What is Statism?
In libertarian circles, we talk quite a bit about "the state", "statism", and "statists." But, I think the terms gets overused and misunderstood. These terms might not have such great effect on those we direct them at. To a "statist", these words might be somewhat foreign. It is one of the defining characteristics of statism that the state and society are not only merged in the mind but that it comes to be recognized that without the state, society would not exist. To a statist, the state is society. They cannot imagine existence without it. Further, they typically don't use the term, "the state." Since the state is society, for their uses, terms like society, nation, country, and government all get used interchangeably. To use the term "the state" would be to break their own mental shackles and to identify that there is indeed a difference between state and society, and further to identify the difference between the government (under statism) and with governance (outside of statism).
This sentiment can be summed up with the phrase, "we are the government." At the end of this article, you'll see Frank Chodorov address this, and Murray Rothbard tackles this concept quite well in The Anatomy of the State and in his other writings. The statist sees himself and all of society, merged together, one giant entity. There is always talk of "our national debt", "when we bombed [insert country]", "we should do something about [insert made up national issue]", and so forth. The more rampant this sort of talk is, the more successful the drive to merge state and society has been.
Indeed then, it is important to define our terms and to remind both statists, and ourselves, of what we mean when we use these terms.
Government and Governance
The state is not the only source of governance. You could have effective governing without a coercive state to carry it out. The Wikipedia entry on government says "A government is the system by which a state or community is controlled. In the Commonwealth of Nations, the word government is also used more narrowly to refer to the collective group of people that exercises executive authority in a state." On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry for "governance" reads as follows: "Governance refers to "all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language." See the difference? Government is something specific to statism. It is a coercive monopoly on the use of force within a geographic area. That is it. In a hypothetical place without government, you would see multiple forms of governance being voluntarily formed or provided by businesses in order for individuals to get along and prosper. In fact, any aspect of life where states are not involved in people's lives, we already see effective uses of voluntary governance. For example, in areas without many government services, you see people voluntarily coming together to form community services. In the business world, it is common to see established norms everyone follows, self-regulating rules, as well as private arbitration to settle disputes. There are also private systems of reputation that serve to keep firms in check, which have become ever more effective over time, as more and more people use the internet, and one bad deed by a business becomes known to the world in minutes.
"The state" does mean a government, but it does not necessarily mean the good things we all want; order, social services, security, etc. Those things, we can provide to ourselves in many ways. What it does mean is the political apparatus, its monopolization of everything, its use of initiatory force, its propaganda, nationalism, and so on.
Degrees of Evil
It's funny; when statists think of no-government, they imagine chaos, disorder, lack of objective rules, and so on. To me, that actually describes government. When I think of no-government, I think of simply relying on and scaling up all of the natural, peaceful, and voluntary ways that we already use to get along with one another. In the excerpt at the end of the article, you'll see Frank Chodorov describe statism as the "worship of political power." Well, I don't worship political power. It is an evil and not a necessary one. I don't want a big evil or a little (limited) evil. Evil is evil. Statism is the belief that problems can only be solved through the political means. Sure, some people adhere to this in different ways. Some think the government should do everything; some think it should do just a few things. But, the same mistake is being made. The difference is that of degree, not of principle. Even the advocate of so-called, limited government, when it comes down to it, imagines that the few things they want their government to do can only be done by force, coercion, centralization, and initiating violence against peaceful people.
Statism is not Just "Big Government"; It is Worship of the Political Means
So, expanding on what we've already mentioned, obviously, statism is not merely "big government." Statism is the belief that government, in principle, is a good, or at least, necessary, thing that can solve the problems that arise between individuals. Further, it is the belief that only a state can do those things. In reality, even the smallest, most "limited" states do not only not protect rights or solve problems well, they don't do it at all! EVERYTHING a state does is a distortion into society. Anything any government does must first be preceded by theft, coercion, and distortions in the marketplace. Even the smallest act of a state, and no matter how benevolent it may seem, alters the course of events. It changes a certain industry; it favors certain firms, it seeks to steer markets and public opinion in its own direction; and the actions that governments take alter the decisions that individuals would have made, absent the government presence. They are a monopoly, so they halt progress in the areas in which they monopolize, and in turn, distort all of the areas of society in which their tentacles reach. What I'm saying is, society and the economy are functioning things. In the absence of a coercive monopoly, voluntary solutions would be found through society's natural workings and through the desires of individuals to have certain services.
