Misconceptions of Language: ‘Government’ and ‘The State’


Last week, the general trouble with defining ideological and other political terms was addressed. There are, however, two more terms that deserve special attention by libertarians: government and the state. In the modern day, as the state is often the singular major governing institution and continually seeks to govern more at the expense of other governing institutions, they are often seen as one and the same, so the terms are used interchangeably by most (including this author previously).

But there is an important distinction between the two. Government, unlike the state, is not necessarily an organization with a monopoly on violence, but rather any institution that governs. A private defense organization, a local church, and a community center can all act as governing institutions. They all exert some sort of control over society and regulate it to some extent, but these regulations, especially concerning the latter two, are not necessarily coercive but can be social instead. And while libertarians consistently decry regulation of society, there is always the occasional article clarifying that this resistance to regulation is simply resistance to government-regulation, but then proceed to claim they are not opposed to voluntary regulation through non-governmental institutions. In context, the reference to government and non-governmental institutions is clearly meant to refer to state and non-state governing institutions.

References to the idea of self-government sometimes refer to the idea of a state with elected representatives, but other times seem to refer to reclaiming control from the state. Does self-government imply violence, or simply self-control?

The individualist thinker Frank Chodorov clarifies his understanding of these terms in his 1946 article “Government Contra State“. He takes a somewhat different approach than what has been described thus far, defining any type of government as necessarily coercive, defending life and property, but not necessarily involuntarily, as described through excerpts below:

Over his fireplace, even before there were vigilantes or sheriffs, the frontiersman kept a ready musket. It was standard equipment for the protection of life and property. It was his government…

Government, then, is a specialized service arising out of community life. It owes its existence to the individual’s interest in himself. Its specific job is to maintain the peace necessary to productive enterprise. Its related job is that of providing such services as may enable each of the specialists in the community to carry on more efficiently. And that’s all. It is a negative specialty, operating only as occasion for its services arises…

The firearm which the frontiersman turns over to the constable may be used to rob him of his property. When it is so used, when the government becomes predatory rather than protective, it ceases to be a service; it is the state.

To Chodorov, then, both government and the state are coercive, but government is a service, derived from the consent of the individual, and compatible with individual rights. Government can be a musket, or a private defense service. But when government defies individual consent and uses coercion to violate the rights of the individual, it becomes the state.

The conservative Roger Scruton, in his article “Governing Rightly“, makes a distinction similar to my own. The natural bonds and institutions within society are a form of government distinct from, and in competition with, the state.

People become free individuals by learning to take responsibility for their actions. And they do this through relating to others, subject to subject. The free individuals to whom the Founders appealed were free only because they had grown through the bonds of society, to the point of taking full responsibility for their actions and granting to each other the rights and privileges that established a kind of moral equality between them…

Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbours to address it… That is the kind of thing we have in mind, when we describe America as the ‘land of the free.’ We don’t mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government – the kind that springs up spontaneously between responsible individuals.

In this sense, government is synonymous with accountability. In a free society, there needs to be something that holds individuals accountable for their actions. When individuals lie, cheat, steal, and harm others in any number of ways, there needs to be accountability and incentives against that.

In other words, there needs to be some governing system that punishes these actions and prevents others from becoming the victim of such behavior. Minor lies are normally handled through social ostracism and criticism from others. Major lies (fraud) are also handled this way but also through a legal system. Legal systems are forms of government, but can either be managed by the state, or by a non-state organization like a dispute-resolution organization.

One must consider whether they are against the state, or government in any form. Most forms of anarchism, with their “No Gods, No Masters” slogans, appear to be against all forms of government, not just the state. Some libertarians are in agreement that removing the state and maintaining a total “live and let live” attitude will result in a truly free society. Other libertarians and some conservatives (Robert Nisbet, for example) hold a very anti-statist view that the state is the enemy of a free society, but that society develops self-governing (self-regulating) institutions outside the state to maintain itself.

On the opposite end, there are authoritarians that believe that the state should be the only governing institution in society, that all governing institutions should be either subservient to or contained within the single entity that is the state. In an age where this situation is increasingly true of reality, anti-statists, when reaching out to others, must be consciously aware of the distinction between government and the state. The alternative to statism is not lawlessness, but a superior form of government, one that exists harmoniously with society, not above it.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]