The State and its Monopoly on Violence

Well, brief detour from ed stuff for a minute, but I hope you will indulge. I’m reading Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and it’s just really good.

I’ll talk soon about how this book could be worked into a statistical literacy course (the ed angle), but I wanted to just share something the work is making undeniably clear.

Libertarians and anarchists often talk about the state’s odd right to commit acts of violence and force (incarceration, for example, which is backed the threat of violence for noncompliance). We as individuals don’t have that right, they say — why should the state?

An odd cult has grown up around the idea of the sovereign citizen. Your average anarcho-libertarian basically asserts that individuals have the same power as the state (via the castle doctrine and the like) to execute justice, and argues on the other side that the state has no more rights than individuals (the state can only enforce property rights, the same way a homeowner might).

The idea is this somehow “protects us from the power of the state.” by making sure the state has no more “rights” than us.

Now, I know you know this is all nonsense, but what Pinker’s book makes clear is the whole reason to give the state a monopoly on violence is to take it out of the hands of individuals. Nine out of ten homicides are not done for profit, but as a form of retribution or personal justice.

In order to reduce that number of homicides a person has to have faith that if they forswear violence and go through the courts they will get justice — the state will use its monopoly power to get justice for them. (For a while in our history that required that we had an option for capital punishment — thankfully that is slowly fading.)

And what Pinker shows is this system more or less works. The stronger and more trusted the justice system, the less people take matters into their own hands.

But the point of this is it is not the case that citizens and the state had a “right” to violence, then the state whittled down our “right” — the point is we granted the state a monopoly on violence so we would stop killing each other. The state can do things that individuals can’t  because we’ve taken the recourses individuals used to have, removed the really nasty ones, and locked the others up behind due process. As we evolve as a society, those recourses hopefully become more and more humane (and they have).

But asking why it is OK for a police officer to draw his gun in a crowd whereas an individual can’t, or why cops can arrest me but I can’t arrest the mayor misses the whole point.

Anyway, more on the relation of the book to statistical literacy later….thanks for listening (just be glad I deleted the two paragraphs about the relation of Hume, Locke, and Hobbes to this conception of government…)

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