On the duties of government and the obligations of the New Prince

In his famous book, The Leviathan, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicts a state of nature where “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. In the state of nature, men are wolves. It is only as they enter into a civil association in the form of the state — entrusting their liberties to the Sovereign in exchange for protection — that civilisation is possible.

Hobbes was a pessimist, having lived through an age of upheavals and bloody civil war. Like Machiavelli before him, he maintains that all states are founded and maintained by force. But once established, they must be governed on the basis of a social contract. Thinkers such as John Locke and Rousseau later developed this concept into an elaborate political theory. In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1971), John Rawls of Harvard University conceptualised an original social contract requiring all rulers to govern with justice, equity and fairness.

German sociologist, Max Weber defines the state as that organisation that monopolises the use of violence. The Maghreb historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, rather cynically defines it as that organisation that has the sole right to commit crime and get away with it. He may well have a point. There are rare la raison d’état moments when criminal methods will be needed to safeguard the survival of the state.

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In his studies of Renaissance Italy, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, depicts the state as “a work of art”. By this he means that a great state is built with the same passion, creativity and imagination as Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and as Dante composed his immortal poems. The statesman worthy of immortality would be a sort of artist of power.

The state as we know it today emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia 1648, which enshrined the principle of territory and sovereignty to the Western-dominated international system. In the Age of Absolutism, monarch and state were synonymous. Which was why Louis XIV of France could arrogantly proclaim, “l’état c’est moi”. The English Revolution and Magna Carta enshrined the principles of parliamentary supremacy in relation to the monarchy. Beyond upholding the laws, preserving the common peace, provision of minimal public goods and mobilising citizens for endless wars, feudal monarchs had no business with the common people.

Things began to change, beginning with the eighteenth-century Prussian monarch, Frederick the Great, who remodelled himself as a servant of the people rather than their master; repositioning the state as a vehicle for the promotion of collective welfare and happiness. Intellectual, musician and warrior — he was the quintessential philosopher-king. After the French Revolution 1789, Bonaparte took the agenda forward by codifying the laws, creating an efficient bureaucracy and executing ambitious public works. Bismarck not only united Germany as a modern constitutional state; he pioneered the welfare state that has become part of the Western social and political order today.

Political scientist James Scott, in his acclaimed Seeing Like a State (Yale University Press, 1998), describes the reforms that gave birth to the modern state: adoption of permanent surnames; standardisation of weights and measures; cadastral surveys; population registers; freehold land tenure; and urban planning and design.

The philosopher Hegel rather overstated his case, when he depicted the nineteenth century Prussian State as the very expression of God on earth. There have always been tensions between the state and the individual. Anarchists since Bakunin have yearned for a world devoid of the state altogether. Even Karl Marx pitched his ideals of communist revolution on the ultimate “withering away” of the state.

In our 21st century, the duties of the state cover the following: (i) effective control and monopolisation of the means of violence; (ii) securing the lives and properties of citizens; (iii) effective administrative control; (iv) management of public finances, wealth creation, and ability of extract taxes); (v) provision and protection of citizenship rights through effective public regulation; (vi) provision of public goods such as infrastructures, education, health and social services; (vii) creation of a vibrant market that ensures economic freedom, growth and expanding opportunities for all citizens; (viii) the upholding of the Rule of Law and promotion of social justice; (ix) ability to conduct regular, fair and transparent elections; and (x) capacity to enter into international agreements.

There are also the problems associated with the so-called “deep state”. Behind almost every state, there is always an invisible government – secret societies, intelligence services and invisible powers that ultimately call the shots in every society. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt: “To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today.”

In a famous April 1961 speech to Congress, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy condemned secret societies as that network of “tightly knit, highly efficient machines that combine military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations” that pose the greatest danger to liberty. Many believed that, by that very speech, he had signed his own death warrant. The mystery surrounding his assassination in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963 remains unsolved to this day.

The statesman of today must not only master the intricacies of economics, and technology; he must reconcile the demands of liberty with the pursuit of the common good; executing justice; securing the common peace; and advancing the welfare and happiness of all. He must both be a lion and a fox – audacious, cunning, courageous and bold. There will always be the mystery of iniquity – what the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin terms “the crooked timber of humanity”. The New Prince must learn to negotiate compromises even with devils.

Politics is the art of the possible. The New Prince must be a watchman, deeply aware of our fallen world, as St. Augustine of Hippo reminds us in The City of God. He must be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.

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