This chapter draws from insights on political theory in developing a definition of the state that is flexible enough to cover the diversity of existing states, yet sturdy enough to make useful judgments about when and how states fail. It argues that “the state” has five dimensions to it: a coercive force, a legitimating theory of justice, a provider of benefits and services, an economic actor, and an institution to protect human well-being. Most definitions of the state focus explicitly on the “nation-state” or the “modern state,” as if the definition of government refers only to the extent of territory, temporal location, or socioeconomic circumstances with which the state is associated. The chapter maintains the significance of a general definition that is applicable to any form of sovereign human political authority, in order not to prejudice a theory of state building toward any particular kind of state from the outset.
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