On State Coercion, Power and Security

On State Coercion, Power and Security


The State has a monopoly over the use of coercion. Discuss preceding statement and compare the concepts of ‘security’ and ‘power’ of a State.


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This is written by one of our writers when she is applying for a full-time writing position with us. Although improvements can be made, such as the flow and academic language, we thought it is overall well done and answers the question well enough.

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Many political theorists believe that state power is fundamentally coercive. John Rawls is responsible for the idea that political power equates to coercive power (1996). Moreover, it is alleged that the state, by definition, monopolizes such a power. Max Weber declared that a state has triumphantly claimed monopoly over the use of violence and duress (1946). But are these statements, popular as they are, in fact, correct? This essay tests the verity of these pronouncements and the claims affixed to them, and compares the concepts of state power and state security.

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Rawls’ statement implies that coercion is central to state power and vital to its survival. His beliefs share common ground with both classic and contemporary political thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Max Weber, Robert Nozick and Andrew Levine (Anderson, 2015; Morris, 2012).  Such ideas can be dangerous because they tag coercion as a concept of state, as inseparable from the state as are people, territory, government and sovereignty, thereby justifying it (Morris, 2012; Muñoz and Gonzales-Muñoz, 2002). These views are widely supported and accepted as factual, and thus stand largely unchallenged.


Morris’ State Coercion and Force (2012) presents compelling, if controversial, counterarguments to these so-called facts. First, he states that coercion is not a concept of state, for if it were, the latter simply would not exist without the former. A state cannot be without people, territory, government or sovereignty, but, in an illusory utopian setting, it could conceivably rule without coercion (Morris, 2012).


Secondly, Morris claims that the centrality view of coercion is incorrect because it is simplistic and reductive. Rawlsian philosophy mistakenly asserts that coercion is the best tool a state has in order to maintain social order. A state has other resources at its disposal if it needs to induce desired actions and coordinate behavior. A government can inform, persuade, educate, advise, bribe and influence without ever having to use coercion. It can raise or lower taxes, place restrictions on specific activities (such as licensure exams for teachers and doctors), offer incentives for compliance (such as tax exemptions for charitable donations), and hire and pay citizens. Also, governments can influence behavior by shaping and publicizing the law (Morris, 2012). Granted, some laws do contain sanctions for violators, but not all laws require the use of threats or force. Thus, state power entails more than just coercion.


Weber’s statement alleges that a state, by definition, has a monopoly over coercion within its territory. Morris rejects this strictly as a definition, but accepts it as an attribute because it can be true, if certain conditions are met. For such a monopoly to exist, coercion or force would need to be controlled and uninterrupted, which is not always the case (Morris, 1998). In reality, the opposite is often true – the state has to contend with other entities within its territory, whether these entities are recognized (e.g., private security forces) or tolerated (e.g., organized criminal groups like the Mafia); in such situations, monopoly of coercion cannot effectively be controlled. Additionally, coercion and power are not continuous, as, historically, these have been known to go through cycles (Morris, 1998). A truly monopolistic sector would feature no other competitors, nor would it be subject to cycles of up and down, rise and fall. In this way, Morris claims, the Weberian monopoly of a state over coercion does not always exist, but it can.


It can be said that coercion is indispensable in maintaining social order because no state can survive in its absence. Without coercion, the whole state would undoubtedly break down and collapse. Again, such an argument is too simplistic, as the reasons why people follow laws are myriad and “overdetermined” (Morris, 2004, p. 201). Here, Morris used weights and measures as a metaphor. When an act is overdetermined by reasons, the removal of one (such as the threat of a punishment) cannot weigh enough to change the end decision. For example:  a man takes great care to ensure that he never gets parking tickets. His behavior could be attributed to the risk of sanctions, but other factors could also hold sway. Coercion, then, is indeed important, but it does not rank higher than other things (Morris, 2004).


As stated previously, a state is more than its coercive power – it also has certain rights, as well as three fundamental powers that it utilizes in order to persist as an all-powerful entity. A state has the right to command everything and everyone within its territory, and the right to defend itself against any threat to its existence, whether external or internal. The three inherent powers of a state are namely police power, power of taxation, and power of eminent domain. Police power enables the state to promote public welfare by controlling the use of liberty and property. Power of taxation allows the state to collect taxes to cover its expenses. Power of eminent domain authorizes the state to take possession of property for public use, with just compensation (Muñoz and Gonzales-Muñoz, 2002).


Security is key to the survival of a state. It is defined as the ability of a state to defend and provide for its subjects (Osisanya, n.d). The security of a state may be threatened by both internal rebellions as well as external adversaries (Sachs, 2003).


The concepts of state power and state security are similar in that they define what a state has the ability to do, and that they are normative and moralized, rooted in the public good.


The two are different in that one exists to secure the other. State powers are necessary to ensure state security. If abused by the government, however, state powers can impinge on citizens’ rights and inflict more harm than good, thereby compromising state security. The state then becomes an unjust, and therefore, illegitimate entity. Civil forfeiture is a prime example of such abuse. This legal tool allows law enforcement to seize property and money from anyone, without their being charged with a crime. This abuse of power happens in every state in the United States of America through a system called “equitable sharing.” Payouts to local and national agencies have grown 250% in the last twelve years (The Heritage Foundation, 2014).


This essay examined whether political power is equivalent to coercive power, and whether a state has, by definition, a monopoly over coercion. Owing to Morris’ work, it was found that coercion is not a concept of state, and that coercion is not central to state power (2012). Rather, the state has other resources and tools it can use to induce certain actions and guide behavior. Therefore, state power is more than just coercion. The alleged monopoly of the state over coercion was proven to be an attribute, and not a characterization implied by definition. A true monopoly in this sector cannot exist because coercion and power are neither ordered nor continuous.


According to Morris (2004), the reasons why people follow laws are thought to be numerous and overdetermined; thus, coercion (e.g., the threat of sanction) is not of the greatest importance when the enforcement of laws is considered.


Lastly, this essay defined and compared state power and state security. The three fundamental state powers, namely police power, power of taxation and power of eminent domain allow the state to continue its existence. State security was defined as the ability of the state to defend and provide for its citizens. The two concepts are similar in that they define what a state can do on the grounds of acting for the public good. They are different in that state power exists to ensure state security. State power can be abused, however. If this occurs, a state becomes unjust and illegitimate and state security is compromised. Civil forfeiture in the U.S.A. was given as an example of the abuse of state power.

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