Smith discusses some preliminary issues involved in the classic libertarian distinction between the spheres of “state” and “society.”

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Sociology, broadly conceived, may be defined as the systematic study of social action, order, and institutions. I will elaborate on these and similar concepts in subsequent essays. In this series I wish to explain a fundamental feature of the libertarian approach to sociology, namely, the distinction between state and society.

“State,” in this context, refers to the political realm of (supposedly) legitimate coercion, whereas “society” refers to the realm of voluntary interaction. The spheres of state and society may thus be viewed as institutions in the broadest sense. They embody two basic patterns of interaction: the coercive and the voluntary.

To avoid confusion, it should be noted that this idea of “society” differs from its more general meaning, which includes all kinds of sustained interaction, whether voluntary or coercive. This inclusive meaning of “society” refers to the overall pattern of social order and to all institutions within that order. Government, from this comprehensive perspective, is one social institution among many.

The other meaning of “society,” the one we shall consider here, refers only to institutions that operate by voluntary means. In this exclusive sense, “society” (or “social”) is contrasted with “state” (or “government” or “political”). I shall call this the society/​state model.

We are here dealing with the concepts of state and society as ideal types (to use the terminology of Max Weber). These ideal types are procedural models, not formal definitions. They omit a good deal of information and focus instead on distinctive features (coercive or voluntary interaction) that function as mental constants, thereby enabling us to fix our position and locate recurring patterns in the immensely complex world of human interaction.

In the present context, therefore, “state” and “society” signify mutually exclusive ideal types. This perspective is not the only one possible, but we will never “see” complex phenomena unless we focus our theoretical vision. It is precisely because sociological phenomena are so complex that we need the simplicity of ideal types (or “pure forms,” as Georg Simmel called them).

The society/​state model is to libertarian (or classical liberal) ideology what dialectical materialism is to Marxian ideology, that is to say, a basic theoretical framework for understanding cultural, economic, and historical phenomena. But we should not suppose that the society/​state model was concocted by libertarian social theorists for ideological purposes. On the contrary, this dichotomy has been employed by many sociologists and historians. As the distinguished sociologist Reinhard Bendix (1916–1991) noted, the society/​state model is “most useful [as] an analytic framework” for understanding the development of the modern nation‐​state. “From an analytical viewpoint, it is necessary to consider ‘society’ and ‘the state’ as interdependent, but autonomous, spheres of thought and action which coexist in one form or another in all complex societies, although the separation of these ‘spheres’ is perhaps greatest in modern Western societies.”

Similarly, in his classic work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) wrote:

In the current sense, the idea of the “Social” means a definite, clearly defined section of the general sociological phenomena–that is, the sociological relations which are not regulated by the State, nor by political interest, save in so far as they are indirectly influenced by them. This sociological section is composed of the various questions which arise out of economic life, the sociological tension between various groups with different customs and aims, division of labour, class organizations, and some other interests which cannot be directly characterized as political, but which actually have a great influence on the collective life of the State; since the modern constitutional State, however, these interests have definitely separated themselves from it.

Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836), a French philosopher whose writings were greatly admired by Thomas Jefferson, gave us what is perhaps the best account of “society” in the sense we are considering here.

Society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges. It is never any thing else, in any epoch of its duration, from its commencement the most unformed, to its greatest perfection. And this is the greatest eulogy we can give to it, for exchange is an admirable transaction, in which the two contracting parties always both gain; consequently society is an uninterrupted successions of advantages, unceasingly renewed for all its members.

Some social theorists, such as Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), have formulated the society/​state model by using different labels. Spencer, who typically used the word “society” in the comprehensive (inclusive) sense described above, grounded his sociology in the distinction between the “militant” and “industrial” forms of social organization. In the militant form “compulsory co‐​operation” predominates, whereas in the industrial form “voluntary co‐​operation” predominates. According to Spencer, “the two types when severally evolved to their extreme forms, are diametrically opposed; and the contrasts between their traits are among the most important with which sociology has to deal.”

F.A. Hayek (1899–1992) was correct when he described “society” as a rubber word. This highly elastic term has been used in a variety of ways, and there is no remedy for this ambiguity except to specify what one means by “society” in a particular context. The significant point, and the only point that ultimately matters, is the distinction between the coercive and voluntary spheres of interaction. This distinction, however labeled, has been a dominant and recurring theme in the sociological analyses of classical liberals and libertarians since the seventeenth century.