So, we might have only thought something is statism if it is "big, over-reaching" government; and that "small, limited" government is not that bad, and thus not worthy of the "statism" label. This thinking would be incorrect, though. Statism is simply the belief that, regardless of its size, the state should play a primary role in society, including the most basic function, protecting individual natural rights; which is an oxymoron, since even if governments did effectively protect the natural rights of their citizens (which they don't), the way the state carries out this service is to first violate rights, in order to provide the illusion of rights protection. In reality, governments attempt to entirely dismiss the idea of natural rights, and instead propagandize the people into thinking their words on paper are "rights", and that rights come from government. From that point forward, it's easy. Keep passing new laws, keep manufacturing crisis for the state to fix, keep creating the illusion of order and peace and benevolence; and maintain the protection racket forever.
Logical Conclusions of Moral Principles
Many people like to use other terms to make this same distinction between statist and non-statist. We could use the term voluntaryist (one who believes all interactions between humans should be voluntary and free of aggression). And that could lead into aggressionist vs. non-aggressionist. The statist is an aggressionist. They believe the only way for society to function is to have a state initiate aggression against peaceful people through control, taxation, centralized "authority" and so on. The non-aggressionist simply believes initiating aggression against another person is wrong, and always wrong, no matter if you're an individual, a government, you wear a blue costume or sit in a big white building in Washington. Thus, they take a principle to its logical conclusion and determine we should avoid initiating aggression as individuals, or by having men in suits and costumes do it for us. Finally, you might hear the term abolitionist. Slavery is bad, right? - the control of another man's person, property, and life. So, like the non-aggressionist; we just take the concept of abolishing all forms of slavery to its logical conclusion; no matter how big or small, and no matter if it has been made "legal" through words of paper and voting. There has got to be a way for men to get along and live their lives without running to a central authority to tax, control, indoctrinate and conscript everyone else.
Throwing around the term, statist, is not necessarily an insult. It is just a descriptive word. So, I want to emphasize the degrees of difference between the mincharist statist and the big government statist. Obviously, I would much prefer minarchy to what we have now, and I have a great deal more respect for an advocate of micro-sized government than someone who clamors for the state to be involved in every aspect of everyone's lives. But, that doesn't mean I'm going to shy away from identifying the principle at hand. That is why, even if only to a small extent, an advocate of limited government is, technically, still a statist. The minarchist is at least on the right path though, and we surely agree on many things. That is why I see the minarchist as being on my "team" in general. Plus, the more we associate with and influence advocates of "limited" government, the more they can hopefully see statism for what it is. Further, if someone hasn't been exposed to these ideas, I can't fault them for that. By default, we start off being what we are exposed to. If your parents are of a certain religion, you will likely start off believing in that religion. If you grow up in a society, you will likely start off, as a baseline, with an acceptance of the mainstream opinions and attitudes. We are all victims of this propaganda in many areas of life, and it is up to us as individuals to break out of it.
So if the question is posed to someone, "Do you think it is ever right for a government to initiate aggression against people?", and they answer no, and it, at least, makes them think, and wonder, and question how to reconcile that answer with that they think about politics and political philosophy; props to that person. On the other hand, if someone is posed that question, and they flatly say yes, or just shrug it off as some sort unimportant academic exercise, and they don't care to examine how the question and their answer relates to the entire political system; that is the sort of statist I want to stay away from. It is that person who will have no problem with the worst things governments do, and will cheer it on in the name of order, security, and nationalism.
The Defining Principle
In summary, statism is many things, including politics, arbitrary laws, sham elections, propaganda, indoctrination, political parties, big government, small government, fascism, socialism, democracy, the welfare state, warmongering, empire, nationalism and all the other things that make up the variety of modern nation states we see today. But, none of those things is the core defining attribute of statism. Those things are just the end results of statist thinking. The defining attribute that sets the state apart from society is the belief in the use of force; belief in the political process; simply the belief in "authority" at all; or as Larken Rose would call it - The Most Dangerous Superstition.
Below is the entire introduction to Frank Chodorov's 1959 book, The Rise and Fall of Society. This is an excellent explanation of the fact that there is a difference between society and the state, and he clearly explains what statism is and how statist mythologies creep into society and take over. You can read the full pdf of the book for free here: The Rise and Fall of Society on Mises.org or you can buy a paperback version, here on Amazon.
(My emphasis added in bold.)
The Rise and Fall of Society: An Essay on the Economic Forces that Underlie Social Institutions by Frank Chodorov, published 1959.
