Brought forward. I just had cause to share this with a constituent in relation to the Kafkaesque nightmare they face.

David Cameron has said that the era of big government has run its course. The foreword to our manifesto sets out the rotten state of Britain (see also Butler) and the change we offer: from big government to big society.

What then is the history of big government? How did it come about? Has it run its course? Why has big government failed? All this prompted me to read again, but carefully this time, Martin Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State.

Van Creveld argues that government and state are emphatically not the same. He explains that the government “is a person or group which makes peace, wages war, enacts laws, exercises justice, raises revenue, determines the currency and looks after internal security on behalf of society as a whole, all the while attempting to provide a focus for people’s loyalty and, perhaps, a modicum of welfare as well”. On the other hand, he writes, the state is merely one form of government which may be considered neither eternal nor self evident.

The book’s range is astonishing. Van Creveld begins with prehistoric forms of society before charting the rise of the state, the state as an instrument, the state as an ideal, the spread of the state and, more recently, the decline of the state. Tribes without rulers, chiefdoms, city-states and empires all reached their limits. The monarchs triumphed against church, empire, nobility and towns. Bureaucracies were created which provided infrastructure, monopolised violence and, in short, delivered Leviathan. The state was idealised and used to discipline the people. Money was conquered and total war discovered. The state spread across the world. Major war waned, partly due to the impossibility of total war in the nuclear age. State welfare went into retreat. Technology spread internationally. Finally, the people withdrew their faith in the state.

Van Creveld rather brutally contrasts views of the state over the years from its height to its decline:

Whereas, in 1830, Hegel praised bureaucracy as the “objective class” which put the public good above its own, and whereas, early in [the 20th Century], Otto Hintze sang “the lofty virtues” of civil servants and Max Weber saw the state administration as the embodiment of “goal-oriented rationality,” today there is probably not an individual left in the world who believes that such are its attributes. In fact, the opposite is the case. In study after study produced from the 1960s on, state bureaucracies have been presented as endlessly demanding (the bureaucratic solution to any problem is more bureaucracy), self-serving, prone to lie in order to cover the blunders that they commit, arbitrary, capricious, impersonal, petty, inefficient, resistant to change, and heartless;

Van Creveld argues that individual bureaucrats may be mild, harmless and self-effacing but that they have together created “a monster whose power far outstrips the mightiest empires of old.” He explains that, unlike previous ruling groups, bureaucrats do not have to pay the expenses of government but are instead sustained by it. Also unlike previous ruling groups, they operate to fixed regulations and procedures without anger or passion. Most importantly, bureaucrats posses a collective personality which is immortal: merely by waiting, the state can outlast opposition from natural persons.

The state has grown to account for over half the economy while still failing to meet our expectations, before running out of money. There can be no doubt that the state is in decline. In future, government, as defined by Van Creveld, must surely come from sources other than the state. Government will arise in society.

So why has the big state failed? It turns out that to attempt to coordinate society through coercion is an intellectual error. Society, consisting as it does of the cooperative actions of thinking, acting individuals, is not a machine to be controlled, but a garden to be cultivated.

Society is on the rise. It’s time we thought hard about what that means for everyone, particularly those least able to adapt to the change. I do recommend Van Creveld’s book for the history of the state, but for the future of society, I recommend beginning with this primer from the Institute of Economic Affairs, followed by Viginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies.

Further reading


  1. All agreed. No rational or thinking person (clearly excluding bureaucrats or functionaries) can come to any other conclusion). But, I am 59 and I am not prepared to wait any longer for the destruction of the bureaucratic state. It’s already, in fact, tried to kill me,

    so I am a bit biased about this. but it seems this bias is more than justified.

  2. Jonathan Stirling

    Interesting times when our national politicians can see that the state has grown way beyond it’s true remit but local politicians are still getting involved in fantasy projects at tax-payer expense. Perhaps the Localism Bill needs to include a very finite list of what Council’s should be doing – taken straight from Van Creveld – and thereby preclude local Council’s from creating big government from the bottom up.

    I fear that Councils of all hues have got so wrapped up in their own importance that cutting their wings is going to be a mammoth task.