In Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock introduces a number of very interesting points that shock the modern American mind. These points are certainly numerous enough to warrant every liberty-minded American to pick up a copy of that book as soon as possible. But there is a single idea that warrants further discussion, for it is one of everyday, practical value. This idea is that government and the state are two separate things (a passing note that is in order: Nock capitalizes the “s” in state to differentiate it from other uses of the word “state”, but I will not be following that convention here). This solitary idea is worth dissecting not only from the perspective of political philosophy, but also linguistically, and I will briefly go into each perspective here.

Nock begins his discussion of the state by separating, dividing, and characterizing otherwise conflated ideas. He notes that society and government are not the same. Paraphrasing Thomas Paine, society is a blessing but government is a necessary evil. The former is the body of the people themselves and the latter is the institution of governing. To conflate the two is a hallmark of collectivist thought (indeed, Nock says that regarding the state as a social institution is a collectivist conclusion). Society may have certain “social” impulses to, let’s say, aid fellow creatures in time of disaster, but this must be seen as separate and existing before government aid. And indeed, the latter form of aid retards the former.

Moving on from there, Nock then contrasts government with the state. Government, he says, is essentially a social order of natural rights that protects people and upholds justice. Paraphrasing the legal code of legendary Good King Pausole, government guides man to hurt no other man and then to do as he pleases. Nock, and other scholars he cites, point to the social orders of indigenous Americans and Africans as exemplars of government.

The state, on the other hand, is entirely different in origin, function, and intention. Where government is social, the state is anti-social. It is analogous to a professional mafia; a class of men surviving by criminal efforts. Here Nock begins to discuss the idea that just as there are two different forms of political organization, there are also two different methods that a man may take to fulfill his needs in life. Nock references Oppenheimer’s Der Staat to explain the two methods; the economic method and the political method. The economic method of fulfilling needs is one where people produce and exchange wealth. The political method of fulfilling needs is one where people appropriate each other’s wealth through violence. Or put another way, the political method is one of exploitation. And here the state itself comes to be properly understood as the political organization of the political method; it is the organization of plunder.

Now, everything described thus far has been from Nock’s work. When I read it initially, I became quite interested in taking the idea further. Etymology, an ever useful tool, came to mind as a way of doing just that. Government and statehood have been used so interchangeably in America that one may as well assume that the two words are synonymous, but a quick search on the Online Etymology Dictionary shows otherwise. The word “government” is derived from the word “govern” combined with the “-ment” suffix. To govern is to guide, much like the helmsman guides the ship that he is aboard. With the suffix in place, we can get a sense of the word “government” meaning something like the state or action of guidance taking place. A closely related word, “governance”, is composed of the same word “govern” with the suffix “-ance”. Governance, with its very similar suffix, is something of a condition or result of guidance taking place. These two words link up very nicely with what Nock is describing when he uses the word “government”. The “state”, on the other hand, is a Latin word with multiple definitions but a specifically political definition when brought into the Germanic languages. It is the political organization of the country; a civil authority.

To drive the difference home, I want to share an insight I had about the word “govern”. I read historical fencing manuals, Fechtbuchen, on my free time. If one truly wants to understand what fencing means, one must go back to the earliest writings on the topic by people who lived and died by the sword. Modern ideas and practices of fencing must be seen as aberrations and degradations, and nothing more. But I digress. In George Silver’s acclaimed 1599 work Paradoxes of Defence, we are introduced to the idea of Four Governors. Failure to heed the Four Governors will lead to a man being wounded by his foe no matter how hard he fights or trains. These Four Governors are nothing more than operating principles that, if followed, keep the swordsman safe. When the swordsman heeds the Governors, he is guided well and fights with the whole of protection. He also uses the word “govern” to describe the action of handling a weapon. Between the two uses, we can see how the word “govern” can be properly used in the English language; it is the act of guidance and proper direction.

Between the philosophical and linguistic expositions of the aforementioned terms, right-thinking libertarians may now be armed to grasp the differences between government and the state. The words “government” and “governance”, in English, refer to nothing more than the condition of guidance. This a far cry from the state, which is a word that describes the political organization of the political means. One idea is that of direction or steering, and the other is one of economic exploitation and subjugation. So the next time you get asked if you are against the government, you may find a great opportunity to respond by asking in turn what such a thing truly means.