The Definition of Statism and How Government Rules Through Economy
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“Statism is nothing more than gang rule. A statist dictatorship is a gang devoted to looting the effort of the productive citizens of its own country.”
– Ayn Rand, War and Peace, The Objectivist Newsletter, Oct 1962
What is statism? Merriam-Webster defines it as the “concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.”
In essence, statism is the belief that the state or government, regardless of its size or the amount of control it exerts over its subjects, is legitimate to at least some extent. In practice, a government becomes more statist as it exercises increasing control over the economy.
While libertarians often use the word “statism” to brand any state control they deem authoritarian and antithetical to the free market, a statist doesn’t necessarily endorse despotism, fascism, socialism, conservatism, or any other “ism.”
A statist may merely believe that some form of minimal government is necessary to provide society with a safety net, protections against theft and breach of contract, a court system, or other functions with which the free market doesn’t naturally concern itself. Even the most laissez-faire economist is unlikely to condemn the concept of a town fire department as a threat to civil society.
In contrast, anti-statism is the essence of pure anarchism. An anti-statist would assert that all state power and political power are illegitimate as well as an affront to liberty. They would argue that everything which people need to thrive and coexist peaceably could be provided by the private sector.
Who and What Is a Statist
Statists commonly believe that the government must play a central role in the means of production. They may reason that the private sector is unable to function within a vacuum of government influence; perhaps it will violate the rights of the citizenry, or pose a threat to the hegemony of the state itself.
Economic planning, a common facet of socialism in which the government actively decides how resources will be allocated among its citizenry, is a common feature of statism. Subsidies, which are sums of money granted by the state to help an industry or certain businesses, are also common in statism.
As explained above, a statist might technically only want a government which offers a police department and a guy with a shovel who is paid to fill in potholes. The title of “statist” is more frequently reserved for someone (typically a politician) who believes the government should have more legal power over its citizens and influence in business.
The individual is no longer their own master under statism – at least not entirely. Rather, they are subject to a system that purports to serve a higher goal. Whether that goal is the advancement of a race, religion, ideal, or even the expansion of the state’s borders is ultimately up to the whims of the ruling elites (typically politicians).
Examples of Statism
The rather loose definition of statism means it applies to several forms of government. Socialism, communism, national socialism, feudalism, fascism, tribalism, apartheid, theocracy, and even democracy are all examples of statism.
At face value, these systems share little in common, but they all seek to direct how their citizens’ collective efforts are spent. The goal of communism is common ownership of all things; thus the product of a citizen’s labor goes in part or in whole toward the good of all (or in practice the good of the political elite).
The goal of feudalism is ultimately to benefit the king; thus the serf tilling the field pays rent to their vassal who in turn provides military aid to the crown. The goal of theocracy is to benefit God; because God has little use for gold, which He can make as easily as snapping His fingers, the church benevolently accumulates it on His behalf.
Technically speaking, every American politician is a statist. Although he is very much in favor of limiting government interference in private life to the greatest extent possible, Ron Paul’s political view that the “proper role for government in America is to provide national defense, a court system for civil disputes, a criminal justice system for acts of force and fraud, and little else” includes several state-run services.
As American politics become more left-leaning, so too do they frequently become more statist. Hilary Clinton’s 2016 platform included imposing a tax on high-frequency trading and direct government intervention in the free market.
Bernie Sanders’ pledge to transform America’s energy system into 100 percent renewable energy, although environmentalist in tone, would needless to say have required massive bureaucratic intervention. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s promise to illegalize capitalism while forcing all white, cis males to wear bomb collars is arguably just a tiny bit statist as well.
In her essay War and Peace, Ayn Rand wrote “The differences among statist systems are only a matter of time and degree; the principle is the same. Under statism, the government is not a policeman, but a legalized criminal that holds the power to use physical force in any manner and for any purpose it pleases against legally disarmed, defenseless victims.”
Statism exists wherever government exists – it is the degree to which statism is exercised which makes it reprehensible or not. But if one accepts that a person is a free and rational creature, whose sole obligation is unto themself, then any agency which forces them to behave a certain way or spend the product of their labor toward the advancement of any goal which they have not voluntarily accepted as their own is necessarily unjust.
What is statism? In essence, it is whenever any authority exerts control over your life. But doing away with statism entirely would quite possibly require the elimination of the entire world population minus one.