“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” – Pericles
His reply read, “Ok, found the statist.” A grin spread across my face as I chuckled at his response. It was, after all, in jest. My friend was well aware of my hesitant feelings towards the state. But many online are deadly serious while machine-gunning the term “statist” at anyone failing to toe their line. Unable to pinpoint its earliest deviation point, it’s fair to look to the anarchist movement’s recent involvement in redefining the term for its purposes. Much like the struggle to reacquire the term “liberalism,” some are not in the habit of affording groups the right to redefine words to suit their needs.
The term statism first appeared circa the 1600s in reference to church-state matters. The two were nearly inseparable and exercised substantial control over the individual. By the late 19th century, the term represented the “art of government” before eventually signifying the political opposite of individualism by the early 20th century. In his book, “Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis,” Ludwig von Mises referred to it as “etatism” and wrote:
“Marxism relies upon the infallible judgment of a proletariat filled with the revolutionary spirit, Etatism upon the infallibility of the reigning authority. They both agree in belief in a political absolutism which does not admit the possibility of error.”
Mises preferred the term “etatism,” which contains the French word “état,” meaning “state,” over “statism.” This change reinforced that the statist mindset had not originated in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Origins aside, the term has more recently come to be defined as:
“Concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.”
Add to this that when looking up the term “statist,” many dictionaries merely describe it as an advocate of statism. Therefore, classically defined, a statist argues for and pursues a high degree of government centralization and control, which stems from their belief in the superior nature of central planning over free-market actions.
Statism implies a preferred or desired state of affairs – not someone’s acceptance of unavoidable compromise. Many individualists dream of a world where voluntary interactions and mutual respect for private property abound; perhaps an impossibility if we are to believe the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state of nature. Arguably, without the rule of law, the unprotected fundamental securities of life would lead to continual wealth destruction and de-civilization. Christianity also addresses this precept when pointing to the depraved state of humanity, a consequence of sin entering into the world.
Recognition and mindfulness of such foundational beliefs are essential to the discussion at hand. There is no contradiction in acknowledging the government’s inevitable existence and coercive nature and then seeking to restrict its power as the end goal. Political activism towards reducing government does not positively represent government endorsement. It merely represents a pragmatic rather than idealistic approach to remedying a problem: large-scale co-existence and civilization-building in light of the human tendency towards plunder and violence.
Etatism or statism is altogether different; the deep-seated belief in a benevolent and far more efficient central authority flies in the face of free markets and personal responsibility. The statist and utilitarian are united in their view that government planning, decision-making, and emphasizing collective happiness are morally superior to individualism and its relationship with private property.
By definition, statism propagates activities that validate increasing government control over our lives. Voting for political parties who endeavour to reduce government size and promote free-market friendly policies is disharmonious with the statist worldview and does not follow its classical definition.
Social media platforms are ripe with pseudo-intellectualism and hurlers of insult. A better strategy would be to pursue sober-mindedness and become better acquainted with one’s arcs of fire. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with idealism, for without it, to what would humanity aspire? But to discount pragmatism, which confronts the world as we know it, would be disastrous and short-sighted.
The tornados of life don’t whirl about the inside of vacuums. We often experience the tug of wars between principle and pragmatism and the difficult decisions that go along with them. Human tribalism and the need to organize aren’t going anywhere, and so it seems degrees of governance aren’t going anywhere either. While the individualist works to curtail this reality, the statist will always devote his efforts to its expansion.