What history will think of our times is something that only history will tell. But it is a good guess that it will select collectivism as the identifying characteristic of the twentieth century. For, even a quick survey of the developing pattern of thought during the past fifty years shows up the dominance of one central idea: that Society is a transcendent entity, something apart from and greater than the sum of its parts, possessing a suprahuman character and endowed with like capacities. It operates in a field of its own, ethically and philosophically, and is guided by stars unknown to mortals. Hence, the individual, the unit of Society, cannot judge it by his own limitations nor apply to it standards by which he measures his own thinking and behavior. He is necessary to it, of course, but only as a replaceable part of a machine. It follows, therefore, that Society, which may concern itself paternalistically with individuals, is in no way dependent on them
In one way or another, this idea has insinuated itself into almost every branch of thought and, as ideas have a way of doing, has become institutionalized. Perhaps the most glaring example is the modern orientation of the philosophy of education. Many of the professionals in this field frankly assert that the primary purpose of education is not to develop the individual's capacity for learning, as was held in the past, but to prepare him for a fruitful and "happy" place in Society; his inclinations must be turned away from himself, so that he can drop into the mores of his age group and beyond that into the social milieu in which he will live out his life. He is not an end in himself.
Jurisprudence has come around to the same idea, holding more and more that human behavior is not a matter of personal responsibility as much as it is a reflection of the social forces working on the individual; the tendency is to lay on Society the blame for crimes committed by its members. This, too, is a tenet of sociology, the increasing popularity of which, and its elevation to a science, attest to the hold that collectivism has on our times. The scientist is no longer honored as a bold adventurer into the unknown, in search of nature's principles, but has become a servant of Society, to which he owes his training and his keep. Heroes and heroic exploits are being demoted to accidental outcroppings of mass thought and movements. The superior person, the selfstarting "captain of industry," the inherent genius—these are fictions; all are but robots made by Society. Economics is the study of how Society makes a living, under its own techniques and prescriptions, not how individuals, in pursuit of happiness, go about the making of a living. And philosophy, or what goes by that name, has made truth itself an attribute of Society.
Collectivism is more than an idea. In itself, an idea is nothing but a toy of speculation, a mental idol. Since, as the myth holds, the suprapersonal Society is replete with possibilities, the profitable thing to do is to put the myth to work, to energize its virtue. The instrument at hand is the State, throbbing with political energy and quite willing to expend it on this glorious adventure. Thus comes Statism, or the worship of political power.
Statism is not a modern religion. Even before Plato, political philosophy concerned itself with the nature, origin, and justification of the State. But, while the thinkers speculated on it, the general public accepted political authority as a fact to be lived with and let it go at that. It is only within recent times (except, perhaps, during periods when Church and State were one, thus endowing political coercion with divine sanction) that the mass of people have consciously or implicitly accepted the Hegelian dictum that "the State is the general substance, whereof individuals are but the accidents." It is this acceptance of the State as "substance," as a suprapersonal reality, and its investment with a competence no individual can lay claim to, that is the special characteristic of the twentieth century. In times past, the disposition was to look upon the State as something one had to reckon with, but as a complete outsider. One got along with the State as best one could, feared or admired it, hoped to be taken in by it and to enjoy its perquisites, or held it at arm's length as an untouchable thing; one hardly thought of the State as the integral of Society. One had to support the State—there was no way of avoiding taxes—and one tolerated its interventions as interventions, not as the warp and woof of life. And the State itself was proud of its position apart from, and above, Society.
The present disposition is to liquidate any distinction between State and Society, conceptually or institutionally. The State is Society; the social order is indeed an appendage of the political establishment, depending on it for sustenance, health, education, communications, and all things coming under the head of "the pursuit of happiness." In theory, taking college textbooks on economics and political science for authority, the integration is about as complete as words can make it. In the operation of human affairs, despite the fact that lip service is rendered the concept of inherent personal rights, the tendency to call upon the State for the solution of all the problems of life shows how far we have abandoned the doctrine of rights, with its correlative of self-reliance, and have accepted the State as the reality of Society. It is this actual integration, rather than the theory, that marks off the twentieth century from its predecessors.
One indication of how far the integration has gone is the disappearance of any discussion of the State qua State—a discussion that engaged the best minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The inadequacies of a particular regime, or its personnel, are under constant attack, but there is no faultfinding with the institution itself. The State is all right, by common agreement, and it would work perfectly if the "right" people were at its helm. It does not occur to most critics of the New Deal that all its deficiencies are inherent in any State, under anybody's guidance, or that when the political establishment garners enough power a demagogue will sprout. The idea that this power apparatus is indeed the enemy of Society, that the interests of these institutions are in opposition, is simply unthinkable. If it is brought up, it is dismissed as "old-fashioned," which it is; until the modern era, it was an axiom that the State bears constant watching, that pernicious proclivities are built into it.
