On Government and the State

In political philosophy circles it is often said that it is very important to define your terms so that confusion can be minimized. One instance where I think that this is of the utmost importance–which also happens to be a certain pet peeve of mine– is in the case that presents itself when speaking about government and the state. It is often the case that these two terms are used as synonyms, but I believe this to be incorrect.

The terms themselves have very important conceptual implications, and conflating the terms ignores their grammatical nature and can lead to faulty conclusions. That the state has served the role of government in society for much of human history is no implication upon the term government with regard to the term’s meaning. Since many continue to use the terms state and government synonymously, I must address this error.

While almost everybody in political philosophy circles knows that the state is an entity that serves as the monopoly of governance in a particular region, most do not take notice of the fact that governance occurs in many other areas of human thought beyond that of the state, as well as the fact that in referring to the state we can also separately refer to the concept of governance.

Please, let me give just a few examples …

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If you have any sort of normative order that is under discussion, say, that of property rights itself (or more specifically, that of libertarian property rights), then that is a governing order, it’s a system of government that prevails in a society. The only difference is that these norms (or ought statements) are generally apodictic rather than simply dictated statements in their justification (though this is not always the case, it is the goal in the theorizing about such things). Obviously, in the case of the state, this is entirely reversed, the laws that are dictated are merely statements–more specifically they are dictates (statutes) by the monopoly on governance; the state–but they are certainly not apodictically true, nor is that even the goal, thus they do not meet the criteria of laws at all; they are arbitrary dictates.

The same dynamic also finds itself present in the realm of positive statements, such as those of economic theory. Economics itself relies upon certain laws and understandings, that of which are always grounded in positive or is statements. Certainly the laws of economics govern (steer/guide) the actions of men in a world of scarce resources, this is necessarily the case because such laws are apodictically true. Economics is nothing other than the study of the government of humans acting in a world of scarcity, and indeed, one cannot violate the laws of economics: It’s literally impossible to do so. One could certainly say that the laws of economics comprise a government of human affairs (that these laws govern the reality of man vs nature, that they are apodictically true laws, one cannot contradict them in action). In contrast, it makes little sense to, say, propose the statement that the law of scarcity has no economic impact, or that something is scarce merely because it has been made so by policy functions (e.g. a shortage due to such a policy).

The difference between dictates and policies on the one hand, should never be confused with laws and governance on the other. This distinction between root concepts and foundational ideals cannot be overstated, because it is often the case that in one realm of human thought where these things are entirely understood, that in another realm of thought the understandings of the prior gets tossed to the wayside in favor of very bad ideas. 

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One must ultimately understand the etymology of words, as well as the evolution of language, in order to find meaning in the same. In the case of the term govern, it is a verb that simply means to steer or guide people or things. At its root, it is formed from the idea that certain laws prevail or are true in reality. For instance, it would not be too bold to say that the law of supply and demand governs prices, or that the law of gravity governs the attractive relationship of bodies. This is obviously true. However, for some reason, the verb govern takes a twisted turn in many people’s mind once you modify it with the suffix –ment to become a noun.

It is this noun-character (as well as the reality of the state) that often leads people to conflate government with the state as synonyms. They are both nouns, after all, and certainly the state has undertaken the government of society throughout a great part of human history. But it takes one of more astute care and attention to realize what is going on here.

The state is an actual entity (at least it is linguistically referred to as an entity), so it is a concrete noun, whereas government is an abstract noun, which is a concept. So right here we can see can see a pretty large difference between the two grammatically, but the real interesting part is in the root word to suffix transition that occurs (from govern to government).

Probably the best words to use as analogues to the word govern are those of the words excite and entice. These are transitive verbs, just like that of the word govern, and they require a certain object (or objects) in order for reference to them. One simply cannot use a transitive verb without referring to some thing. So let’s modify them into abstract nouns!

In order to stay consistent, I will modify all of these transitive verbs into abstract nouns by the usage of the modifying suffix –ment (which is defined as, “forming nouns expressing the result or means of action”). Since English grammar is the governing structure that gives meaning to the words of English, the point should be quite clear.

The transitive verbs excite and entice are modified into the abstract nouns excitement and enticement. Clearly, we could not conflate these abstract nouns with concrete nouns, such that we could call the state “the excitement” or “the enticement”, rather we are left with resorting to using the preposition of to combine the two. So it is perfectly acceptable to say something like “the excitement/enticement of the state”, but it is not acceptable to refer to the state as “the excitement/enticement”. The same is true of the word government, it cannot be used as a synonym for an entity because of its grammatical nature (i.e. abstract nouns vs concrete nouns).

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Anarcho-libertarians often run into problems when discussing their chosen political philosophy with statists, and this is often due to this very dynamic of conflating the terms state and government. This leads one to believe that what the anarchist is saying is that they do not believe in law or order, when it is exactly the opposite that is true. Certainly anarcho-libertarians do believe in laws, they just do not believe in arbitrary laws (such as legislated statutes, or mere dictates); and just as much, they also believe in governance, they just do not believe in monopoly governance, such as the state. The anarcho-libertarian’s system of laws is based upon libertarian property rights in conjunction with the non-aggression principle, which together form a rather robust system of government.

For the anarcho-libertarian to deny government, this only plays into the claims by statists that anarchy is chaotic and lawless (a Hobbesian state of nature of all against all, thus justifying the need for Leviathan; the state) when this is very clearly far from being the actual case. As I am often fond of saying: “I’m all for big government, but I have zero tolerance for the state”. Let a statist try that one on for size.

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Explore posts in the same categories: General, Government, Political Philosophy, Random Musings

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