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State-ing a Fact

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 13 years ago, in 2011, on the World Wide Web.

In comments on Those Damned Statists!, Gene Callahan gets pissy about the claim that he’s being fussy about word usage. Thus:

One of the most telling rhetorical tics one finds amongst radical libertarians is to refer to every single person who does not buy their entire program as a ‘statist’. Now, when Mises used that term, he was referring to people like, say, Mussolini, who were engaged in some form of state worship, who were making the State a God on earth. This made sense.

But many rad-libs today apply it to every person who does not want to destroy the State as a social institution. This is an extraordinary usage….

And so:

I am not being fussy about word usage; I am noting the extraordinary phenomenon of a group that represents .1% of the political spectrum lumping the other 99.9% under a single label.

You mean like when Jews (about 0.2% of the population of the world) refer to all of the other 99.8% of the people in the world as “Gentiles,” or when priests (about 0.03% of the total membership of the Roman Catholic Church) refer to all of the 99.97% of the Church as “laity” or atheists refer to absolutely everyone who believes in any way in any gods at all a theist? My, how extraordinary. Ah-HA! Gene will say, clutching his New Science of Politicsall of your examples are religious; isn’t that telling? Only if you think it’s equally telling that the residents of every country on earth refer to the 6.5+ billion or so other people in the world as foreigners, that gay men and lesbians took to using the word straight to refer to absolutely everybody who’s not gay, when BOFH types took to describing absolutely everybody outside of their subcultural circle of technical expertise lusers, etc.[1] It seems to me the most ordinary thing in the world for members of a relatively coherent, exclusive group to spend some non-zero amount of time discussing (whether politely or abusively or neutrally) the much larger number of people who are not a part of that group, and to come up with a word to name them. (This does, of course, tell us that radical libertarians are a small group in a much larger world who spend some time arguing about the things that make them radical libertarians. Well, yes.)

Let me offer an alternative story here about what has happened, linguistically speaking, with statism. I haven’t done a lot in the way on paleontological research on the past uses of statism, so I am going to recklessly presume there isn’t much to say about it before where Gene starts — with the use of the word by Mises and the rest of the mid-century minimal-governmentalist coffeeklatsch. Now, those folks frequently employed a political term which was transparently polemical and had more or less no neutral analytical use. (State worship? Really?[2]). They applied it to Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon quite as freely as they did to explicit totalitarians like Mussolini or Stalin.[3] This certainly had its uses, but it was more or less an overt example of a persuasive definition, and had no descriptive content except by reference to the moving target of how much government, in what direction, the speaker considered decent or worthwhile.

Then some Anarchists came along, found this empty polemical term in the discourse, and gave it a new meaning — more or less, someone who accepts the legitimacy of government as a social institution, or someone who does not believe that the state as such must be abolished. Unlike the use by Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand, this use of the term statist included minimal-statists like Mises and Rand, since they too believed in at least some government. Their use of the term lumped together something like 99% of the population of the world under a single label, since it defined everyone else by contrast with laissez-faire/laissez-passer limited-governmentalism; our use of the term lumped together something like 99.9% of the population of the world, since it also tossed out folks who believed in minimal government. On the other hand, it also gave statist a non-polemical, descriptive, and analytically useful definition. Statist as non-anarchist meant something that the person being so described would probably accept as a self-description; it is analytically useful because it turns out that sometimes we argue about whether or not any government can be legitimate, and this gives a handy descriptive term for each side of the debate — anarchists on the one hand and statists on the other.[4] Admittedly, this is an appropriation of the term and a redefinition of it. But, well, so? Planet used to include Pluto and New York City used to refer only to Manhattan. We take the words we find and apply them to our own circumstances; sometimes existing words get jiggered to have a narrower or broader extension, or a more technical usage, in order to make them more useful for purposes of discussion or analysis.

Then Gene Callahan came along and took it as another reason to gripe about the language that libertarians use rather than identifying any specific problem that this language-use has caused in any specific conversation. No doubt there are examples where this has happened, but I think that if you go looking seriously, you will actually find that the old, empty polemical use of the term in the hands of mini-statists like Mises or Rand (the use that Gene insists made sense) has caused far more conversational misfires than the newer, more descriptive meaning employed by libertarian anarchists.