A few illustrations of the temper of our times come to mind.
The oft-used statement that "we owe it to ourselves," in relation to the debts incurred in the name of the State, is indicative of the tendency to obliterate from our consciousness the line of demarcation between governed and governors. It is not only a stock phrase in economics textbooks but is tacitly accepted in financial circles as sound in principle. To modern bankers, a government bond is at least as sound as an obligation of a private citizen, since the bond is in fact an obligation of the citizen to pay taxes. No distinction is made between a debt backed by production or productive ability and a debt secured by political power; in the final analysis a government bond is a lien on production, so what's the difference? By such reasoning, the interests of the public, which are always centered in the production of goods, are equated with the predatory interests of the State.
In many economics textbooks, government borrowing from citizens, whether done openly or by pressure brought upon the banks to lend their depositors' savings, is explained as a transaction equivalent to the transfer of money from one pocket to another, of the same pants; the citizen lends to himself what he lends to the government. The rationale of this absurdity is that the effect on the nation's economy is the same whether the citizen spends his money or the government does it for him. He has simply given up his negligible right of choice. The fact that he has no desire for what the government spends his money on, that he would not of his own free will contribute to the buying of it, is blithely overlooked. The "same pants" notion rests on the identification of the amorphous "national economy" with the well-being of the individual; he is thus merged into the mass and loses his personality.
Of a piece with this kind of thinking is a companion phrase, "We are the government." Its use and acceptance is most illustrative of the hold collectivism has taken on the American mind in this century, to the exclusion of the basic American tradition. When the Union was founded, the overriding fear of Americans was that the new government might become a threat to their freedom, and the framers of the Constitution were hard put to allay this fear. Now it is held that freedom is a gift from government in return for subservience. The reversal has been accomplished by a neat trick in semantics. The word "democracy" is the key to this trick. When one looks for a definition of this word, one finds that it is not a form of government but rather the rule by "social attitudes." But what is a "social attitude"? Putting aside the wordy explanations of this slippery concept, it turns out to be in practice good old majoritarianism; what 51 per cent of the people deem right is right, and the minority is perforce wrong. It is the General Will fiction under a new name. There is no place in this concept for the doctrine of inherent rights; the only right left to the minority, particularly the minority of one, is conformity with the dominant "social attitude."
If "we are the government," then it follows that the man who finds himself in jail must blame himself for putting himself there, and the man who takes all the tax deductions the law allows is really cheating himself. While this may seem to be a farfetched reductio ad absurdum, the fact is that many an armed-services conscript consoles himself with that kind of logic. This country was largely populated by escapees from conscription—called "czarism" a generation or two ago and held to be the lowest form of involuntary servitude. Now it has come to pass that a conscript army is in fact a "democratic" army, composed of men who have made adjustment with the "social attitude" of the times. So does the run-of-the-mill draftee console himself when compelled to interrupt his dream of a career. Acceptance of compulsory military service has reached the point of unconscious resignation of personality. The individual, as individual, simply does not exist; he is of the mass.
This is the fulfillment of statism. It is a state of mind that does not recognize any ego but that of the collective. For analogy, one must go to the pagan practice of human sacrifice: when the gods called for it, when the medicine man so insisted, as a condition for prospering the clan, it was incumbent on the individual to throw himself into the sacrificial fire. In point of fact, statism is a form of paganism, for it is worship of an idol, something made by man. Its base is pure dogma. Like all dogmas this one is subject to interpretations and rationales, each with its coterie of devotees. But, whether one calls oneself a Communist, Socialist, New Dealer, or just plain "democrat," one begins with the premise that the individual is of consequence only as a servant of the mass idol. Its will be done.
It is an odd circumstance of history that the questing spirit is never obliterated or completely submerged. Social and political pressures may compel the intellectually curious to put on an appearance of conformity—since one must live in one's environment—but actual conformity is impossible for a mind of that kind. It must ask "why," even of itself. And sometimes it is hardy enough to suggest an inadequacy in the prevailing pattern of thought and to speak out against it. Even in this twentieth century there are those who hold, perhaps only in the privacy of their personality, that collectivism is erroneous and mischievous and will come to no good end. There are nonconformists who reject the Hegelian notion that "the State incarnates the Divine Idea on earth." There are some who firmly maintain that only man is made in the image of God, that the State is a false idol. They are in the minority, to be sure, as they have been throughout history; they are the "remnant" to whom Isaiah is instructed to carry the message. Perhaps these will find this inquiry into the economics of Society, Government, and the State of some interest; it was written for them.