In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
That was Hobbes view of man in the state of nature, he uses this as part of the most eloquent and famous defence of the state and the almost unlimited power of the state. This raises a question, is it true?
One thing claimed for the contemporary hunter-gatherer (the nearest approximation we have to man in this state of nature) is that they have a lot of free time, far more than man as he exists in the metropolis. I'd like to dismiss this, it seems to me not that a hunter-gatherer has more free time, just that he has less reason to work overtime. If we work, as the hunter-gatherer, purely in order to eat, then capitalist man on the median wage (£489 per week = £12.22 pounds per hour) can buy the 9 packs of instant ASDA 10p noodles he needs to get 3000 calories a day in 4 and a half minutes leaving the rest of the day free. Metropolitan man chooses not to show up for 1 week and then take the next year and a half off for a number of reasons. Firstly, instant noodles are nasty and repetitive, secondly he also wants a house, and a car, and some clothes, a tv etc etc. In short, he wants things that the hunter-gatherer doesn't spend time getting because he cant have one anyway. So I'd suggest that the claimed extra free time is not the result of inherent freedom so much as lack of anything to invest time in.
How about violence? This seems like something we can be quite unambiguous about, we can measure violence quite well surely? Well, yes we can, looking at contemporary hunter-gather societies we see there is a range from approximately 60% of male deaths being due to homicide down to a relatively peaceful 15%. These are variations from tribe to tribe, from areas of contested resources to areas of abundance etc. The comparable figure from 20th century Europe and America on the other hand is around 4%, this is of course a century that included both World Wars, the Holocaust, Stalin and other Communists along with massive vaccination and other public health measures that reduced the natural death rate dramatically.
So on any kind of objective scale it seems Hobbes is broadly accurate, life in a state of nature is a lot worse than ours. But, is the state the answer to this and if so what kind of state.
Lets think of this in game theory terms. Just about every interaction humans have can be thought of as a mini prisoner's dilemma, if we both cooperate we do well, if one person betrays the other he does better the other does worse, if we both betray eachother we both do worse. Now one way of solving this is an external threat, if you betray me then the next time we interact I will betray you. This method of tit for tat has been shown in competitions to work very well indeed. The problem this runs into is twofold, either the continual cycles of revenge for revenge or not being believable. The solution to both is massive escalation, if you know that the response to an insult will be your death (and the person you're talking to has done as much before), then you're quite likely to cooperate the first time round. This is even more believable if it's based in an external agent so that the person you're talking to cant guarantee security through a massive first strike.
So in essence, what I've just described there is a state. A state is defined as "that group which exercises a monopoly on legitimate violence in some area", you do something bad to someone, the state will respond. The response is predictable and massive, this is the deterrent to stop people doing bad things. It is said that under the rule of Vlad the Impaler people could leave large bags of gold in the street confident that it would be there when they returned so peaceful and law-abiding were the citizens, the horrific murders are something to be balanced against this however.
On the ground
Enough of this abstract bollocks, what about actual decisions? Now then we can consider two broad classes of stateless areas and a 2D layout of states that exist. Firstly stateless areas can be "state of nature" stateless areas, the hunter-gatherer societies we saw before, but also in another sense the internet and international water. The second kind are "failed state" stateless areas, areas with all the civilian infrastructure you would expect of a normal nation state, but where due to war or corruption the state has ceased to exist, there is no one group that exerts a monopoly on legitimate violence.
In a state of nature environment there can be huge amounts of violence and other violations of "should" as I've defined it. On the internet viruses are sent, piracy on the high seas is bloody and brutal and I've already mentioned the hunter-gatherers. Now a state in this situation is very hard to impose, you have to develop very large institutions, codes of law and networks of communication to ensure everyone is singing from the same top-down hymn sheet. This will be met with opposition by those who currently have power and those who like their freedoms. (See Australian internet, see piracy, see the arrows fired at missionaries who try to bring about rational change to the heathen). Now the question is do these problems outweigh the net improvement claimed by the leviathan?
I'm not going to argue that "we cant impose our western ways on these primitives" that's condescending post-colonial bullshit, we happily impose our ways on anything that seems suitable (the middle east, the former soviet block, etc) without any worries. The question is what happens is you try to create from scratch a government and how does that make things better. Consider first the natural state of such areas, what naturally develops are small local defence forces, on the internet this means anti-virus companies, on the seas this means armed navel defence forces and in stateless societies we have groups of warriors. Now these groups have power and interest and will fight off the force of the young state, probably killing early attempts, the next attempts will be backed, normally by a foreign state but certainly with a large amount of power and will impose a firm rule in order to cement the state in place. So initial repression is the only way to impose a state of this kind. And with this repression comes self-interested leaders who wish to retain this power longer than is needed, with this comes corruption and unless the harshness is continued comes the collapse of the state. So unless you're lucky this will cause a great deal of harm.
Now the gains: the violence can be reduced because of both factional rivalry and inter-personal violence. People can develop economically because of property rights (I'm not even going to list all the fantastic material benefits that come from this). And the entire edifice of first world civilisation emerges. Now, weighing these benefits is hard. I would suggest the dangers are rather too great in these cases to make such a thing worth while normally.
Now, consider the failed state case. Should we impose a state on Iraq or Zimbabwe or Somalia? Here there is some kind of infrastructure, at least there are cities, there is a communication network, there is some kind of limited acceptance of property. This makes it a lot easier for a state to be imposed. It's hard, very hard, because the mob forces that still exist are stronger for this reason (see various "warring tribes" in the middle east all well funded with American and Soviet equipment). However if someone can gain control of the various factions then little else needs to be done. This requires a lot of violence and deals with potentially very bad people, but is a lot more likely to be beneficial for the population than in the state of nature case.
States that already exist
Many states both historically and currently have been hugely harmful, far beyond what the state of nature would be, and not just the mass exterminations we have seen under Naziism, Sovietism, Rewanda etc, there are other less dramatic harms, governments which syphon off large amounts of aid money, government which are cruel and who regularly practice brutality on huge scales, governments which go to war.
Now the question is, given any particular state, should it stay or should it go, and if it should stay, how can it be made better. Now states can be better or worse, and some are very clearly very bad, however we must consider the practical question, how do you overthrow a state? This requires a revolution, an external invasion or some other very dramatic event. The state will resist, with opposition on as large a scale as it can, this is why it is almost never beneficial to do this in such a direct way. In the case of a small, week state which is particularly violent it may be acceptable, but it will not normally be.
States are dangerous, they cause a great deal of real harm. But the reality is that without them there is a great deal of harm too. Rapid changes are almost always violent, they take a lot of violence to enact, this can cancel out the benefit claimed from getting rid of a bad state or putting a good one in place. I would suggest that in many cases a gradual and peaceful change can be for the good, the gradual bottom up emergence of authority on the internet say, or the conversion of a series of warring tribes into the kind of organised state found in Medieval Iceland. Likewise a thoroughly evil state can be violently overthrown as with Nazi Germany, but the harm may be reduced if the state is gradually improved, as is happening with modern China.
This is not to say that it can never be right to establish a new state, when we colonise new lands setting up a state can be done gradually and painlessly, often such states are in constitution far better than ones which evolve gradually, the American Constitution has needed very little change since the Bill of Rights because the system is so well designed, the changes required to keep the British system ticking over have been far greater, moving practical power from the monarch, to parliament, to the commons, to the cabinet, to the prime minister.
Nor is it to say that states can never be overthrown, the war against Hitler, whist badly managed and entered into for the worst of reasons, can be argued to be just, or at least something like it can be argued to be.
The next will have to be about politics, aka, how to make a state better.