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Words Matter: How “Government” differs from “the State”

Writers like Frédéric Bastiat, Albert Jay Nock, Murray Rothbard, and Franz Oppenheimer have made the invaluable distinction between the state and society, and between the political means and the economic means.

But there is a more subtle distinction that needs to be made, especially in the American context.

Americans usually refer to the thing properly called “the state” as “the government.” It’s unfortunate for clear thinking about politics that these two terms have, through long use, become interchangeable.

This common use of the word “government” is, obviously, to avoid confusion with the political units that created, and now comprise, the United States of America.

When the American War of Independence was concluded by the Treaty of Paris (1783), each of the thirteen former colonies of the British Crown were recognized by the United Kingdom as “free, sovereign, and independent states”—that is as thirteen sovereign political units of the same type as the United Kingdom, France, etc.

The Treaty of Paris, then, was a legal confirmation of the fact that each the thirteen colonies had claimed their freedom, independence, and sovereignty years before. Both before and after the Declaration of Independence, the states cooperated  in the Continental Congress.  The Articles of Confederation went into effect in February 1781, when Maryland became the final state to ratify, more than three years after Virginia, the first state to ratify, did.

So, from the beginning of the Continental Congress to the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, people would speak of these “these United States of America,” and did so for many years after. But after decades of the inevitable creep of consolidation that progressed under the counter-revolutionary Constitution, including the War Between the States, no one any longer speaks of anything but “The United States,” a supreme government with fifty subordinate subdivisions called states.

So, How is “Government” different from “The State?”

“Government” is a more abstract concept, its primary definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition, 1989) as:

1. The action of governing (see senses of the vb.).
a. The action of ruling; continuous exercise of authority over the action of subjects or inferiors; authoritative        direction or regulation; control, rule.
b. The action of ruling and directing the affairs of a state; political rule and administration.

“Government,” then, is a process—and one that just about everyone thinks should take place. The question is, then, who should govern whom. Can and should individual people be trusted to govern themselves? I believe so, but the dominant view among most people is that some select group of people should be trusted with this function and be empowered to carry it out—and that something is, almost always, properly called “the state.”

“The state” is any identifiable group people who assert the monopolistic right to use force lawfully over a certain geographical area—this includes the administration of government. Members of the state are not acting, as libertarian critics like Oppenheimer and Rothbard explain, out of an altruistic commitment to bettering life for their fellow man through disinterested public service—though they may claim to do so, and, indeed, some members of the state have no doubt internalized its own mythology. Rather, they are a self-selecting class of people who exploits the society within its borders to benefit themselves. Oppenheimer and Rothbard focus on the economic exploitation, but, any reasonable look at human nature tells us that members of the political class routinely avail themselves of opportunities to derive other benefits from their membership—most notable the desire for status and respect, and the ability to act out in ways demanded by whatever neuroses under which each member of the state may suffer.

You can see how the term government is much more palatable. Not calling “the state” what it really is allows people to more easily think of government as a naturally occurring, organic, part of society, rather than a separate entity that subjugates and feeds on society.  It’s therefore much easier to dismiss libertarians and other critics of the state as merely “anti-government” malcontents who aren’t mature enough to realize that we all have to support and pledge our allegiance to whatever organization claims to be providing the service of government—no matter the organization’s failings and abuses—because the alternative would be chaos. (They usually use the term “anarchy” when they mean chaos—but that discussion is for another article.)

What Does the Bible Say about “the State?”

In the oft-quoted and little-analyzed Romans 13, Paul makes clear that “governing authorities” have “no authority except from God,” and that their duty is to work against “evil.” One might reasonably believe that any organization, when it acts in ways prohibited by God, is not operating under God’s authority, or as “God’s ministers.” Rather, in such instances, they are organizations working, not for God or against evil, but for their own benefit at the expense of their victims.

Two of the most notable debates in the Bible about the nature and authority of “the state” illustrate the view of “the state” as a separate entity, operating outside the will of God and failing to govern justly.

In 1 Samuel 8:10-22, the prophet warns the people of Israel that their desire for a king was foolish and would lead to misery. Samuel knew that fairly decentralized system of justice administered by tribal leaders and prophets was one thing, but a king—with the right the right to enslave anyone for any purpose, take whatever he wanted to give to his cronies, and command that productive economic activity be turned to the purpose of war—is quite another.

When confronted by Pharisees over the question of “tribute,” in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus educates his questioners about the nature of the state as opposed to God’s kingdom. When Jesus asks them whose image and inscription the coin bears, he is reminding them that they are collaborating with a pagan state that is, first and foremost, an engine of economic exploitation designed to capture as much of the world’s wealth as possible and divert it to the Roman treasury. When Jesus tells them to “Give therefore to Caesar, the things which are Caesar’s, and give unto God, those things which are God’s,” he’s reminding them that, as he points out in Matthew 6:24, that you can’t serve two masters. (See Jeffrey F. Barr’s excellent article Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage.)

To define and understand “the state” is the an essential task when thinking about politics, religion, and how the two interest, and to that end I’ll soon be doing a “libertarian book report” on Oppenheimer’s The State, and then, later, one on Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State.

But in the mean time, remember that “the state” is not a subdivision of “the government,” but a group that often claims to administer government, and has other functions that can not be justified by any reasonable moral code, and that usually doesn’t provide anything resembling a very efficient or just “government.”

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2 thoughts on “Words Matter: How “Government” differs from “the State”

  1. As a native Southerner, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to realize just how much has been stolen from my family, friends, and fellow natives (may I say, confederates?) in this false name of “unity”. Consider these other facts: the first shots and damages committed in the War were initiated by the North (nay, the Federal government), and, since Washington could find no solid, legal basis for prohibiting secession (even though they saw fit to start a war over it), they had to write a new law banning it AFTER the war was over (as I was taught it, anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong). I’m further vindicated as I see this newest incarnation of spiteful White Knights, the Social Justice Warriors, or SJW’s. They show with all their uneducated vitriol the same illogical reasoning of Lincoln and his cronies: they see some perceived wrong, and they simply can’t abide but by threatening and forcing their views in any way possible, no matter the cost.

  2. Loved the ending section regarding the Bible especially. Too often theologians and others have seen Christ in a Statist light. In reality everything belongs to God and Caesar’s ultimate ownership was invalid as was his right to be a steward to nearly all the property claimed. Also interesting is Samuel 15: “And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give it to his Eunuchs, and to his servants.” In essence the State was rivaling the ten percent required by God thus making the state a very clear idol garnering equal funds from the populace. Unlike the State, however, God in the new testament makes income flows to the church voluntary unlike the contemporary Roman State. In Acts Ananias and Sapphira are killed for lying not for a refusal to collectivize the money from the sale of their land: Acts 5:4 “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” The Biblical prohibitions on theft and murder point to a Minarchic governance and even farther in my opinion an anarchic governance.

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