Two of my favorite people from my Facebook days are Jim Babka and Perry Willis. (See here for why I’m no longer on FB.) They run the Zero Aggression Project and Downsize DC. I credit them with helping me to evolve my own voluntaryist thinking, especially in separating out the concepts of government and the state.
Although people use the words interchangeably (libertarians especially, which is why they’re routinely labeled “anti-government”), it’s both possible and legitimate to see them as having different and even opposed meanings.
My late friend Marshall Fritz liked to distinguish self-government from others-government:
The state, whose activities are based in coercion and in threatening people with violence, represents the ultimate in others-government.
Happily, most of us are self-governors, at least in our personal lives. We make our own choices about how to spend our time and resources, and how to pursue our goals, while extending the same freedom to others. We also refrain from deliberately harming or threatening others.
Jim and Perry take this idea further, challenging the notion that the state should even be considered as government, properly understood. In “The Nature of Government,” the ZAP site says,
Governments are supposed to fight crime, deter invaders, adjudicate disputes, promote order and foster security. Therefore, any institution that…
- Threatens innocent people to extort their submission
- Initiates force
- Treads on personal conscience
- Commits crimes
- Fosters disorder….
…CANNOT be a government.
This makes sense to me, and in my own writing and speaking I try to say “so-called government” or “what most people call ‘the government'” when referring to the state. I call the voluntary agreements and arrangements we make with others to achieve mutually desirable goals “real government” or “legitimate government.”
As to the machine of coercion that extends from Washington, D.C. to your county seat to the smallest town with a mayor and police department, I call that “the state.”
I don’t do this consistently, to be sure; old habits die hard. And I do have to communicate with other people for whom “the state” often means simply the state of North Carolina or the state of Arizona, etc. It would sound weird if I started referring to the aldermen and employees of our nearest small town as constituting the “state” of Carrboro!
Nevertheless, as a general practice I think it would be good if libertarians could make a distinction in their own minds between government and state, and communicate that distinction to the extent it’s possible.
These concise articles are what they term Mental Levers. There are many more of them, and they are central to the ZAP website, as is the deliberate effort to engage visitors who disagree. Each mental lever page includes a way for the reader to register his or her reaction, from “strongly oppose” to “strongly support.”
It’s an interesting and fresh way to present libertarian and voluntaryist ideas.
The Zero Aggression Project and Downsize DC each has an active active Facebook presence, by the way. If you’re on FB, you might want to find their pages and subscribe to them.
On a personal note, I used to contribute to the ZAP and Downsize FB pages, as well as do some writing for the Downsize website. It was fun — even when Jim got frustrated with me for holding back on my messaging for them from caution of sounding too radical. Can you believe I worried about that?