t know about the Ludwig von Mises Institute that promotes Austrian economics and free markets, you ought to: Mises Institute, 515 West Magnolia Avenue, Auburn, Alabama 36382-4528; (334) 321-2100.)

What signs of state decline does van Creveld offer? He discusses them under five headings:

  • Waning of major war
  • Retreat of welfare
  • Technology goes international
  • Breakdown of internal order
  • Withdrawal of faith


"Modern interstate war is slowly abolishing itself." (p. 344) The introduction of nuclear weapons has rendered war between first rank countries unthinkable because destruction cannot be limited. Nations are no longer willing to bear high costs of maintaining technologically current national armies. Van Creveld points to a decline of actual warfare and even conventional forces. International law now tends toward completely condemning war, so aggression no longer profits nations as it once did. Ask Saddam Hussein.


Until 1945 the state’s power over the lives of its citizens in every aspect had been growing straight up. At the end of World War II states, looking to justify their existence in the absence of active warfare, turned to the idea that "predominantly government should be the agency whereby the masses should be lifted up." (p. 355). That jet-propelled the socialism that had been gaining steam since the 20th century had dawned. A wave of welfare programs and industry nationalisations followed, but by 1975 that movement had largely spent itself. Since then, it has been reversed in almost every nation on earth. The collapse of the Soviet Union, global privatisation, and welfare state retrenchment around the world all point to socialism’s demise. The burden of welfare and inefficient nationalised industries created their own opposition. We see this not only in the freeing up of markets around the world, but also in opposition to welfare state policies from within the ruling Establishment itself. Consider, for example, CFR Chairman Peter G. Peterson’s book Facing Up or his long crusade against the certain demographic disasters of social security and Medicare. Socialism has been discredited around the globe.


Just as modern technology (print, roads, railroads, telecommunications, typewriters, modern weapons) formerly enabled the state to impose iron control over its territory and citizens, so now technology is working in the opposite direction. Now the networking of technology makes national borders and individuals more difficult to control. Intergovernmental organisations formed to standardise technology, e.g., the International Telegraph Union, continue to take some sovereignty from states. Technology also has forced states to join together into regional blocks, to which they must concede some sovereign controls. Participation in international trade agreements likewise erodes sovereignty. For governments and central banks, freer markets have made manipulating national currency values almost impossible. New means of telecommunications (Internet, global television) have shattered the state’s monopoly on propaganda.


Increasingly states are becoming less and less capable of performing their most basic function, maintaining law and order. Guerrilla organisations have challenged and defeated the most elaborate security measures. In the face of sophisticated criminals, e.g., international drug traffickers, police forces have been unable to retain or enforce the state’s monopoly of violence. The rise of private police and security services around the world bears witness to the state’s failure to protect its own.


Citizens no longer trust the state to operate in their interests or to make good its promises. "Public" has become synonymous with "second rate." The state as "Nanny State," "Managerial State," and "Therapeutic State" meddles in the minutest personal affairs, rendering itself even more despicable. "These and countless other forms of intrusion can only lead to alienation and anger that is sometimes literally explosive. In a poll taken after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, 39% of US citizens asked said they saw the federal government as a threat to their rights and liberties. Another poll showed that only 31% trusted the government `most or all of the time.’ " (p. 411) At the same time, fewer and fewer people are willing to fight for the state. Conscription is disappearing around the globe. "At the close of the second millennium, and in a growing number of places from Western and Eastern Europe all the way to the developing world, the state is not so much served and admired as endured and tolerated. The days when, as used to be the case during the era of total war in particular, it could set itself up as a god on earth are clearly over."


On one hand we want to shout, Praise God, the tyrant is falling! On the other hand our more sober self will ask, "What will replace it?" Who wants to escape the lion’s lunch only to be eaten by a bear?

