Important Difference Between the State and Government

It is of utmost importance to constantly remind the reader of this site that there is a necessary difference between the State and “government” in a variety of ways.  Because this is so, you will constantly find me deriding the State as an evil institution and even, due to my “G.K. Beale-like” understanding of eschatology as a variation of the idealist position, at some points referring to the State as the beast in Revelation 13.  The State I define, as Rothbard famously did, as “the organization of robbery systematized and writ large.”

Now government is a bit different.  For all societies have a government in some sense.  Indeed all communities have something that plays the role of governance.  Corporations have a governance structure.  And so do Churches. A Rothbardian propertarian society too would have rules, even if their enforcement existed on the free market.  Stephen Kinsella is one of the few Misesians who constantly reminds his readers of the difference between the two, at one point writing:

Albert Jay Nock was also “influenced by Franz Oppenheimer. In Our Enemy, The State he explains the anti-social, predatory nature of the state, and draws a sharp distinction between government as voluntarily acknowledged authority and the State.

The “voluntarily acknowledged authority” as government is decent, at least for our present purposes.  The point here is that the government works with the society and the State works against it.

Thus, it is my own description that whereas government is a role in society, the State is an institution that forces itself upon the people.  Where there is a State, this State takes up the role of government as part of its activity.  Thus, all States necessarily govern, but not all governments are States.

As Christians, we realize both that God has a desire to see justice done, and the role of government is to pursue this.  To the extent that an institution exists which uses coercion beyond the role of justice, to that extent a State exists.  Thus, when we are called to “arrange ourselves under” authorities, this should be meant in two senses.  In the first sense, we assume that the authority happens to be exercising coercion correctly, that is, against the proven criminal who has initiated force against another individual.  We arrange ourselves under this authority because it is a correct use of the coercive nature of a government that would even exists in Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalist world.  It is because such an role is consistent with God’s command of a government that we know we ought to submit to such rules as “don’t murder,” “don’t steal,” etc.

However, since even the earliest of times, governments have becomes States, that is, they have exercised their coercive powers beyond the role of justice and they have monopolized this coercion.  The evilness of man produces States.  Should we arrange ourselves under these (wrongful) authorities as well?  I have argued yes, and then explained what that would look like.  But the point is clear now: we are not arranging ourselves under this authority for the same reasons as we would if it was a just government.  In fact, we don’t pick a fight with the authorities for very different reasons now.  The best way to summarize this is in Christ’s command: “Turn the other cheek.”

We arrange ourselves under a just government, precisely because it is just; and we arrange ourselves under the wicked State (a redundancy), because we ought to turn the other cheek.  Our motivations are different.  But we always make it clear: the government as a role is a good.  The State as an institution is an evil.  It is a sign of the wickedness of man that, sooner than later, nearly every civil government becomes a State.

It is for this reason that I can say, after hearing of another United States drone strike, tax increase, or bank bailout, that, well yeah, “this is what States do, why are we surprised?”  This is what happens when the State takes over the role of government in society: chaos ensues.

The State is a false God.

(Historically, confessional protestants (Baptists and Presbyterians) have stated that there are three areas of government: family, church, and civil.  They have called civil government “the State.”  Because our vocabulary is slightly different today, and because I need labels to refer to two different definitions, I have chose to affirm the use of “civil government” and clarify the use of “State.”)

About cjayengel

C.Jay Engel is the editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. He in lives Northern California with his wife, where he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. C.Jay also writes for various other blogs and sites. You can follow him on twitter @reformedliberty or send an email to cjay.engel90@gmail.com.
  • Lysander Parks

    good article. Please read my similar article at lysanderparks.com I also write from a reformed libertarian perspective. I also live in northen california.