Thus far I have used “state” to signify the sphere of coercive interaction. This brings us to yet another terminological dispute: What distinction, if any, should be made between “state” and “government”? Let us consider three possibilities.

(1) Max Weber (1864–1920) identified two kinds of political institutions. The first, which we may call “ government,” is the more general of the two. A government is an administrative staff which continuously employs physical force, or the threat of force, in a given territorial area–but which does not necessarily claim or uphold a monopoly of legitimate force. This typology treats government as the genus, or general class, of political institutions; while it classifies the state as a species, or type, of government– one that “successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” In short, a state is a coercive monopoly, whereas a government need not be. Both political institutions claim the right to use legitimate violence, but only the state claims this right exclusively.

(2) According to some sociologists, such as Robert Bierstedt (1913–1998), the state is an institution (i.e., an abstract system of norms, procedures, and roles), whereas a government is a concrete association (i.e., an organized group of people). In this sense, we may say that the American State was established by the Constitution and has existed continuously since its ratification in 1788. Within the framework of this state, however, various governments have come and gone, as different ruling associations have been elected or appointed according to constitutional procedures. In this view, a government (an association) is the flesh‐​and‐​blood manifestation of a state (an institution).

(3) Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945), in Our Enemy, the State, discussed “two distinct types of political organization.” Government is formed for the purpose of protecting individuals from fraud, theft, assault, murder, and the like. The state, in contrast, is a predatory institution rooted in conquest and plunder, an institution that enables one class (the rulers) to systematically exploit another class (the ruled).

According to Nock, Thomas Jefferson was confused when he claimed that various Indian tribes were able to maintain a high degree of social order “without government,” as was Herbert Spencer when he pointed to various societies that have no “definite government.” Nock claimed that all such communities, though they may lack a state, do nonetheless have a governmental mechanism to protect members and adjudicate disputes. No society can subsist without some kind of government.

Of these three distinctions between state and government, that of Nock–who was heavily influenced by Franz Oppenheimer, author of The State– is the least plausible. For Nock, government and state are not merely different, they are diametrically opposed in terms of their functions and basic purpose. A state cannot be a government, and a government cannot be a state. This is a forced and artificial distinction, in my judgment. As an analytic tool, it has little or no value. As a conceptual model for historical investigation, it is equally barren.

Nock believed that government is morally justifiable, but not the state. Since Nock was a self‐​professed anarchist, this implies that belief in “government” is compatible with anarchism. This strikes me as a paradoxical assertion, to say the least. True, we sometimes speak of the governing body of a social institution, e.g., the board of directors of a private corporation. But to call this a “government” is usually misleading. Jefferson was correct when he observed that some Indian communities were anarchistic. I cannot here discuss his thinking on this subject, except to point out that Jefferson was keenly aware of the difference between social institutions and political institutions. Social institutions are based on the voluntary reciprocity of equal rights, whereas political institutions are based on the domination and subordination of unequal rights.

Whatever conceptual distinction we may wish to draw between government and state, we must always remember that both are political institutions. Governments, even if they seek to protect rights, always claim a privileged status; they relegate certain rights and powers exclusively to themselves, while denying them, by force of law, to everyone else. Both governments and states operate by the political method of domination and subordination, not by the social principle of reciprocity. This was well known to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, and to many others in their tradition.

In addition to Nock’s distinction, I mentioned two other distinctions between state and government. (I have associated these with Weber and Bierstedt, though similar distinctions have been made by others.) In Weber’s scheme, the state is an institution which claims a justified monopoly to decide all matters involving legitimate coercion. Government, in contrast, is an institution that claims the right to exercise political power (legitimate violence), but it does not necessarily claim this as an exclusive (sovereign) right. For Bierstedt, the state is an institutional structure of laws, procedures, etc., whereas government is a concrete association of people who work within the institutional framework of the state.

Both of these distinctions may be useful, depending on the context to which they are applied. Weber’s model is especially fruitful in historical investigations, where his ideal types enable us to trace the modern development of state sovereignty, in contrast to the legal pluralism that characterized the medieval era. Bierstedt’s model, on the other hand, is more helpful in sociological analyses. In the context of our present discussion, however, no useful purpose is served by distinguishing between “state” and “government,” since both terms signify the realm of coercive interaction.