State, Government Distinction

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    I listened to a lecture a while back, and I recall the point being made that state and government are not one and the same. I can’t recall which lecture, but I think it was in this series. My mind must have wandered during the lecture, because I don’t recall what was said as to the difference between the two.

    Could you please give me a explanation regarding to how these are seen as different?



    Dear Karen,

    Apologies for the delay in responding to your query.

    I am not sure in which lecture or lectures a distinction between state and government was made or in what context so let me try to make some sense of it here and now.

    Of course, as with the usage of any contested terms, some may use ‘government’ and ‘state’ to refer to the same entity. However, it seems to me that it can be useful to distinguish between those actual individuals who hold the reins of political power at any given time (the government), and the more or less permanent structures of political control regardless of who is actually in a position to employ them (the state).

    If an analogy might help, try this. A corporation (say General Motors, for example) has a more or less permanent legal structure which persists even though the actual holders of particular offices can change.

    I hope this helps?

    If you locate the specific place in the lectures which occasioned your query, you might revert to me.

    Best wishes,

    Gerard Casey


    Here is an excerpt from an extended version of the lecture material, bearing on the status of collectives that may be of help:

    At times in this history, I will speak of various forms of collective—government, state, nation and the like. It is important to be clear just what the status (no pun intended) of such collectives is. Are groups, corporations, tribes, clans, nations and states just convenient ways of organising the lives of individuals or do these collectives have a measure of real existence of their own? If so, are they at least as real, or perhaps even more real, than the individuals who constitute them? This dispute on the ontological status of groups or collectives is the classic battle between Platonists and Aristotelians transferred from the empyrean heights of metaphysics to the sublunary arena of human action. Are the Forms, à la Plato, more real than the things of this world, existing apart from them yet giving them the small measure of reality that they have; or are forms in things, à la Aristotle, making them to be what they are but having no independent real existence apart from them? This argument is not merely of historical interest; it is a perennial area of philosophical dispute. [see Pettit and List, passim] Today, as Tom Palmer notes, ‘An army of illiberal academics have posited an array of “social forces” of domination—including class, gender, race, and other categories—that are more active and real than the mere flesh-and-blood “individuals” that surround us (although it takes the hard work of tenured professors to see those social forces properly and without distortion). [Palmer 2014b, 113] For such latter-day Platonists, reality is a bloodless ballet of interacting abstractions, a phantasmagoria of forms, and grubby individuals are of little or no significance.

    It is certainly true that we speak of groups or associations and that these groups or associations can constitute the subject or object of sentences with action verbs, for example: ‘The State today recognised its obligation to care for the long-term disabled’ or ‘The Government issued instructions to all local authorities concerning levels of local taxation’ or ‘The University has adopted a new entrance policy for disadvantaged students.’ What is the ontological, moral, and/or legal status of the subjects of these sentences? In answer to this question, we might adopt a position—call it social nominalism—that denies that these groups or associations have any mode of existence at all, being merely a convenient way of speaking of individuals cooperating with each other; or we could subscribe to social realism and hold that such groups have a transcendent reality above and beyond the members who constitute them or the relationships (informal or contractual) that bind those members together; or, finally, we could accept social epiphenomenalism, which is the position that social groups and associations are entities of a sort, created and sustained by the network of intentions (often embodied in rules, laws and constitutions) of those who compose them, either informal (in the case of football supporters) or formal (in the case of members of a corporation).

    Of these three positions on the ontological status of collectives, social epiphenomenalism seems to me to be the most defensible, at once reflecting our lived experience while avoiding the obvious problems with social realism. ‘One’s ordinary common sense baulks,’ Ervin Laszlo remarks, ‘at treating what appear to be merely associations between individual human beings as entities in themselves.’ [Laszlo 1972b, 98] Some social wholes—teams, corporations, even nations—can, once established, maintain a coherent ethos and mode of existence even as the personnel of whom they are composed change. Such relative stability, which includes a capacity for self-perpetuation, is ‘typical of all groups of interacting parts when the parts maintain some basic sets of relationships among themselves.’ [Laszlo 1972a, 7; see 44] While there are material elements associated with such social groups—football grounds, company headquarters, bank accounts and the like—the principal sustaining element in the creation and maintenance of social wholes are the beliefs of its personnel and of those who relate to it. ‘Attitudes, beliefs, world views—these all play a vital role in determining the environment of social systems. Not that the real and objective factors can be neutralized, but they are overlaid by what people believe about them, and thus their effect is modified (cushioned or sharpened) by the dominant culture.’ [Laszlo 1972a, 62]

    Human action, whatever else it may be, is ineluctably particular. One cannot take a dog in general for a walk in general or post a letter in general to no one in particular; it has to be this particular dog, now, in this particular park, and this particular letter to this particular person posted in this particular box. Collectives have a secondary mode of existence, consisting ontologically of a network of relationships subsisting among individual human beings. These relationships are real and so to the same extent are the collectives constituted by them. A family is a set of human beings related by genetics (usually), upbringing and environment. A football team is a set of human beings related by a particular purpose that is determined by the constitutive rules of the game and the organisational rules of the governing association. We can say that the family did that or that the football team did this but, in the end, only individual human beings act. When we make a collective the subject of a sentence, what we are describing is the action of an individual or individuals under a certain description. [see Shand 1984, 4-6 but see, also, Bunge].

