At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Governmentalism, not Statism

posted by Jack Kerwick

No one wants to be thought of as a “statist,” a proponent of “statism,” for the “statist,” it is widely held, is an ardent lover of an omnipresent, omnipotent government.  Conversely, he despises individuality or liberty.

Despite the regularity with which “statism” and the like are bandied about, they are deeply problematic.

Admittedly, over the span of roughly 500 years or so, the concept of a state has lent itself to multiple readings.  Yet initially, the term referred to a political entity, an association organized by a centralizing authority—a government.  Note, government, though essential to a state, was never thought to be synonymous with it.  Rather, a state was the sum total of all activities transpiring within its territorial jurisdiction.  Its government, in contrast, was but one activity among these others.

This understanding of a state may be old, but it is not dead—not by a long shot.  In fact, even those who accept “statism” as a term of opprobrium regularly concede its legitimacy.  Take, for example, America.  When the colonists achieved their independence from England, they saw themselves as forming a union of, not just governments, but something more than this, a union of states. 

Neither the Founders nor their posterity ever regarded “these United States” interchangeably with “these United Governments.”  In fact, up until the War Between the States, Americans, particularly Southerners like Robert E. Lee, for instance, thought of their country first and foremost in terms of their home states.  For Lee, his “country,” his homeland, was the state of Virginia.  The latter’s government was just one ingredient in this mix.

Sometimes even the most avid “anti-statists” are the first to acknowledge that “state” and “government” are not one and the same.  Even as I write this, Edward Snowden, the government employee who just recently revealed the scope and nature of the National Security Administration’s surveillance program, is front and center in the news.  The most avowed “anti-statists” not only defend him against the charge that he is a traitor.  They go so far as to deem him a hero, for while Snowden may very well have betrayed the confidence that his government placed in him, he did so for the sake of preserving the integrity of his country. But his country is a state (in name, anyhow, a union of states).

When Ron Paul (and others) said of 9/11 that it was “blowback” from America’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East, his (mostly) Republican detractors accused him of “blaming America.”  His most vocal defenders—“anti-statists” all of them—observed that criticisms of the American government, however harsh and sweeping, are not one and the same as criticisms of the country.

I propose that we jettison “statism” and “statist” from our vocabulary and replace them with “governmentalism” and “governmentalist.

As we have seen, state and government are not mutually equivalent. A state is made possible by its government, certainly, but it transcends it.

Secondly, the term “government” has none of the ambiguity with which “state” has been saddled over time.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it is the love for massive government that “statism” is supposed to be all about.

Governmentalism will probably never catch on; too many syllables (though not as many syllables as “environmentalism,” and that’s now part of our political vernacular).  In any event, it is more accurate a term than “statism.”  This consideration alone should count decisively in its favor.  However, there is another.

The word “governmentalism” is an uglier word than “statism.”  And no term can be too ugly that aims to characterize an ideology devoted to an all encompassing government.



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