Vol. 33 No. 07 (November 2023) pp. 94-97

THE STATE, Philip Pettit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. pp. 376. Hardcover $39.95. ISBN: 9780691182209. Ebook $39.95. ISBN: 9780691244396.

Reviewed by Edward W. Gimbel. Department of Politics, Government, and Law. University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. Email:

Pettit’s The State is a genealogy and examination of the state or polity (he uses the terms interchangeably) in two parts. The first constructs a realist, functionalist genealogy of the state based on a thought experiment, which seeks to establish that if we assume certain plausible preconditions – namely, “where the protagonists are human beings like us and the circumstances allow an approximate balance of power among many members, if not among all” (p. 6) – then a state would be likely to appear. The argument proceeds to outline the functional role of this state, and key elements of its organization directed to ensuring that it serves its functions well. The second part then goes on to answer a series of questions about the state raised by what Petit describes as statist, libertarian, and laissez-faire theories in political philosophy.

The argument Pettit constructs in the first part of his book is realist in two distinct senses. First, Pettit is realistic about the apparent inescapability of the state-system as it currently exists. Barring catastrophe of world historic proportions, we are likely stuck with the state as the dominant form of political organization. As critical as we may legitimately be about the state as a means of organizing political power, it is unclear how any alternate arrangement could plausibly emerge. Second, Pettit rejects an idealist argument that would construct a genealogy of the state as an exemplar of justice. This second form of realism sets Pettit’s argument apart from that of similarly thought experiment-inclined contractarians like John Locke or contemporary political and moral philosophers like John Rawls. In Pettit’s view, the emergence and perseverance of the state must be due to its serving key functions. While these functions may be consistent with the pursuit of justice and indeed may provide the basis for such a pursuit, justice itself is not the function of the state.

Beyond rejecting the “just-so” stories of incorporation told by contractarian thinkers, Pettit also eschews a narrative where agreement on key principles emerges or is imposed in situ as a more or less finished product. Instead, Pettit’s genealogy is “emergentist” insofar as it seeks to justify the emergence of the state regardless of a range of possible contingencies. His approach here is appropriately painstaking as the goal is to justify the emergence of the state as not merely possible, but rather, likely or even, in Pettit’s terms, robustly likely (p. 22). The emergence of the state proceeds in stages, beginning with prudential forms of agreement between members of a community. Pettit begins with the emergence of convention, drawing on and in dialogue with David K. Lewis’s 1969 treatment, and progresses to norms. In each case, he outlines how conventions, then norms, are likely to emerge first as a set of social strictures that it is in the participant’s self-interest to acknowledge, then as constraints that require conformity in the manner of a command with the backing of the community. Additionally, within each case, the individual comes to submit to such strictures even if these limitations on individual behavior may seem to work against the narrow self-interest of the individual.

From conventions, through norms, Pettit’s genealogy reaches a central theme with the emergence of law. Where Lewis was the key figure in Pettit’s discussion of convention, H.L.A. Hart is his primary interlocutor in the treatment of the emergence of law. The norms outlined in Pettit’s genealogy that require individuals to act in a particular way whether they would like to or not align with Hart’s notion of “primary rules.” Beyond this, “secondary rules” “provide that human beings may by doing or saying certain things introduce new rules of the primary type, extinguish or modify old ones, or in various ways determine their incidence or control their operations” (Hart, 81). Hart notes – and Pettit sets out to demonstrate – that the emergence of these secondary rules marks the transition from a pre-legal into a legal world. Importantly for Pettit, though, this emergence neither requires nor implies the prior establishment of state authority. “There is no reason to think that a law-bound society could come into existence only because of the initiatives of an independently established polity or state” (p. 53).