See also:

  1. [1]In spite of the religious subject matter, the structured relationships between Jews and Gentiles, priests and laity, atheists and theists, etc., are in any case really nothing like the kind of relationships between the initiated and the uninitiated in Voegelian Gnosticism.
  2. [2]Of course, I myself have frequently drawn parallels between religious devotion and the ways that states legitimate themselves. I hope there’s some insight in that. But the insight is insight by means of an acknowledged metaphor: hardly anybody accused of being engaged in some form of state worship … making the State a God on earth would accept that as a non-tendentious description of what they do or believe. And the talk about worship is clearly meant polemically — the real application of the term is wherever the speaker finds devotion or deference significantly beyond whatever she herself considers acceptable. For Mises, the critical point was supposed to be whether the person believed in limited government or unlimited government. But of course limited and unlimited in that context were just as contested as the terms they were supposed to define. Limited government for Mises certainly didn’t just mean any government with any constitutional limits whatever. Most mid-century welfare-state liberals, for example, believed very strongly that government should be subject to some constitutional limits. Just not the specific limits that Ludwig von Mises thought it should be subject to.
  3. [3]Mises in any case explicitly included both socialism and American-style state-capitalist interventionism as forms of what he called statism or, as in Omnipotent Government, etatism. The claim that he reserved it for people like, say, Mussolini, is pure bosh.
  4. [4]We’d use archist — Tucker, for one, sometimes did — but, ew.

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  1. Jonathan Soroko

    My sense is – like the examples you note, each of which can be described as a minority group (either by choice, e.g. priests, or accident of birth, e.g. Jews) describing everyone outside the (“them,” as opposed to “us”). When people feel under attack, I think they’re more likely to use hostile/pejorative language to describe the outside group. Political choice – most of the serious libertarians I know are very bright, and my guess is that they’ve taken a bruise or two merely by raising the question (You don’t want a government? Are you a barbarian? And so on …) and that “statist” becomes shorthand for “other.” But there’s a lot daylight between Hitler and Stalin, both evil, to be sure, but in different ways; Castro – also evil, tyrannical, but with very contradictory behavior – it’s hard to dismiss Castro as totally evil and worthless when neutral sources repeatedly report Cuba’s infant mortality rates to be among the lowest in the world – Cuba trashed free speech, economic autonomy, but also – strangely, perhaps – managed outstanding public health outcomes. Churchill – no left-winger – spotted Hitler early for what he was, tried to warn the British and the world from the early 1930’s on. And after the war, supported the single-payer and National Health system, unemployment insurance and other such schemes. I suppose they’re all “statists,” but I’d take Churchill over the others in a heartbeat. I should probably say, by way of disclosure, that my first adult job was as a prosecutor, and that I as responsible for using government power to put human beings in cages. Not a responsibility undertaken without qualms, which grew over time. But in the end – my doubts were not about all uses of the criminal sanction – primarily about its use in matters relating to drugs and sex – and about carelessness concerning guilt or innocence in all investigations and prosecutions. I’ve been called names for advocating drug decriminalization; but one could easily attack me as a “statist,” because I believe government is necessary, at least for a core set of functions (I don’t, for example, want the market to be the only factor regulating the right to drive oil tanker trucks, or which side of the road we drive on). When people feel a need to make nuanced distinctions (IF and when), they can find adjectives to modify “statist;” but if one wants to dismiss all, there’s an economy in using the single word. – JS

  2. Marc Smith

    In what ways was Churchill better than Hitler? Is it because he murdered people with bombs and not gas chambers? Statism always leads to evil, the starting point for this evolution is not as important as the general direction of the evolution.

    • Roderick T. Long

      One of Churchill’s main “contributions” was rushing Britain into war with Germany before Chamberlain had had time to finish building up its armaments, thus gambling with the fate of his subjects by putting Britain into a situation (as he himself admitted in the blood-sweat-and-tears speech) where they were virtually certain to be conquered by Hitler unless the u.s. intervened.

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