Much of the US political debate seems to ultimately break down into a meta-debate between what people call “big” vs. “small” government — but how can such a big pile of ideas fit in a word as small as government? The answer is — it can’t. In fact, it is completely nuts to expect one word to hold everything from fire departments, the DMV, and the Iraq War to healthcare, fiscal policy, and the other Iraq War. All of that stuff is just too complex to boil down to pro- and anti-government politics — and luckily, there are words that can organize this mess. The cause for a lot of confusion is the fact that people tend to mix up the concepts of “government” and “state” and a lot of the time both of them get smooshed into one word. So — what is the difference between government and the state?
What is Government?
“Government” is a noun that more-or-less describes a bunch of smaller acts of “governing” all lumped together — and governing is basically unavoidable. Whenever people call a meeting to address shared issues or concerns, they are governing — for example, a neighborhood might get together to fill in a few potholes or mobile home park may pool resources to build a playground or start a community garden . Stuff like fire departments, public libraries, and fleets of snow plows are simply how people deal with the collective chores that need to be done to avoid getting buried in snow or stupid or on fire. Even if the government somehow vanished today, it would take a massive effort to stop a new one from springing into existence tomorrow because the only real difference between a society and a dumpster fire is the level of organization.
What is the State?
The concept of a “state” is a different can of worms. While government and state tend to overlap a lot in practice, the state is an organization with sovereign authority over and against a specific population in a well-defined container of borders. The state is a stable, specific, political entity — government is more of a fuzzy blob of chores that tend to change over time. In ancient Greece, “city-states” were described by Plato as politically-unified communities who shared a distinct language, religion, and culture. Later, the city-state model became further developed in the Roman res publica (aka republic or commonwealth), which extended the city-state’s legal-system to territories under its control. Finally, the modern nation-state emerged after new transportation and communication technologies allowed people to cooperate over nation-sized distances.
The Opposing Word-Origins of ‘Government’ & ‘State’
“The individual has a soul but the state is a soulless machine that can never be weaned from the violence to which it owes its existence”
The origin of the word “government” is gubernare, a word that Latin-speaking folks ripped off from the Greek kyber, a verb meaning “to guide or to steer,” which was associated with navigating the seas. It’s easy to see how this navigational idea relates to governing — the system of government is what a society uses to steer itself in the direction it wants to go and maneuver the nation to avoid any geopolitical icebergs.
“State” grew from the Latin word status, meaning “position, condition, order, or arrangement,” which is from the verb stare, “to stand or be firm.” It was used to talk about someone’s rank or position in a hierarchy in the same way that English-speakers now talk about a person’s “standing.” Next to government’s origin in steering and navigating, the origin of “state” contrasts so sharply it is nearly a contradiction — to stand firmly in one place.
Authoritarianism in Government vs. the State
“The state is a professional apparatus that sets itself apart from the people and apart from the institutions the people themselves create. It’s a monopoly on violence that manages and institutionalizes social activity. The people are perfectly capable of managing themselves and creating their own institutions”
It is possible for government to get by without formal authority — it mainly depends on people agreeing to accomplish a set of tasks and goals together. Government can be authoritarian, of course — and, under the state’s control, it often is — but it does not have to be. For example, it is hard to imagine anyone demanding to know who authorized another person to fix a street lamp or redirect traffic from the site of a car accident.
The state, on the other hand, can only exist by possessing the power to contain its borders and wield authority over its population, which means states are fundamentally authoritarian. States must have the capacity to defend their political structures from any external threat and, maybe just as often, from their own citizens. This is why states tend to fund and develop policing, military, and surveillance organs whether citizens want them or not. Just to exist, the state must separate itself from its citizens and develop its structures of power independently.
Government Is Just a Pattern of Activity,
States Institutionalize Power & Authority
Government is more-or-less a repeating pattern of activity that can be shaped and re-shaped to serve whatever purposes a people want — the main issue is whether the governed can control the governing. Just as part of an individual’s time and resources is absorbed in practical activities (like cleaning, grocery-shopping, bringing the kid to school, etc.), part of society’s labor and resources is absorbed in its pattern of governing activities. It is a system to direct resources and energy to accomplish necessary or useful goals — nothing more. Systems can be redesigned or replaced — but disabling or hacking off bits of “the government” is unlikely to improve society in the same way that setting the tools and cleaning supplies on fire is not likely to improve the condition of a person’s house.
The state has a nasty habit of hijacking government to preserve the level of control it depends on to exist. To sustain the police, military, and intelligence organs necessary to coerce its population, a state needs access to resources and — since government is designed to direct public resources — governing can be re-purposed to be an interface for a state’s power. If this happens — and it often does — the state has taken control of the activity that governs the society. In other words, the state is now the one behind the wheel who “steers” the nation and, since the state treats itself as separate from its citizens, it tends to choose its own destinations.
The ‘Big’ or ‘Small’ Government Debate Is Useless,
The Real Debate Is About How the State Uses Power
“As long as the state exists, there is no freedom. When freedom exists, there will be no state”
Problems like the failed war on drugs, authoritarian policing, military interventionism, micro-managing people’s behavior, and mass incarceration are mostly about how the state uses power and authority. Issues of government are more about things like roads, utilities, mediating conflict, public services, environment and resource management, establishing standards, elections, and political organization. If the distinction between state and government were more widely drawn, many who hold differing political views might find it easier to agree with each other about the fundamental nature of the problems facing both of them.
If civil-libertarians, for example, understood that left-communists, libertarian-socialists, and many others on the left also opposed institutional coercion by the state, a broader anti-authoritarian front could form in spite of differing views on government organization. The portrayal of the left as champions of “big government” solutions is not only reductionist and wrong but it acts as an obstacle to any strategic alliance between leftists and genuine anti-authoritarians with differing, non-deal-breaking views* on other issues. No problem can be resolved without understanding it first and, in any case, a bit more precision in the public debate is never a bad thing.
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*Note: I’d like to clarify that, by “genuinely anti-authoritarian groups who hold differing and non-deal-breaking views on other issues,” I do not mean to suggest that anyone should ever align w/ flat-out reactionary groups or w/ racists of any kind for any other reason whatsoever. That is what I mean by “deal-breaking.” Racists can never be comrades. Full stop.