Many libertarians and a few conservatives fondly flaunt the word “statism.” It often serves as an accusatory word, and those accused do not like it. They often make fun of it, not uncommonly as an example of ill-mannered jargon. And in the course of the ensuing banter quite a few people have lost sight of its meaning.
Indeed, during my sojourn in Port Townsend, Washington, working for R.W. Bradford and on his little magazine Liberty, the term came seem less an anchor for rational discussion and more a piece of flotsam unmoored by several passing ideological storms.
I remember Jesse Walker (now of Reason magazine) mocking the term, and its over-usage by libertarians. And I remember Bradford declaring himself a “statist.” I thought I understood Walker’s vexation, but was truly vexed by Bradford’s absurd misuse. What did he mean? That he was no longer a libertarian? Statism is the opposite of libertarianism, right?
Right. And Bradford was wrong. He was simply declaring that he was not an anarchist. He supported the institutions of limited government as instantiated in a minimal state. That, he said, made him a “statist.”
No it didn’t. It was a clear misuse of the term.
So: What is statism?
Consult Ludwig von Mises. He favored the French variant of the term, etatism. And he was not at all unclear as to its meaning:
The most important event in the history of the last hundred years is the displacement of liberalism by etatism.
Etatism appears in two forms: socialism and interventionism. Both have in common the goal of subordinating the individual unconditionally to the state, the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion.
Statism, he goes on, “assigns to the state the task of guiding the citizens and of holding them in tutelage. It aims at restricting the individual’s freedom to act. It seeks to mold his destiny and to vest all initiative in the government alone.” This is the common thread running through nearly all variants of “socialism,” and “fascism,” “social democracy,” and “progressivism” as well. The idea that the state must be limited in scope, and that individuals should have an actionable claim against both majorities and governments to prevent certain kinds of interference was lampooned as “old fashioned” and certainly “regressive” and even “inhumane” by the rising tide of statists in the late 19th century, in Britain, in Europe, and in America:
From England penetrated the ideas of Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Fabians, from France Solidarism. The churches of all creeds joined the choir. Novels and lays propagated the new doctrine of the state. Shaw and Wells, Spielhagen and Gerhart Hauptmann, and hosts of other writers, less gifted, contributed to the popularity of etatism.
But surely much of the popularity of statism came from the recent history of the effectiveness of the state. In America, the central, national government had abandoned federalism and squelched a secession of southern states, and in the process freed the slaves. The costs of the war were immense, but, by golly, it sure changed America. And a lot of people thought that the result of the war was progress, even if the war itself was one of the bloodiest the world had seen.
Earlier this year, President Obama intoned that he believed “what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” And it is obvious that the institutions of the centralized state can do some things much easier than people can without state coercion, expropriation, and subsidy. For instance, it is preciously hard to fight a total war. It is also much easier to carry on a policy of genocide by government: Americans did treat the Indians quite badly, but if it weren’t for the federal government, many more Indians would be alive today, and probably on their ancestral grounds (think of the Cherokee). It is also very difficult to get people to “invest” in a vast pension safety net that, in turn, does not invest a dime of its holdings — without the federal government, such schemes would be prosecuted as Ponzi frauds by the several states, but with the federal government, it’s called “Social Security.” The list can go on and on.
Statism is, then, the doctrine that a powerful central government should make policy based on targeted outcomes and not be limited by hard-and-fast rules about individual rights to property, or even security in their personal affairs. All of the major statist movements from 1880 to 1950 worked mightily to curb the scope and effectiveness of the old idea of “rights.” Often, they supplanted the old notion of rights as limits to government, and as guarantees of freedom, with rights to more specific and “positive” goods, such as “economic security” and “a living wage” and “access to health care” and the like. The very word “freedom” got redefined.
In America, the linguistic legerdemain went to the extreme of inverting the very meaning of the most basic of terms. Liberalism, which Mises defines as the opposite of statism, came to mean a sort of warmed-over progressivism, a statism with a smiley face. The new liberals chose a few areas where they would defend individual liberty — a few of them (but by no means the majority of them, at first) fought racist statism, for instance, and pretended they were for emancipation (in actuality, they merely tinkered with state policy, shifting emphases a bit here and there). But for the most part they carried on the progressive tradition of relentlessly undermining the notion of rights as side-constraints that would limit government as well as criminality.
The American transformation of statism into “liberalism” had British forerunners, particularly philosophers T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, the latter who attempted to wrest “freedom” from its traditional meaning “independence backed by force” and “absence of interference” to more “positive” conceptions, in the meanwhile making hash of the work done by individualistic liberals. He worked to make “liberalism” fit with collectivism. He was a surprising success.
Of course, these “moderate” statists, the kind that dominated in America and tended to influence the conservative parties in Britain and elsewhere, were helped, in their trickery and deceit (and, in some cases, surely, ignorance and honest confusion) by the intellectual predominance of socialists in the first half of the last century. The popularity of the notion of a total state, and the great success of its supporters’ clichés, made it easier for moderate statists to abandon most of the last vestiges of true liberalism, of limited government. It came to be politically acceptable to pay lip service to the great triumphs of liberal constitutionalism by advocating slight decreases in government spending as heroic instances of “sticking to limited government.”