    Murray Rothbard posits methodological individualism as the first implication of the concept of human action. ‘The first truth to be discovered about human action is that it can be undertaken only by individual ‘actors.’ Only individuals have ends and can act to attain them. There are no such things as ends of or actions by ‘groups,’ ‘collectives,’ or ‘states,’ which do not take place as actions by various specific individuals.’ [Rothbard 2004, 2 Emphasis added] Although football teams or universities or society are not completely non-existent, for Rothbard they certainly do not possess a mode of reality over and above that of the individuals and the relationships among those individuals who constitute them: ‘[T]o say that “governments” act is merely a metaphor; actually, certain individuals are in a certain relationship with other individuals and act in a way that they and the other individuals recognize as “governmental.” The metaphor must not be taken to mean that the collective institution itself has any reality apart from the acts of various individuals.’ [Rothbard 2004, 3, emphasis added] It should be noted that Rothbard does not deny the reality of groups or aggregates completely. What he does deny is that they have a mode of reality apart from or superior to that of individuals.

    The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is notorious for having remarked that there was no such a thing as society and she has been roundly castigated for that remark ever since. What she in fact said was ‘Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people’. [Woman’s Own 31 October 1987; emphasis added] Later in the interview, she went on to say again ‘There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ What is usually presented as an example of stone-cold heartlessness on Thatcher’s part is, in fact, a call to take responsibility for oneself and to help one’s neighbours and to stop shuffling your problems and their problems off onto somebody else. The selective misquotation and mischievous misinterpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s comments was instantaneous and egregious, so much so that she took the unprecedented step of issuing a clarification. ‘All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society,’ she said. ‘Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done.’ [The Sunday Times, 10 July 1988] She might have spared her breath. As the newspaper reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence says when the truth of who really shot Liberty Valence is finally revealed, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Mrs Thatcher might have been surprised to discover that her views on society echoed those of the eminent psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Gustav Jung. He believed that ‘society is nothing more than an abstract idea like the State. Both are hypostatized, that is, have become autonomous. The State in particular is turned into a quasi-animate personality from whom everything is expected. In reality it is only a camouflage for those individuals who know how to manipulate it. Thus the constitutional State drifts into the situation of a primitive form of society—the communism of a primitive tribe where everybody is subject to the autocratic rule of a chief or an oligarchy.’ [Jung 1957, 357]

    As might be expected, Murray Rothbard’s mentor, Ludwig von Mises, also supports the principle of methodological individualism. [Mises 1996, 41-43] He considers the common objections to that principle: human beings are always part of a greater social whole; that it is impossible to conceive of man as an isolated individual; that language is a social phenomenon; and that reason can only emerge ‘within the framework of social mutuality.’ [Mises 1996, 41] He responds by noting that the evolution of reason, of language, and of cooperation are all real processes but they are the outcome of processes of change in individuals. Mises is quite willing to ascribe a measure of reality to groups and even to grant them a determining role in human history. ‘Methodological individualism,’ he says, ‘far from contesting the significance of such collective wholes, considers it as one of its main tasks to describe and to analyze their becoming and their disappearing, their changing structures, and their operation”. [Mises 1996, 42]

    Are Mises and Rothbard at loggerheads on this matter? No. Just as Rothbard does, Mises too asserts that ‘all actions are performed by individuals’ and that ‘a social collective has no existence and reality outside of the individual members’ actions.’ [Mises 1996, 42] What determines an action to be merely the act of an individual or, on the other hand, to be the act of a group—a state—is the meaning that is ascribed to that action. ‘The hangman, not the state, executes a criminal. It is the meaning of those concerned that discerns in the hangman’s action an action of the state.’ [Mises 1996, 42] To recognise collectives is to exercise an act of understanding, not perception. Collective wholes ‘are never visible; their cognition is always the outcome of the understanding of the meaning which acting men attribute to their acts. We can see a crowd….Whether this crowd is a mere gathering…or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question which can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence. And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals’. [Mises 1996, 43] ‘On a purely factual plane,’ writes Alexander d’Entrèves, ‘the State does not “exist”: it is nowhere to be found, a real person of flesh and blood. Only individuals can be found.’ And while it may be the case that, as with all corporations, ‘the State is said to have capacities and liabilities’, this is so only because ‘the law, and the law alone…creates and determines them.’ [see d’Entrèves 1967, 19; but see also Gierke 1900, and Gierke 1913]

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