The State


Philip Pettit


M. P. Ross 05-12-2023


The Colbert Report

“Ask not, what your country can do for you, ask, what you can do for your country”

Inaugural Address, J.F.K.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”



In common usage the terms nation, country, and state are, correctly if not precisely, applied more or less interchangeably.   We often need refer to the United States only one time, and otherwise substitute the nation, country, or state to convey the same meaning.  Properly speaking, each carries a specific meaning, so that still broadly though moving along the scale towards more precise definitions, the term nation deals with people, country with physical territory, and state with the political entity, the polity.

What suffices at one level of abstraction, and is indeed most useful in certain contexts, proves critically inadequate when greater specificity is called for.  There is the old joke, when you ask someone the time, you don’t want a lecture on how to build a watch, let alone the history of the Swiss watch industry, and certainly not an explanation of advanced astrophysics.  On the other hand, someone suffering from persistent severe abdominal distress doesn’t much benefit being told by a gastroenterologist that they have a stomach ache.

The body politic, no less than the human body, requires clear and specific language for its proper maintenance.  The issues of gun rights and gun control are front and center news, and we do have a rough common understanding of what is meant by guns.  The Second Amendment, however, makes no mention of guns, but rather in the phrase “to bear arms” intends to apply to small arms.  With perhaps the exception of the most ardent, gun rights advocates are asserting the right to bear firearms that they can carry on their persons, not a gun in the military sense.  A gun is an artillery piece.  Even a mountain gun, a small howitzer canon, requires at least one-horsepower to transport.  (It is another matter entirely to interpret “the people” as applying to a private individual.)

Language does indeed matter.  It is the means by which ideas are articulated, conveyed, and understood.  Language is why we have and need the Supreme Court.  Literal reading of the law compounded by serial misinterpretation gets us to someone mounting a recoilless rifle in the bed of their pickup truck claiming their Second Amendment rights.  And you don’t treat a ruptured appendix as just another stomach ache.

Political theory is to policy and diplomacy what math and physics are to engineering, or biology and chemistry to medicine.  It is the language of formal society and government, providing the foundational concepts out of which we construct our political world.  Pre-state entities, such the family and band, and perhaps the tribe and clan, could form and function without oral or written constitutions.  But, going back to antiquity, the Greek city-states would hire an outside professional to write their constitutions.  The modern, functional Westphalian state, sovereign within its territorial borders, the polity as such, cannot exist nor reliably endure without political theory.

Stephen Colbert, President Kennedy, and William Shakespeare were admirably able to make themselves understood to the broadest possible audiences.  And we generally get the idea of a nation of people, or what is meant by the country, and in some fashion connect the government with the state.  This still begs the question, what is a state?  How do they come about, and how do you keep one from collapsing once you have managed to get it up and running?


The State by Philip Pettit approaches its topic in the manner of a classic work of political theory.  Like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, he begins with concepts and definitions of how we function in a pre-political society.  Unlike them, he does not posit a rhetorical man in the state of nature, but rather recognizes that humanity is innately social and demonstrably operates by conventions and norms which arise in the absence of any form of articulated social contract.  Like Hegel constructing a model of the sum of human experience from the most basic building blocks of consciousness, Pettit employs a model to demonstrate how a plausible state would develop from commonly observable human interactions among real people in recognizably similar conditions to our own.  Thankfully, unlike Hegel, Pettit writes in straightforward direct language.  From introduction to concluding outline, the book succeeds in making complicated arguments understandable, reinforcing its argument throughout, managing to maintain focus on the objective of its inquiry, the modern, functional state.

The State offers a textbook example (minor pun noted) of what is meant by applied political theory.  As pure theory, its exploration of the origins and construction of the state, tested against a counterfactual model, constructing one from constituent and desired features, offers a fresh, insightful take on a most essential structure of social and political organization.  “Pettit’s state” will enter the discourse of colleagues in academia and government.  Pure theory, however necessary, tends to be too much inside baseball for the casual reader and even those whose professional work depends on the general concepts and refined particulars of that canon of theory.  Certain members of Congress come to mind.

Pettit makes clear his intention that The State serve as a work of applied political theory.  That is, theory as the basis for practical solutions for real world problems—not excluding maps, diagrams, procedures, lists of do’s and don’ts, Jack Sheldon singing “I’m Just a Bill” if that’s what it takes.  Applied political theory provides the means to construct a functioning polity, the state, capable of performing both its essential operations and delivering desirable benefits to its citizens.  One such effect, not strictly essential for a polity to conform to the definition of a state, though highly desirable, is justice.  Pettit suggests that The State is the first of a two volume work, the second of which will focus on justice.  We might think here of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which was also to be followed by a book addressing justice.

Throughout, Pettit is practical and grounded, working with a realistic concept of a state recognizable from common experience.  This is the possible state, demonstrated by his counterfactual model as entirely likely to come about in the world’s actual circumstance, not a theoretical ideal.  No Plato’s Republic, more Aristotle’s Politics, or the older, wiser Plato’s Laws.


First, a recommendation, then a brief account of what the book covers, then a few words on the most important issue, why it matters.

Read the book.  Consider its premises, take in its arguments, work through the counterfactual model.  For the academic, the policy maker at any level of government, business, or civil society, no less and perhaps more so the average citizen necessarily living within some form of polity, functional or failed, The State provides a comprehendible account of the atomic origins of political society and a rationale for its functions.

The state has long been the basic country/nation level unit of political organization, and that is unlikely to change.  This is where we live.  Without the state the individual—or family, community, nation—is alone in the wilderness, without a protector of their person, possessions, or interests, left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment of much larger, stronger competitors.  For the ancients, banishment from the tribe could mean a death sentence.  “Second, no regime is so strong that it can hope to drive others to extinction and establish itself in sole possession of the earth.  And third, the distrust between peoples is likely to block the formation of a binding, sustainable contract in support of a global government.”  If you doubt that third point, take a moment to consider soccer match violence.  Even today, many states struggle to cohere where the tribe is dominant, whether that be a traditional family based tribe or that of the home team fans.

