Wednesday, December 01, 2004

State v. Statist and Statism

People frequently speak of the State as if it were an individual human. (I use the capitalized term, here, because I refer to the generic political entity rather than the regional governments of the U.S.) They thus say things like, "Taiwan continues to worry about Chinese aggression," or "Syria sucks, dude."

Methodological individualists doubt the legitimacy of that usage. They argue that only a person can think or act; a collection of persons cannot. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, "In studying the actions of individuals, we learn also everything about the collectives and society. For the collective has no existence and reality but in the actions of individuals."

On that view, we should never speak of the State itself. No such thing exists! We should instead speak of persons who claim to act on behalf of the State and of the ideology that motivates them. We should, in other words, speak not of the State but rather of statists and statism.

Although I recognize an important truth in that view of political action, I do not advise so extreme a linguistic response. It proves at least awkward to forego all expressions that treat States like individuals. To say, "The U.S. declared war on Japan in 1941," does not seem so terribly amiss. To instead say, "Certain U.S. politicians declared war on their Japanese counterparts in 1941," may even prove counterproductive, from a rhetorical point of view, by making you sound like an out-and-out moonbat.

I've thus adopted a rule of usage somewhat more moderate than extreme methodological individualism might require. I pepper—but do not suffuse—my discussions of political action with "statist" and "statism." The mere use of those terms conveys the idea that I ultimately hold individuals and ideologies responsible for what others blame or credit to the faceless State. I try not to overdo it, as the terms remain for now a bit uncommon. I look forward, however, to the day when "statist," "statism," and—more importantly—the concepts that they express become widely known.

12 comments:

Glen Whitman said...

I follow the opposite capitalization rule -- "state" for any government, "State" for a regional government of the United States. Seems like I read somewhere that this was standard.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that there are bats on the moon, so it got me thinking...

You guys are a couple natural moon-eyed teachers. And lucky for us, you can't help yourselves but to shed moonlight beyond the barren moonscape even when your not being re-moon-erated. I do not count you guys among the lunatic fringe politically just on the fringe. Just a piece of sound military advice to any moonish Iraqi so tempted: Do not moon a U.S. army convoy except on a dark moonless night.

Moonward, Tom, you seem to have fallen into the same lunar crater you advise us against when you say, "I ultimately hold individuals and ideologies responsible for what others blame or credit to the faceless State."

We can't really blame an ideology either, can we? We must hold responsible the mooncalfs that mistakenly or malevolently follow the lunatic ideology moonblindly.

At this point you probably think I've been smoking medicinal moon-grown marijuana but the truth is I'm just an old ...

-MOONSHINER

Tom W. Bell said...

I take my usage from political philosophy, Glen, where writers often use the capitalized term to refer to a generic institution claiming a monopoly on the use of force within a geographic area. Even such philosophers would, however, refer to a particular of the species as "the State of Washington" or the like. They might thus write, for instance, "Each of the 50 states regulates various professions to various degress. The licensing regulations of the State of California, however, exemplify the view that the State must tightly control entry into labor markets."

But I think I know what you're really after: You want to strip governments of all their assets, thus leaving them powerless. Alas, however, de-capitalizing the "State" will not suffice to de-capitolize the State.

Tom W. Bell said...

I take my usage from political philosophy, Glen, where writers often use the capitalized term to refer to a generic institution claiming a monopoly on the use of force within a geographic area. Even such philosophers would, however, refer to a particular of the species as "the State of Washington" or the like. They might thus write, for instance, "Each of the 50 states regulates various professions to various degress. The licensing regulations of the State of California, however, exemplify the view that the State must tightly control entry into labor markets."

But I think I know what you're really after: You want to strip governments of all their assets, thus leaving them powerless. Alas, however, de-capitalizing the "State" will not suffice to de-capitolize the State.

Tom W. Bell said...