Statism, then, is the abandonment of limited government as a basic idea. Statists extol government as a progressive force for good, and tend only to talk about its dangers when an opposing statist party is in control. Statists push for constitutional limitations and procedural reform only as secondary, strategic goods. Not as fundamental. Statists tend to talk more about groups of people than individuals: an individual’s rights are said to depend on which group he belongs to. In America, today, it somehow is the case that the proudest opponents of racism affirm the absolute centrality to policy the listing of a person’s race on state college applications and in distributing social benefits. For these people, race has become an obsession, an excuse to lump people into categories and treat people differently according to the lumped categories.
They often blanch at attributions of individual achievement. They use social co-operation as an excuse to attribute to the state most or all the advances of civilization. They glorify the state. They dethrone the individual as a focus of value and rights, and set up “society,” and in this way upgrade the state from one institutional conglomerate to the supreme authority over all.
It has its prehistory in the ancient empires, of course. Much of the history of the state is the history of attempts by small numbers of people to take for themselves supreme authority. The bulk of ancient states identified their leaders with the gods.
Thus statism, as a pscyhological phenomenon, bleeds into statolatry, the worship of the state. A sadder, less forgivable religious vice could hardly be imagined, but its rationale is pretty easy to see. Whereas the worship of idols and vacant temples depends on the imputation of great powers to something either very different from what is directly in front of the worshiper, or else not even there, statolaters can bow before a very powerful thing. The State. Sure, it is “just a bunch of people” behaving in a particular (and mighty peculiar) set of ways, but the consistency of those patterns of behavior make for an institutional presence. It is not reification to speak of the State. It is a realism of human practice, realizing that much of social reality is socially constructed.
The basic nature of the state — of the set of actions, expectations, and habits that its members engage in to instantiate the institution’s very existence — is no mystery. The state, after all, is (as Mises put it) “essentially an apparatus of compulsion and coercion. The characteristic feature of its activities is to compel people through the application or the threat of force to behave otherwise than they would like to behave.”
Because of the problematic nature of coercion as a human practice, individualists — in Mises’ old-fashioned terminology, liberals — characteristically seek to limit its scope and power, in a variety of ways. The most radical of those ways was suggested by Gustave de Molinari, and by the American individualist anarchists who were his contemporaries: abandon the concept of sovereign territory and disallow those who would provide us with the protective services of “government” from forcing us to pay for those services. Get rid of taxation and borderlines. In their place, establish explicit contracts for protection, recovery and retaliatory services. Put adjudication into the voluntary sector. Let competition for contracts limit the prices offered, and the services offered, and let the threat of loss of clientele and financing restrain these providers’ in their perennial proclivity for warfare.
It’s an audacious idea. There is much to say in its favor. And it is a total repudiation of The State as an institution, for along with compulsion and coercion, the state declares a monopolistic stance within a territory.
But the institutions of police, courts, bailiffs and bondsmen would remain, and continue to coerce and compel. But only in limited circumstances. The theory goes, anyway, that the incentives to increase size and scope of government beyond protective and retaliatory services would be limited by contract and competition. At present, state agents oppose criminals but become, in the process, super-criminals themselves, because they are given something that no other group is given: sovereign authority within a territory. Without this key concept, the impetus for resolving conflicts through combat and indiscriminate coercion (a statist staple, “the moral equivalent of war” when not war itself) evaporates.
Or so the proposal runs. It has not been tried, for the simple reason that advocates of the state have yet to allow much competition: they prohibit and regulate most contracts that would nudge such a scheme into widespread usage.
What do we call these people, these opposers of the state-as-such? Anti-statists? No; the name already means something else.
Well, they themselves use terms like “anarcho-capitalists” and “libertarian anarchists.” But the aptness of these terms is somewhat dubious, since the institutions of coercion and compulsion remain, if shorn of sovereign territory. They represent a subgroup of individualism (classical liberalism) just as socialism represents a subset of statism.
Advocates of the nightwatchman state, of liberal constitutionalism, of even (say) limited transfer-state liberalism (the position of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, as near as I can make out), are definitely not statists merely because certain people calling themselves “libertarian anarchists” oppose an idea that they accept, the idea of sovereignty within within a territory. Self-described anarchists may rightly identify territorial sovereignty as the sine qua non of statehood. And statism may sound like a good term for the ideology that supports this idea. But that is not the term’s history. That is not its traditional usage. And there is more than adequate reason to stick to tradition when defining this term.
I prefer to employ the term “individualism” as statism’s opponent. Hayek used the term that way, as did the British liberals following Herbert Spencer, especially J.H. Levy and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. The meaning of the term seems clear: a focus on individuals and the boundaries appropriate to individuals, and the regulation of groups, including the state, based on the notion of individual rights. That is, individualists form groups and institutions, and study these groups and institutions, but do not allow for “special rules” to emerge for groups that individual do not have themselves, as building blocks. Individualists do not enthuse about the power of institutions, nor do they concoct elaborate convolutions of rules to accommodate double standards, one rule for a man, another for an institution.
Individualists always hark back to this singular idea, of simple principles that apply up and down the institutional array of human society. The rule of law, for individualists, means rules understood as applying to individuals no matter what institutional cover they may take.
Statists eschew such ideas. It seems obvious to statists that the rules of “one station and its duties” vary radically from person to person because of their divergent stations within the institutional matrix. A government functionary has more discretion and power than a citizen. To pretend differently is mere pretense. The rule of law is merely the rule, at this point, of legislators and lawyers. Its universality is solely a function of the power of the state.
Which they hope and seek to increase. Always.
And we individualists oppose such a stance. We, in the words of philosopher John Hospers, “challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of individuals.”