The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter XIV

The Area of Government---States and Districts

§1. In the preceding chapters---with the partial exception of Chapter XI.---I have discussed the functions of Government, without regard to the limitations of its area. I have spoken from time to time of ``the community'' whose members habitually obey the government, and in whose interests government is assumed to exercise its functions; but I have not recognised any definite limits to the community: so far as the main discussion has gone, the community might be coextensive with the human race. The time has now come to direct attention to the limits of the area of government. As actually existing, they are of two kinds: (1) each independent political society comprises only a portion of civilised humanity, so that a fundamentally important department of the work of its government consists in the management of its relations to societies and individuals lying beyond its pale: and (2) in every independent political society the functions of government are to an important extent exercised by individuals or bodies whose powers extend over a narrower area than the whole society---``local governments'', as they are called. Accordingly, I propose in the present chapter to consider briefly how these two kinds of limits---the boundaries of external separation, and the boundaries of internal subdivision---are to be determined.

When, however, we raise the question of what ought to be, in regard to external boundaries, we at once bring into view two different stages of divergence between accepted political ideals and actual political facts. Our highest political ideal admits of no boundaries that would bar the prevention of high-handed injustice throughout the range of human society: and from the point of view of this highest ideal it might be fairly urged that we ought no more to recognise wars among nations as normal than we recognise wager of battle as a remedy for private wrongs: and that if so, we ought not to recognise as normal the existence of a number of completely independent political communities, living in close juxtaposition; since we must expect that grave and irreconcilable disputes among such communities will be settled, as they always have been settled, by wars. Certainly the effective substitution of any kind of judicial process for wars among civilised states would seem to involve the ultimate subjection of the relations of such states to some kind and degree of common government, able to bring overwhelming force to overbear the resistance of any recalcitrant state; since judicial decisions, which cannot be enforced, cannot be expected to prevent wars. And perhaps some federation of European or West-European States, with a common government sufficiently strong to prevent fighting among these states, is not beyond the limits of sober conjecture as to the probable future course of political development. From the earliest dawn of history in Europe, down to the present day, the tendency to form continually larger political societies---apart from the effects of mere conquest---seems to accompany the growth of civilisation. The traditions of Rome and Athens make it clear that these famous city-states were formed by the cohesion of parts that had previously regarded each other as foreigners and occasional enemies: and a similar tendency to combine in continually larger aggregates is seen in the early history of the Teutonic tribes. We see the same phenomenon in the formation of the Leagues that are prominent in the later period of the independence of Hellas: we can discern it---though in a less simple form---in the development of European nations during the Middle Ages: as exhibited in the union of Italy and of Germany it is the most striking feature of recent European history; and North America shows us an impressive example of a political society maintaining internal peace over a region larger than Western Europe.

Usually no doubt this aggregation of civilised mankind into larger unions, so far as it has been voluntary, has been mainly due to the pressure of external dangers from enemies common to the smaller uniting bodies; and no foreign perils, sufficiently formidable to produce this effect, are at present threatening the group of West-European nations. But if the boundaries of existing civilised states undergo no material change, the relative strength of the United States, as compared with any one of the West-European States, will before the end of the next century so decidedly preponderate, that the most powerful of the latter will keenly feel its inferiority in any conflict with the former. And even apart from this motive to union, it seems not impossible that the economic burdens entailed by war, the preponderantly industrial character of modem political societies, the increasing facilities and habits of communication among Europeans and the consequently intensified consciousness of their common civilization, may, before many generations have passed, bring about an extensive federation of civilised states strong enough to put down wars among its members. But, in any case, this ideal is at present beyond the range of practical politics. There is not at present, and there is no immediate prospect of developing, any consciousness of common nationality among Europeans or West-Europeans as such: and the practically dominant political ideal of the present age does not include an extension of government beyond the limits of the nation. As in Greek history the practically dominant ideal is a society of City-states, independent, though observing in their mutual relations some kind of common law, so, in the period to which we belong, it is a society of Nation-states under ``International Law''.

Back to: Law and Morality [Section 5, Chapter 13, The Elements of Politics]
Forward to: The Area of Government---States and Districts [Section 2, Chapter 14, The Elements of Politics]
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