Separating Society from the State

Political polarization is as high as it has ever been. According to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided among ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” The press and punditry largely blame this on two things: gerrymandering (1) and poor legislator quality.

The thinking is that if more politicians were willing to be brave and fight against the will of their constituents, we would be able to pass more laws and get more stuff done. (To this effect, just about every article about congressional inaction paints it as an inherently bad thing; see “Worst. Congress. Ever.” by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post for one of many examples.) Instead, the narrative goes, politicians on both sides pander to the base instincts of their voters and rarely do what they know is right.

My belief is that political polarization has been fueled by the continued merging of society and state (2), and that passing more laws will further advance this trend. This will, in turn, increase polarization. What I argue for is a clear recognition of and respect for separate spheres: there is state, there is society, and there should be very little overlap.


In his seminal work “Crisis and Leviathan”, economist Robert Higgs hits on the concept of government growth as occurring in two facets: size and scope (or depth and breadth, respectively). For example: during World War II, the federal government’s size grew immensely, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We needed to build more tanks and recruit more soldiers to confront a massive enemy.

More perilous to healthy governance were the increases in government’s scope: exerting near-total control of wages and prices; rationing goods; stifling international trade, etc. These moves represented the government not simply growing, but intruding upon areas that had previously been the domain of private society. The definition of “national defense” had expanded so much that it now included decisions as personal as what type of meat you fed your family for dinner.

This merging of private and public spheres continues today, to the point where their boundaries can often be impossible to determine. It is one thing for a government to increase in size by providing healthcare to those in need; this is a size issue, and it should be open for debate. It is an entirely different, and more polarizing, thing to force all citizens to engage in a private transaction and purchase a service from one of a few state-sanctioned firms. (Or, if you were a business owner, to provide insurance to your employees via terms mandated to you by the federal government.)

Similarly, a huge portion of what should be strictly private, moral issues now bleed into the public sphere. Religious objections to providing non-vital services (like sending flowers for a wedding) can land you at the wrong end of a federal lawsuit. Filming a documentary critical of a powerful politician gets you charged with a violation of federal campaign finance law. (4)

As the spheres combine, the potential for polarization grows. Political debates are no longer about policy specifics but about broad-based rights to access or autonomy from interference in personal affairs. Under these circumstances, it would be more bizarre if there wasn’t anger and thus political polarization.


Humans are social creatures; we belong, voluntarily, to many non-governmental groups. These groups serve crucial purposes, and they almost always do so more effectively than government. Polarization would be far less prolific if we left certain things to private society.

Personal speech, no matter how abhorrent or discriminatory, should be policed by the private sphere. Citizens have a plethora of non-governmental ways to punish it: they can deny racists or homophobes jobs or refuse to frequent their businesses; they can publicly shame them; they can deny them membership to formal and informal social groups. In short, if you think your neighbor is a jerk, you and your other neighbors can make his life extremely unpleasant…all without the government lifting a finger.

The private sphere has and should continue to be the sole arbiter of moral concerns. It is more effective and responsive than government since each “punishment” (e.g. not going to a misogynist’s coffee shop) doesn’t require a formal vote. Social punishments can be doled out quickly, only hurt the intended recipient, and are more accurately applied than government intrusions into the moral sphere.

Additionally, it leads to less polarization: no longer would all of Twitter be debating the merits or demerits of what some jerk said; instead, it is handled by those with actual knowledge of the facts on the ground. And it allows each small community to custom tailor its social norms and punishments.


What is needed is a clear demarcation of what the state may legislate and what it may not (5), and a respect for this demarcation. Within those limits, legislation may be as big or as small as voters and legislators decide upon.

Let’s take the issue of healthcare. A scheme that respected distinct private and public spheres might recognize that there are millions of sick people without access to care. It would then determine a valid, recognized arena in which the problem could be fixed: tax policy. The federal government quite unambiguously has power to tax individuals. Thus, the policy debated looks something like raising taxes to directly subsidize care of the truly poor.

Or take the issue of gay marriage. Under this scheme, legislators would recognize that marriage is an inherently private matter. (It is, after all, who you’re spending the rest of your life with…in theory.) The government’s definition of marriage, thus, would be rendered entirely irrelevant. Churches and private groups may define marriage as they so please and grant it (or not grant it) similarly. But it would have no bearing on one’s status for a tax return.


While I favor smaller government, reducing Leviathan’s (6) size is perhaps less important than defining its scope. I may prefer low taxes and minimal welfare-type aid, but more important is strictly defining what government does and does not do, and actually respecting those limitations. With defined public and private spheres, we know where the goalposts are. That is, we know what can and cannot be legislated, leading to more fruitful, detail-oriented debates. This will place political battles within an appropriate context: while the two sides will not often agree on desired policies, they will at least agree on what matters are actually able to be considered in the first place.

This, of course, creates another question: what should be considered public vs. private? I would probably give a far different answer to this than, say, Elizabeth Warren. But I think it’s far from impossible to decide, using the Constitution as a starting point while firming up its definitions and ambiguities.


1: Gerrymandering is a process by which state and local authorities redraw congressional districts every ten years. The parties in power in a given state generally have more control over how it works; they try to make as many districts favorable to their party as possible. How do you do this? By cordoning off voters that likely won’t vote for you into small enough groups where they can’t affect elections. This results in congressional districts that look like Rorschach inkblots but are very ideologically coherent.

2: For first-time readers, generally when I use the term “state” I refer to government as a whole, not a sub-national polity (e.g. Ohio). So a term like “state-sanctioned” simply means authorized by whatever government (federal, state, municipal, etc.) body is in charge.

3: This is a reference to the Affordable Care Act. Unlike many libertarians, I think there is a legitimate role for government to provide direct aid to people who really need it.

4: In Citizens United v. FEC, ultimately the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants.

5: Yes, I realize this is the whole “Constitution” thing, but the limits defined by it have been routinely ignored and/or liberally defined.

6: Leviathan is the classic work written by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued for the existence of a large state ruled by an absolute sovereign to fight the natural, anarchic state of life (“nasty, brutish, and short”). Leviathan is used by many conservatives and libertarians to refer to big government in a negative connotation.


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