Suppose that Gazans, the residents of Gaza, were called Hamassians, from the name of the organization, Hamas, that rules over them. Strangely, that’s the way most people in the world are labeled and speak of themselves: Italians are governed by ”Italy,” the French (les Français) by “France,” the Canadians by “Canada.” The same ambiguity exists between the Israelis and “Israel.” In common parlance, “the U.S.” means both the government and “its” people, although fortunately “Americans” is a substitute that suggests some difference. Fortunately, too, the inhabitants of the UK are not called “Ukeans.”

In The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek wrote about “our poisoned language.” One of the worst poisons may be the collectivist bias whereby the country label is used for both its inhabitants and its state.

If residents of Gaza were called Hamassians, it would be much more difficult to distinguish them, analytically and morally, from their thuggish rulers. It would be more difficult to forget that whatever the proportion of “Hamassians” who support in some way the local tyrant, some Gazans are more its prisoners or internal hostages and don’t deserve any collective punishment on its behalf. If they are used as human shields by their own tyrant, of course, it is not the fault of an enemy waging a just war tantamount to self-defense—but the theoretical difference between that and a collective punishment must still be maintained. Ideas and ideals matter; or at least, we should hope so.

Even in the best case, there exists a certain distance between individuals and “their” government or state. I interpret James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s seminal book The Calculus of Consent as implying that the state is, in such a best case, both us and non-us. A larger distance exists in a Nozickian setup in the context of Anthony de Jasay’s “Capitalist State.” If a free market for security were possible as Gustave de Molinari first envisioned it and contemporary anarcho-capitalists argue for (see, among others, Mike Huemer and former EconLog blogger Bryan Caplan), the distance would be like between Pinkerton and its customers.

These reflections were partly inspired by a declaration of president Joe Biden (“Israel ‘Preparing Ground Invasion’ of Gaza, Says Netanyahu,” Financial Times, October 25, 2023):

Biden also added that Hamas “does not represent the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip or anywhere else”.

This looks like an improvement over how a large number of people seem to think, but the distance between the state and its citizens or subjects has relatively little to do with some numerical majority. Joe Biden has certainly never read Hayek, Buchanan, Tullock, Nozick, de Jasay, Huemer, Kaplan, or EconLog. I don’t think he would understand anyway, and I conjecture that even a moderate-classical liberal—like, say, John Stuart Mill—would unambiguously disavow him. One common denominator of any liberal theory must be that, a priori, all individuals are assumed to have the same basic dignity, whether they are part of some political majority or not (Buchanan and Tullock propose a strong defense of this theory).

Even if positive and normative analysis must be distinguished, economics has the benefit of providing a good theoretical background to understand these ideas.