This idea is central to Pettit’s argument in part because once the difficult genealogical work of tracing the emergence of law is done, the argument for the emergence of the state in something like its present form follows as a matter of course. In Pettit’s genealogy, it is more accurate to describe “the polity as the precipitate of law.” In short, in Pettit’s telling, the skeletal state implied by the existence of a legal system evolves to become a full-fledged state in a form that we would recognize today because it fulfills key functions or, put differently, it solves otherwise insoluble problems. These problems and their solution will be familiar to readers of Hart: the problems include compliance with the law, competition among those who might exercise coercive power, and a range of issues associated with the polity’s existence in a world of other actors, i.e. the problems of international relations. The solution to these problems is identical to the function of the state. As Pettit succinctly puts it, “The function, in the classic phrase, is the promotion of salus populi: the safety of the people, domestic and international” (p. 113). With this bare bones, functional account of the state in place, Pettit proceeds to fill out his account by addressing two opposing issues: the extent to which the polity ought to be incorporated – acting as a unified, corporate agent in the name of its residents – and the extent to which it ought to be decentralized – operating “via relatively independent agencies that check and balance one another’s power” (p. 114). Pettit’s argument here is that incorporation is both a practical necessity and offers distinct advantages. Some degree of incorporation enables the state to act in the collective interest of its residents in a unified manner, to offer univocal interpretations of the law, and to “stabilize the regime of law against internal and external dangers”. Nonetheless, full incorporation poses obvious risks, which Pettit recalls with reference to Hobbes’s Leviathan as a prime example. Pettit’s solution, then, is the polycentric regime, characterized by a degree of decentralization and modularity. As with incorporation, decentralization allows for degrees, and here too Pettit warns against extremes. Just as the maximally incorporated regime poses the risk of tyranny, a maximally decentralized regime risks deadlock at best or anarchy at worst. A moderately decentralized, but still incorporated, polity can provide security for its citizens – salus populi – in relation both to one another and to the officials of the state itself.

With his genealogical work complete, Pettit proceeds to address what he describes as statist, libertarian, and laissez-faire theories in political philosophy which argue counter to key elements of the idea of the state that he has developed. The first, statist approach raises the question of the countervailing powers that citizens do (or do not) enjoy against the sovereign. In response to the statist line that would imbue the state with uncontestable power, Pettit argues that citizens of the functional state would have both “a constitutional power of contesting the regime, [and] a power as an encompassing group of forcing it extra-constitutionally to change” (p. 225). Similarly related to the extent and limits of the state’s power, laissez-faire theories question the extent to which the state must restrain its exercise of power to allow markets to function and evolve autonomously. Through an analysis of the property regime, the monetary system, and corporate arrangements, Pettit illustrates that any state that is functional in his sense would inevitably be interventionist. In short, the modern economy effectively forces the modern state to be interventionist.

Pettit offers a beautiful illustration of a key argument of the book as a whole in his response to the second counter-perspective identified above, which Pettit identifies with right-wing libertarians. Advocates of this position argue that “no state, regardless of how functional it is, can acknowledge significant rights on the part of individual citizens against it or against one another” (p. 225). This stance – defended prominently by Robert Nozick – rests on a commitment to natural rights that would restrict the scope and power of the function state. Pettit’s response to this line recalls his argument that on the one hand “functionality or statehood requires much less of the state than justice might do” (p. 63), but that, on the other hand, the state is “an entity that can increase in justice, by any of a variety of benchmarks” (p. 26). Here, as in the discussions of incorporation and decentralization, the response is appropriately equivocal. Pettit argues that “while the function of the state must countenance significant rights on the part of its citizens, specifically rights of civic security, it may recognize those rights on a narrower or wider front…. The functional state need not be just, but it need not be unjust either” (p. 263). Contra right-wing libertarians the state is not inherently hostile to the rights of individuals, but neither must it be ideally protective of them.

This is a central and repeated theme in Pettit’s book, and constitutes his novel, “realist” contribution to contemporary theories of the state. He sets out not to construct a plausible narrative of how the state as it ought to be could emerge, but rather to trace a genealogy of how the functional state as it must be is robustly likely to emerge. In his realism and his reasoning – if not in his ultimate conclusions about the function of the state – Pettit’s approach is most reminiscent of Hobbes’s. Like Hobbes’s, his argument proceeds in a precise, almost mathematical fashion, with each step in the proof logically required by those preceding. This makes for a very persuasive argument, and one that puts a lot of pressure on its own premises. As one example, a great deal depends on the precondition of “an approximate balance of power among many members, if not among all” (p. 6). Pettit briefly defends this assumption, interestingly, along Hobbesian lines, but more might be said here.

While Pettit owes a clear (and acknowledged) debt to earlier theorists of the state from Hobbes up through H.L.A. Hart, he eschews the tendency – particularly pronounced in the early theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, to build “just-so” arguments intended to justify a particular vision of the ideal state. Clear-eyed and clearly-argued, The State sets out to tell it like it is.


Hart, H.L.A. 1961. THE CONCEPT OF LAW. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Edward W. Gimbel.