Are you a “statist”?

Some people are fond of using the term “statist” to describe their political opponents. (I’ve never heard of anyone using it to describe themselves.) For example, in response to a HoCo Rising post on a fundraiser held by Howard County council member Courtney Watson, Bill Bissenas commented that both Watson and Guy Guzzone (her rumored opponent in the next county executive race) are “statists of the highest order,” in Watson’s case “despite [her] efforts to convince folks otherwise.” In response to which Dave Bittner asked Bill, “you use the term, ‘statist’ a lot. Could you define it for me?”

Bill provided his own answer, which basically amounted to an admonition to “look it up” and a recommendation to read the works of Mark Levin, Thomas Sowell, and Ayn Rand. I was going to provide my own answer in comments, but since it threatened to run long I’m posting it here. Needless to say, this is my own opinion and not an attempt to speak for Bill or anyone else.

If you go by the “ultimate authority” (i.e., Wikipedia), “statism” is simply “a term used by political scientists to describe the belief that, for whatever reason, a government should control either economic or social policy or both to some degree.” However I think in practice a lot of people use the term more loosely than that, to refer more generally to issues relating to the increased power, scope, and actions of government in lots of different areas, and in this context there are several dimensions of “statism” to contemplate.

While these dimensions are interrelated to at least some degree they are not identical, so people can cherry pick from them to suit their own political inclinations and goals. Here (in no particular order) are what I think are the major dimensions along which you could be “statist” (or not, as the case may be):

1. Supporting high (or at least higher) taxes. But you could lower taxes while at the same time raising government spending if you’re willing to run larger deficits (see items 3 and 6 below), like George W. Bush and lots of other politicians (“conservative” or otherwise) past and present.

2. Supporting such measures as warrantless domestic wiretapping and general interception of Internet traffic, attempts to achieve visibility into or even emergency control over private corporate networks, onerous security procedures for air travel, or general surveillance of suspect populations and groups without specific evidence of criminal activity or intent. For the most past these and related measures have had pretty much unanimous cross-party support since 9/11, with no signs of anything changing in the foreseeable future.

3. Supporting lengthy and expensive overseas military engagements and/or military spending that is arguably often in excess of the real needs of national security. See also item 2.

4. Engaging in “nanny-state” paternalism (see Bill’s past comments on Ken Ulman and the smoking ban in Howard County parks) and various types of interference in the private lives of citizens (see Rick Santorum and any number of other social conservatives in the GOP).

5. Promoting government interference in the economy and general market distortions of various types. This is generally considered to be a specialty of Democrats, but is far from unknown among Republicans, especially when done through targeted tax breaks and/or special protections for favored industries (e.g., copyright and other IP-related legislation).

6. Supporting high government spending and tolerating high deficits (which are often but not always associated with high spending). From a “statist” perspective this is considered especially bad if it’s spending on social programs that are at least partially redistributive in nature. Some exempt targeted tax breaks (which either raise taxes on the rest of us or increase deficits) and various corporate subsidies (see item 5) and/or high military and intelligence spending (see items 2 and 3) from being “statist”, although it’s not clear why they should get a pass here.

If you take items 1 through 6 together, I don’t think there’s a major national politician who’s not “statist,” except for Ron Paul. (And I suspect that even Paul has some “statist” tendencies here and there—though Paul supporters are free to disagree.) I suspect almost all (if not all) local Howard County politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, would also fail the “statist” test. In practice “statist” is often just used as a pejorative term for politicians and policies people disagree with—from that point of view it’s basically the new “liberal”.

Some people who use the term “statist” also come to what I think are silly conclusions, for example that Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, etc., are “socialist” countries. Canada actually scores significantly higher than the U.S. on the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom produced by the Heritage Foundation, Denmark is practically tied with the US, and both Finland and Sweden are also ranked in the top 25 countries worldwide. These countries are not “socialist” by any reasonable definition (e.g., government control of the means of production); rather they are simply capitalist countries (some of them more capitalist than the U.S.) that have relatively high spending on social programs.

The bottom line is that I discount anyone who uses the term “statist” unless they happen to be principled libertarians and are consistent in their positions on each of the dimensions of “statism” I’ve outlined above. Which is not to say that I think principled libertarians are always or even mostly right in terms of either their policy prescriptions and how they reach their conclusions, but that’s a subject for another day.