Terra Incognita: The easiest scapegoat: The state

The state must create safety on the roads, deal with settlers, end lawlessness, and create equality at the same time. And who do you go to to actually solve these problems?

BORDER POLICE Lod 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
There is a phenomenon that has grown here and in many parts of the world. When things aren’t the way they should be, blame is always cast on “the state.” Consider a few examples from recent newspaper editorials. Haaretz informed its readers in December that “the state must use all measures at it’s disposal to end [discriminatory] practices.”
Yisrael Harel wrote in January: “Ultimately, when the state can no longer fund this anomaly [of funding the haredi sector], the bubble will burst with tremendous force.”
In July 2009, two attorneys complained that “this [gang activity] is undoubtedly a new social phenomenon, which requires the state to examine why normative youngsters with no criminal records get involved.”
In October Haaretz claimed in regards to crime in Lod that “the state has stopped trying to enforce the law in these areas.”
Israel is only one place in which all the burdens are placed on the state. An op-ed at allafrica.com in September noted that “the state must ensure technology transfer.”
Praful Bidwai, former editor of The Times of India, writing in April, noted that the “Indian state has failed its poor for 60 years.” Nikos Xydakis at Greece’s Kathimerini outdid others with his October 2 editorial: “The state is rewarding lawlessness [by giving a tax evasion amnesty]...what about the reforms? Where are they? Where is the just and effective tax-collection mechanism? Where is the restructuring of the state? What is being done to combat illegal business activities and black markets?”
The use of the word “state,” blaming it for all social ills and bowing down to it as the solution to all problems, is a purely modern phenomenon based on a very clear view of the world. The conception of the “state” being to blame for, and able to solve, our problems is one that receives far less attention in the US. When things go awry there, it is more often the “government” that comes in for blame, rather than the more nebulous “state.”
This is a distinction that transcends semantics. Blaming “government” or “politicians” for a specific problem such as the passage of a law granting amnesty to tax evaders places blame correctly on the shoulders of those responsible. It is politicians who pass laws. It is law enforcement that enforces laws. It is criminals who break them. When all these things are combined into “the state,” blame is placed above individuals and institutions, and burdens an entity that cannot correct the situation.
When the state is deemed responsible for a lack of “technology transfer” or a plethora of poverty, who can be asked to solve the problem? However, when foreign companies are blamed for a lack of technology transfer, or the welfare system is blamed for increases in poverty, a solution is pointed to. The state therefore almost seems to replace God in the conception of those who blame it or seek its salvation.
IT WASN’T meant to be this way. Max Weber, founder of modern sociological thought, defined the state as the thing which “has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”
Weber, whose scholarship hovers over so much of what is studied in certain faculties at modern universities, was a brilliant man who wrote on such subjects as the history of settlement in Europe, capitalism, and even the difference between monotheism and Oriental religions. But this giant’s view of the all-encompassing state with its monopoly on power also leaves modern individuals with an easy scapegoat.
The myriad of issues facing Israel are almost all placed on the shoulders of the state. Foreign workers? The state must not deport them. Radical academics calling for boycotts of Israel while being paid by the Israeli government? The state must protect free speech. Settlers building illegal structures? The state must evict them. Beduin illegally stealing state land? The state must have a just solution. Haredim segregating sidewalks and buses? The state must ensure a secular democratic Israel. Israelis no longer want to work at jobs viewed as menial? The state must set them straight.
The list is endless: The state must rein in lawlessness. The state must create safety on the roads. The state must end lawlessness in the Arab sector and create equality at the same time. And who do you go to to actually solve these problems? Well you don’t go to a local Knesset member. You just keep telling the state to solve the problem.
Isaiah, the prophet who lived in the eighth century BCE, had an insight into this problem when he condemned the pagans who “understand nothing.”
He spoke of the worshiper of idols who “cuts down cedars... some of it he takes and warms himself, but he also fashions a god and worships it.” He “does not stop to think, ‘Half of it I used for fuel... shall I make an abomination of what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?... Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’”
As in times of old, we mistakenly bow down to the block of wood, the state, which we ourselves hew. We don’t point fingers at ourselves, or even at the responsible individuals. And what’s worst of all, it’s not the common man who commits this fraud but the most enlightened individuals – the elites, the cultured writers and academics, all joining in the simplistic chorus. The next time one wants to say “the state,” he should replace it with a better noun. That would at least be a start.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.