Issues & Insights

A Distinction Of Distinction

Today marks the birth of someone who introduced a crucial distinction in understanding political reality – sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. In “The State,” he contrasted the “political means” and the “economic means.” In his words:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man … is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others … I propose … to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ … while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’

The purpose to which Oppenheimer directed his distinction was to develop the conquest theory of the state. As he put it:

All world history … presents … a contest … between the economic and the political means … The state is an organization of the political means … forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished.

From his distinction between the economic and political means, Oppenheimer drew some very important conclusions about the relationship between the nature of society and the nature of the state and what a society comprised of free men, rather than dominated men, would look like.  

Always, in its essence, is the ‘State’ the same. Its purpose … the political means … Its form …dominion.

Wherever opportunity offers, and man possesses the power, he prefers political to economic means.

By the ‘state, I do not mean the human aggregation … as it properly should be. I mean by it that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra economic power. And in contrast … I mean by society…all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man.

The anarchistic theory makes form and content of the ‘state’ … inseparable … no ‘government’ without exploitation!

The ‘state’ is the fully developed political means, society the fully developed economic means … in the ‘freemen’s citizenship,’ there will be no ‘state’ but only ‘society.’

The ‘state’ of the future will be ‘society’ guided by self-government.

Oppenheimer’s distinction between the economic (voluntary) means and the political (coercive) means offers individuals a powerful tool in understanding society. That is why he influenced so many writers who were vitally concerned with defending liberty, including Frank Chodorov, Albert Jay Nock, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

As Nock wrote in “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,” “It is easier to seize wealth than to produce it; and as long as the State makes the seizure of wealth a matter of legalized privilege, so long will the squabble for that privilege go on.”

Therefore, the expansion of state power at the expense of individualism is to be opposed because “the weaker the State is, the less power it has to commit crime.” Since we have moved even further down that mistaken path since, Oppenheimer’s distinction is becoming ever more important for Americans to understand.

Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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