More thoughts on the difference between governments and States can be found here.
If I were to summarize the distinction between the role of government and the institution of the State, I would follow the tradition of Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Nock, and more recently by Stephen Kinsella in noting that government rightly acts coercively in upholding justice in response to a crime; and the State wrongly acts coercively to systematically contradict justice and act criminally. When Augustine observed that, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms,” he was contributing to the logical necessity of dividing between coercive bodies which pursue justice and coercive bodies which are inherently at odds with justice. For how can two bodies which act in opposite ways both be considered substantially the same?
We must “distinguish between the economic (peaceful and productive) and the political (coercive and parasitic) means of wealth acquisition” (to quote Hans Hoppe). Following the definitions provided above, government may be used to refer to the non-state role in society of maintaining law and justice and thereby supporting and acting consistently with the “economic means” of interaction between individuals. Conversely, if the State is used as defined above, then it is “a vast engine of institutionalized crime and aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth, [and] this means that the State is a criminal organization.” This is all tautology, true by definition alone.
The difficulty of modern analysis comes when we consider that the State primarily and firstly attempts to monopolize the role of government, thus making it difficult to speak out against the actions of the State without seeming to oppose the institution of law itself. But the mistake being made here is a modern one, which presumes that the State is the origination of law and order and without the State, there is nothing but chaos.
From a libertarian view, we can enthusiastically cite Murray Rothbard:
For it should never be forgotten that a libertarian society does not mean the total absence of coercion but only the absence of coercion against noncriminals. Those who invade the rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment by the force of law.
If the role of government generally is to punish criminals, and the State tautologically both acts as criminal and artificially supports other criminals in various ways (see, page 98 of Hulsmann’s Ethics of Money Production –pdf) then the Christian historical use of “Civil Magistrate” is categorically part of government as a role in society and is also in stark opposition of the modern nature of the State as defined above. In opposing the State as above defined, we do not challenge the the use of the Civil Magistrate, which just refers to the person who applies laws in civil society, we affirm it (of course, Christians differ on what exactly the Civil Magistrate should do precisely, but this is besides the point).
It is difficult to express in a short blogpost the degree to which we are blinded by the current State-model when we consider the role of government in society. The modern, regulatory and democratic State that has arisen in the Western World since the dawn of Progressivism is so opposed to systematic justice and property rights and “bottom-up” rule of law, that to even suggest that governance, courts, law, and order in civil society can arise peacefully, consistently with liberty and property-rights, and without the socialization of State services seems outrageous to modern ears. Truly we live in the era of the State.
The goodness of a government can be discovered in the degree to which it acts consistently with the moral command to never steal and never murder, to never initiate aggression against thy neighbor, whom we ought to treat with love. And the ethical stipulations, the eternal moral commandments that God has given, are applicable to every individual worldwide, regardless of class, nationality, gender. All are on equal footing before the commands of God. Nobody gets special privilege. No one is allowed to sin. No one is allowed to steal, neither the citizen nor a group of people calling themselves the State. No one is allowed to take from one group and give to another. No one may murder another person. Neither the citizen in violent rage nor the State in immoral wars. Indeed God’s objective ethics apply to every group. It is not right for the poor man to commit adulterous actions, and neither is it appropriate for the politician. No human being is justified in committing homosexual actions or living a life of drunkenness. For these are the stipulations of God. As the judge, he will appropriate his wrath to all. To those under Adam, wrath still awaits them. For those under the head of Christ, wrath was applied to Christ on the cross on behalf of the elect.
On the day of judgement no bureaucrat or President will say to the Lord that the evil deeds done were done while in office, and are therefore exempt from the standard so ordained by God. For what is sin but disobedience to the eternal moral law?