What is the State? Then What?

A few good friends and I teamed up with the Mackinac Center and put together a colloquium for undergraduates.  It gets its name from Thomas Clarkson, a young man who played a major role in ending the British slave trade.  More on Clarkson here.

The reading list is intended to have an arc to it.  We examine what the state is in theory, what the state is in practice, whether the state works well compared to non-state alternatives, whether states can be improved or constrained, whether statelessness is an option, and finally how to get from the current to a better (or no) state.  There are too many excellent books and essays for each of these questions, but I’m pretty excited about the sampling we put together.

I majored in political science as an undergraduate, and I can tell you we were never asked to consider fundamental questions like these.  Nearly all of my courses and readings assumed an idealized state or talked about what a noble or just state should be like.  Public Choice theory was never mentioned, nor did we engage in serious examination of competing views of the origin and nature of states (just Plato and Hobbes) and how they actually operate.  After a few courses touching on such theories, the rest was mostly squabbling over quantitative methods for gauging public opinion and whether single member districts were more “efficient” than proportional representation, whatever that means.  It was always assumed that democracy was wonderful in and of itself and achieving and maintaining it the goal of all political action.  I don’t think you’d find such religious devotion to an ideal in divinity school.

Maybe I’m trying to relive my undergraduate days vicariously through the participants, but I hope it will be valuable for them as well.  Here’s the reading list we compiled.