For those now depending on the state for their livelihood or status, van Creveld offers only a warning:

"For people and organisations who are limited to individual states and depending on them for their defense, livelihood, education, and other services, such a situation represents bad news. For groups as diverse as government employees and the recipients of social security (particularly those who hope to receive benefits in the future), the handwriting is on the wall. Either they start looking elsewhere for their economic status and, in some cases, even their physical protection; or else there is probably no future for them. As was the case during previous periods when empires fell apart and feudal structures emerged, often looking elsewhere will mean losing their freedom by becoming the clients of the strong and the rich, whether in the form of individuals, or, which is perhaps more likely for the majority, of corporations of various sorts. The re-emergence of a politically deprived, disfranchised underclass similar to that which, even in the most `advanced’ countries, continued to exist until the French Revolution and beyond appears likely. …

"Conversely, organisations and people whose wealth and status are independent of the state, internationally oriented, and prepared to take advantage of opportunities that are opening up in every field from global communication and trade to providing private education stand to gain; and, as several analysts have argued, are already gaining at the expense of all the rest. With the state weakening, many of them will undoubtedly find it both easier and more necessary to translate whatever advantages they have into direct political power. Instead of merely lobbying and bribing, as is the case today, they will rule – at least by carrying some of the functions of government, in regard to some people, and to some extent." (p. 419-420)


During the course of the Mises Institute seminar one speaker waxed particularly critical of van Creveld. In his remarks during the question and answer period van Creveld stressed very heavily that the whole point of his book was that the nature of the state as a corporation (artificial man) differentiates it from all previous governments. That’s not as clear as it seems, at least, not in its application to the future.

I looked for and found an opportunity to speak to Dr. van Creveld to clarify what he meant. I asked him, What is the significance of "the state as corporation" and how will it apply to the future? After some conversation, I asked if it meant that society’s future will not be individuals competing, but rather corporations jockeying for power, a sort of corporate feudalism. That was a pretty good way to put it, he agreed.

What caught my attention in that conversation and in other comments Dr. van Creveld made was what I perceived as a certain sadness. This, I hasten to add emphatically, was my perception, and not based on anything in particular that he said. But he kept on repeating that the future was not necessarily bright. The decline of the state might mean prosperity and more freedom for some, but for others massive disorder, violence, bloodshed, and a declining standard of living.


In his concluding remarks Dr. van Creveld noted that a number of these changes are be desirable: a world without war, less taxation of ability, more home schooling, the end of subsidising "iniquitous" behaviour, such as illegitimacy and the present justice system. The prospect of a world with less power concentrated in national government and more in districts, localities, and individuals charms us all. He thinks that it is happening, differently in different places, not as fast as he would like to see, and not without opposition, but happening still.

In what way? States are fast losing the ability to wage major war. The US, even with its bloated military, can’t fight any nation bigger than Serbia. Most nations have abolished conscription. Many countries are decentralising, devolving power onto localities. Privatisations all over the world amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars are now irreversible. Globalisation and technology, especially in communications, are making it harder every day for governments to control our lives, even as every day they become less capable of protecting our lives and property. To many people, the state solves no problems: it is the problem.

What about the contrary signs, signs of stiffening state resistance to encroachments on its power? Van Creveld interprets increasing regulation and police militarisation as panicky, last ditch attempts to salvage the state’s faltering power. He quoted an Israeli judge, "The state has become so weak that the only thing remaining to it is its fists." Lao Tzu said, "The empire with too many regulations is in decline."

Van Creveld concluded that we are witnessing world-historical changes of tremendous scope and significance. If they are not managed carefully they will be accompanied by massive bloodshed. As Machiavelli observed, the best part of wisdom is catching the coattails of history.


Obviously, we can’t uncritically receive one man’s opinions about the future as Gospel truth. However, van Creveld’s work deserves our serious attention. We assume that the power of the modern state will just extend into the future forever—today will be like tomorrow, or more so. That linear projection is a common human failing that ignores the possibility of great discontinuous changes, the earthquakes and tidal waves of history. Those are precisely the great changes that survival and prosperity demand we recognise, and dodge.