In analyzing what is wrong with current thinking about our political order, one of the basic concepts that I employ is statism. Yet few people, including libertarians and conservatives, talk very much about the concept, and fewer still mention it by name. In my next couple of posts, I want to explore this concept and then show how it operates to bias thinking about political matters.
Let me start by defining statism. Statism is similar to other negative “isms” like racism and sexism. Just as racism is the excessive and harmful focus upon race, statism is the excessive and harmful embrace of the power of the state. While in more extreme forms, as with fascism, it takes on an almost religious worship of state power, more commonly it is simply an habitual and sometimes unconscious belief that state power realistically can be, and is generally, a force for good.
Although all but the anarchist recognize the need for state power, the non-statist marries this recognition of the benefits of such power with a strong concern about the misuse of coercion and the harm that it can and has caused throughout history. Needless to say, statism is the principal vice of modern welfare liberalism, and the principal cause of the impending bankruptcy associated with states that have followed the path of this political philosophy. As the principal vice of modern welfare liberalism, statism obviously infects the Obama Administration, although the Bush Administration exhibited a weaker form of the disease as well.
One issue concerning statism, as I have defined it, is what counts as an excessive focus on the power of the state. For example, the welfare liberal argues that big welfare-regulatory states, like those in much of Europe, do not involve an excessive role for the state. But given the harms imposed by these states, I would argue that the welfare liberal is clearly mistaken. The problem is persuading an impartial observer that the welfare liberal and other statists are mistaken.
How can one persuade that someone is a statist? Back in the day, people often tried to persuade people they were sexists with riddles. One popular one was: A boy, whose father has died, is in an accident. He is brought to the hospital for an operation and the surgeon, upon entering the operating room, says “I can’t operate, that boy is my son.” How could that be if the boy’s father had died? The obvious point is that, at least in the 1970s, people had a hard time realizing that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. (Of course, it is not at all clear that failing to provide the answer was sexism — there were very few female surgeons back then — but leave that aside.)
Well, I don’t have any riddles, but in my next post I will try to show that statist biases have infected the thought of economists. If this group – which has a reputation for being pro market – is statist, then statism is likely to be even more of a problem in the other academic disciplines.