Point well taken, Moonshiner. Nobody can sue an ideology, fine it, or throw it in jail. But I don't see any problem with blaming or crediting an ideology for inspiring people to act in certain ways. For criminy's sake, we academics would have scant to talk about without *that* line of work! (Perhaps that's your aim.) Perhaps typically for an academic, I think that ideas work a powerful influence over people's actions. I think we spend our time well in sorting out good ideologies from the bad.

Let me be clear, though: It does not follow, and I do not mean to imply, that anyone can get off the hook by citing the influence of an ideology. When bad ideas inspire bad acts, I'm all for imposing joint and several liability. I'd thus hammer both Islamofascism *and* Islamofascists. I recognize no "false consciousness" defense.

AMcGuinn said...

The fact that "the state" does not actually exist is not in itself a good reason for not talking about it -- if it is a useful abstraction we should use it. In fact von Mises was wrong on this occasion: One cannot in practice understand collectives by studying individuals, any more than one can understand the weather by studying the Schroedinger equation.

The danger is not in speaking of the State as an entity in its own right, but in, as you wrote, speaking of the State "as if it were an individual human." It is not a human, it is a monster of a different species altogether.

Anonymous said...

You've made a point I've often considered, but which I have been consistently unable to get other people to apprehend. The particular phrases that most annoy me are the ones that assign emotions to states: "China is angry with Taiwan for..."

Whenever I ask "What does it mean for a state to be angry? How do you know that a state is angry?", the response is almost always a blank stare. It begs the question: who is making that assessment, and on what basis? Does "angry" reflect some identifiable situation in that country? Is it a legitimate category for talking about relationships between countries? These are all questions that nobody thinks to ask, because these emotional terms are so obvious in their meaning when applied to individuals that nobody thinks to question them in other contexts.

Applied to states, I suspect that terms like this have a role that is more about propaganda than understanding. Perhaps among political communities they have a more specific meaning. To me, they seem silly.

Gil said...

Tom,

I just wanted to make the general comment that I very much enjoy reading about your usage preferences (most of which seem quite compelling to me) and I hope you continue to share them with us here.

Anonymous said...

That "monopoly on the use of force within a geographic area" definition IS just a tad contraversial, you know. It's been used to claim that states that recognize the right of self defense aren't *really* states.

Tom W. Bell said...

AMcGuinn: I agree with your functional view of language. Sometimes it proves useful to talk of the State, sometimes not. We mustn't let linguistic idolatry get in the way of communication.

Anon. of 9:05 AM: I share your frustration and your suspicion that anthropomorphizing States serves propaganda—or at the least, diplomacy—far better than it serves understanding. I'd only add that I'd extend your comments to discussions of legislatures, too. Commentators too often engage in silly talk about legislative "intent" based on bogus statements slipped after-the-fact into the Congressional Record.

Gil: Gee, thanks! I think about usage a fair amount, so it's been fun and useful for me to spell out the rules I've been following in practice.

Anon. of 5:09 AM: I thought Weber's definition was pretty standard. I've not heard a better one, anyhow. But perhaps I'm not up to speed, as I've not read the critique you cite. I think I get the gist of it from your terse reference to self-defense. Seems to me, though, that there's this ready reply: Statists only claim a monopoly in the use of coercion; then need not exercise it. Rather, they can delegate the right to use force in justified self-defense to citizens.

Glen Whitman said...

I've always wondered where federalism fits within that definition of government. If we have two (or more) overlapping layers of authority, neither with 100% control, are they both disqualified from being governments? Or are they considered a government collectively?

Tom W. Bell said...

Good question, Glen! I've wondered about that, too. If we take federalism seriously (come oooooon Raich!), you really cannot say that either the feds or the various state governments claims a monopoly on the use of coercion within the geographic boundaries of the U.S. In some areas the feds make that claim; in some the states do. I don't think, however, it's plausible to claim that neither thereby qualifies as a State. I would opt either for your second proposal--that both qualify as States, albeit conditionally--or this third proposal: Because together the federal and state powers exhaust the range of permissible coercion, they together qualify as a State power. Between those two, I think it's largely a question of semantics. Not (to quote Seinfeld) that there's anything wrong with that.