Pettit’s state is the result of an evolution, a natural outgrowth, where members of a society observe conventions and norms found generally beneficial, to society as a whole if not to any one individual in any one instance, becoming the basis for positive law.  Those residing in a state, citizens and otherwise, gain the benefit of knowing what actions and activities are permitted and protected, and which will expose them to punishment.  The state of nature for man is society, where relationships of order and power form.

Again, we emphasize that Pettit’s model is that of modern, functional state, sovereign within its territory.  This state, like the genus and specie of an animal, will be alike in qualities that are “robustly” present but can vary in degree.  The state is incorporated, its own entity, representing its sovereign, which may a person, group, or the entire citizenship, appointed or elected.  Citizens may themselves be a minority of the total population.  There will be a balance of power between citizen and sovereign, such that neither can afford to fail to take account of the other.

For the particulars, the reader is recommended to the book.  For a more historical take, there is also Francis Fukuyama’s two volume work, The Origins of Political Order, and Political Order and Political Decay.  Rather than summarize The State here—something Pettit does a much better job of in the book’s introduction and again in the last chapter—the important point is Why it Matters!

We live in a state.  Admittedly, one with a somewhat confusing name, the United States.  We comprise some semblance of a nation.  Chants of “America, America” are sometimes heard in the land.  Speaking of the land, we live in a country.  Its borders, specifically the security of those borders and their ability to keep the nation within them safe from those without, are the subject of heated debate, even as they have been long defined and uncontested.  There are about one third of a billion people in the United States, with a federal government employing many thousands of it citizens.  The whole system works pretty well.  Not perfectly, not without breakdowns and repairs, but amazingly well from one president and congress to the next over these past two hundred some odd years.  And it has managed this despite, or perhaps because, no small number of the population lacks an understanding of what it means to be the citizen of a state.

More miraculous yet than the formation and persistence of the state is life on earth.  Human life, the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, through all manner of catastrophic interruptions, to the entire species or single individual—environmental change, war, disease– self-conscious life has not only existed but successfully replicates with stunning reliability.  Humanity exhibits just the kind of robust functions Pettit writes of with reference to the state.  Yet, what it means to be a human being is still not a settled matter.  Way beyond my paygrade.  We will leave the meaning of life to science and philosophy.

The body politic, with life as the citizen of a state, is more down to earth, a social construction created and maintained by actual people.  It should not be such a mystery, so misunderstood and badly managed.  Positive laws define what is permitted or sanctioned; laws that can and should be changed as best serves the interests of society and state.  The modern, functional state will feature a means for those outside the government, but inside the state, to contest the law through civil-disobedience and protest, that is to petition the state from the street rather than through the legislature.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Not an original thought, but one still better tested by science and philosophy than government.  Politics is the business of give and take, the marketplace of power, which must necessarily attend to the proper functioning of government and state, the corporate bodies of nation and country.  All manner of politicking, lobbying, popular protests, and fringe elements can coexist within the functioning state.  As long as the state and its robust functions endure.  If the state itself is grievously damaged, or worse outright destroyed, there had better be a capable successor to replace it.  History is replete with examples of bad following worse.  In any case, state will follow state, though national character may change and a country’s borders be redrawn.

This brings us back to the question, what is a state–how is it created, what are its functions?  It is distressing how many people, in government let alone among the general population, cannot intelligently or accurately answer these questions.  Confusion over the role of state and citizen is abundant, documented daily in the media, reinforced in the Comments sections, despite a key function of the state being laws that clarify the relationship of state and citizen.

Enter Pettit’s The State.  It presents a clear theoretical basis for the state followed by its practical implications.  He provides us a theory, and a very sound one, though not the definitive theory.  There will unlikely be any last word on the state and its functions.  Each state will have its own constitution, some will have none and function by other formal laws, others, failed and poorly functioning states, may have a constitution that is largely honored in the breach, with that state lacking a key feature of modern liberal democracy, the rule of law.

Rights, constraints, and responsibilities of the citizen are spelled out in the constitution and laws, to be clarified by the courts when in doubt.  The state is populated by a society of real people who will behave as such; laws are enacted in part to remind not to do what they know they should not, and would not or ordinarily, do.  Rights of the citizen of the state are established in law.  The state is bound to honor these rights.

Pettit is entirely correct that rights are a social construct.  People will claim all manner of rights—human rights, natural rights, animal rights, based in philosophy or religion, through well-reasoned interpretation or just willful thinking.  Is healthcare a right?  It is a necessary good, and that should be available to each person.  But it is one thing to claim it as a right, and another to establish it as a right protected by the state.  The functional state, the citizenship incorporated, should be capable of establishing the right to healthcare, even if it may not be capable of fully realizing it.  As I have made the point elsewhere, rights are established through conflict and convention; what can be agreed upon and enforced by law.

A robust function of The State, speaking now of the book not the polity, is that of a guidebook for the citizen of the state.  The book can be accessed on a smartphone, like a political navigation app, available for consult wherever the citizen my find themselves out among society.  The need for such an app is abundantly apparent.  Common behavior and attitudes suggest that many of our fellow citizens and residents are lost.  They seem not to comprehend that they live in a state, or where they are within this state, with not much sense of how they got there, or what they can and cannot do legally.  This despite having at least a primary, if not college, education, one purpose of which, generally and not just the odd class in civics and history, is to graduate citizens who entered as school children.  Time to get back to basics.  The State is text for the refresher course.