The state is often defined narrowly as a separate institution or set of institutions, as what is commonly thought of as ‘the state’. For example when Louis XIV supposedly declared, ‘L’e´ tat c’est Moi’, he was referring to the absolute power that was vested in himself as monarch.

The state, therefore, stands for the apparatus of government in its broadest sense, for those institutions that are recognizably ‘public’ in that they are responsible for the collective organization of communal life and are funded at the public’s expense. Thus the state is usually distinguished from civil society.

The state comprises the various institutions of government, the bureaucracy, the military, police, courts, social security system, and so forth; it can be identified with the entire ‘body politic’. It is in this sense, for instance, that it is possible to talk about ‘rolling forward’ or ‘rolling back’ the state, by which is meant expanding or contracting the responsibilities of state institutions and, in the process, enlarging or reducing the machinery of the state. However, such an institutional definition fails to take account of the fact that, in their capacity as citizens, individuals are also part of the political community, members of the state. Moreover, the state has a vital territorial component, its authority being confined to a precise geographical area. This is why the state is the best thought of not just as a set of institutions but as a particular kind of political association, specifically one that establishes sovereign jurisdiction within defined territorial borders. In that sense, its institutional apparatus merely gives expression to state authority.

The defining feature of the state is sovereignty. The state commands supreme power in that it stands above all other associations and groups in society; its laws demand the compliance of all those who live within the territory. Thomas Hobbes conveyed this image of the state as the supreme power by portraying it as a ‘Leviathan’, a gigantic monster, usually represented as a sea creature. It is precisely its sovereignty which distinguishes the modern state from earlier forms of political association.

In medieval times, for instance, rulers exercised power but only alongside a range of other bodies, notably the church, the nobility, and the feudal guilds. Indeed, it was widely accepted that religious authority, centering upon the pope, stood above the temporal authority of any earthly ruler.

The modern state, however, which first emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe, took the form of a system of centralized rule that succeeded in subordinating all other institutions and groups, spiritual and temporal. Although such a state is now the most common form of political community worldwide, usually taking the form of the nation-state, there are still examples of stateless societies.

Traditional societies, for instance, found amongst semi-nomadic peoples and sometimes settled tribes, may be said to be stateless in that they lack a central and sovereign authority, even though they may possess mechanisms of social control that
maybe described as government.

Furthermore, a state can break down when its claim to exercise sovereign power is successfully challenged by another group or body, as occurs at times of civil war. In this way, Lebanon in the 1980s, racked by war among rival militias and invaded by Israeli and Syrian armies, and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, can both be described as stateless societies.

In addition to sovereignty, states can be distinguished by the particular form of authority that they exercise. In the first place, state authority is territorially limited: states claim sovereignty only within their own borders and thus regulate the flow of persons and goods across these borders. In most cases, these are land borders, but they may also extend several miles into the sea.

Second, the jurisdiction of the state within its borders is universal, that is, everyone living within a state is subject to its authority.

This is usually expressed through citizenship, literally membership of the state, which entails both rights and duties. Non-citizens residents in a state may not be entitled to certain rights, like the right to vote or hold public office, and maybe exempt from particular obligations, such as jury service or military service, but they are nevertheless still subject to the law of the land.

Third, states exercise compulsory jurisdiction. Those living within a state rarely exercise choice about whether or not to accept its authority. Most people become subject to the authority of a state by virtue of being born within its borders; in other cases, this may be a result of conquest. Immigrants and naturalized citizens are here exceptions since they alone can be said to have voluntarily accepted the authority of a state.

Finally, state authority is backed up by coercion: the state must have the capacity
to ensure that its laws are obeyed, which in practice means that it must possess the ability to punish transgressors.

Max Weber (1864–1920) suggested in ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1948) that ‘the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. By this, he meant not only that the state had the ability to ensure the obedience of its citizens but also the acknowledged right to do so. A monopoly of ‘legitimate violence’ is therefore the practical expression of state sovereignty. The link between coercion and the state is also underlined by Philip Bobbitt’s (2002) the portrayal of the state as essentially a ‘war-making institution’.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the state and government remains complex. The state is an inclusive association, which in a sense embraces the entire community and encompasses those institutions that constitute the public sphere.

The government can thus be seen as merely part of the state. Moreover, the state is a continuing, even permanent, entity. By contrast, the government is temporary: governments come and go and systems of government are remodeled.

On the other hand, although the government maybe possible without a state, the state is inconceivable in the absence of government. As a mechanism through which collective decisions are enacted, the government is responsible for making and implementing state policy.

Government is, in effect, ‘the brains’ of the state: it gives authoritative expression to the state. In this way, the government is usually thought to dictate to and control other state bodies, the police and military, educational and welfare systems, and the like. By implementing the various state functions, the government serves to maintain the state itself in existence.

The distinction between state and government is not, however, simply an academic refinement; it goes to the very heart of constitutional rule. Government power can only be held in check when the government of the day is prevented from encroaching upon the absolute and unlimited authority of the state. This is particularly important given the conflicting interests which the state and the government represent. The state supposedly reflects the permanent interests of society – the maintenance of public order, social stability, long-term prosperity, and national security – while the government is inevitably influenced by the partisan sympathies and ideological preferences of the politicians who happen to be in power. If the government succeeds in harnessing the sovereign power of the state to its own partisan goals, dictatorship is the likely result. Liberal-democratic regimes have sought to counter this possibility by creating a clear divide between the personnel and machinery of government on the one hand, and the personnel and machinery of the state on the other.

Thus the personnel of state institutions, like the civil service, the courts, and the military, are recruited and trained in a bureaucratic manner and are expected to observe strict political neutrality, enabling them to resist the ideological enthusiasm of the government of the day. However, such are the powers of patronage possessed by modern chief executives like the US president and the UK prime minister that this apparently clear division is often blurred in practice.


The government refers to ordered rule, a characteristic of all organized societies.
First world liberal-democratic forms of government can be distinguished from state-socialist second world and various forms of third world government, though such distinctions have been blurred by developments such as the fall of communism.

The state is a sovereign political association operating in a defined territorial area. In the view of pluralists, the liberal democratic state acts impartially and responds to popular pressures. However, others suggest that the state is characterized by biases that either systematically favors the bureaucracy or state elite or benefit major economic interests.

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