Ethics, Philosophy, Politics

What use a Monopoly on Violence?

Remember Horseshoe Theory? It’s the observation that in many ways, the extremist wings of political movements resemble each other more than centrists or their more moderate brethren. We see this in anti-Semitism, for example. In any given week this year, you’re about as likely to see anti-Semitism come from Stormfront… or the British Labour Party.

I’ve been thinking about horseshoe theory in light of another issue: the police. Let me explain.

Like most denizens of the internet, I’ve been exposed to libertarians of various persuasions. One common complaint I’ve seen among these libertarians is a belief that the state has an illegitimate monopoly on violence. This is most frequently bundled with calls to abolish the police in specific and government in general. Now I see calls to abolish the police coming from the left.

I disagree strongly with calls to abolish the police. It’s not that I’m a great fan of the police: I’m a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and I believe in strong checks and balances on law enforcement power. It’s just that one lesson we’ve learned repeatedly over the past century is that radical change to public institutions rarely goes smoothly. We should always remember caution when people suggest tearing up everything we already know without really planning for what will happen next.

So despite high profile incidents of unjustified police violence, I support the state’s monopoly on the means of violence. Beyond simple caution, here are my reasons.


Violence has been with us forever. War is rightfully one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, one of those four almost primal forces responsible for killing so many humans. Trying to reduce violence is important. But it isn’t the only fight. Any policy proposal sees diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, effort that could be spent reducing violence could more effectively improve lives through other means (for example, by fighting malaria, or global warming).

We could reduce violence conducted by the state by abolishing the police. But state violence is a useful lever for other policy priorities. Trying to reach other goals (like economic equality or public order) are often worth some risk of state violence.

This process of trading-off must be undertaken by each body politic, as willingness to tolerate risk differs between countries. Canada, America, and Switzerland, for example, all have accepted higher rates of gun violence than other developed countries in exchange for more freedom to own and use firearms.

People generally have a right to own whatever they want to own. People also have a right not to be randomly shot. With guns, these two rights can be in conflict. The more people who have guns, the more likely I am to be randomly shot. Society has to come together and negotiate a trade-off between these two rights that they can (collectively) stomach. The weird thing about these negotiated trade-offs is that they can look ridiculous, even from inside of one (ask any American liberal how they feel about gun rights and you’ll see what I mean). It is certainly possible to have values such that no amount of firearm ownership is justifiable if it leads to deaths. Just as it is possible to have values such that no amount of intoxicant usage is permissible if it leads to death. [1]

Like intoxicants or guns, society must negotiate on the amount of violence it will permit. These negotiations are most convenient when they can be done with a single organization, or a single umbrella group. Consider, for example, the relative difficultly of abolishing the death penalty (one form of violence undertaken by states) in Singapore, America, and Syria.

In Singapore, abolishing the death penalty would be relatively simple (not to be confused with easy). There is one organization (the city-state) with an absolute monopoly on violence. To abolish the death penalty, lobbyists can focus their effort on one group of people. They will probably be opposed, because any organization who wishes to keep the death penalty will also know exactly who to lobby. This isn’t so much a strength or weakness as it is the endpoint of yet another negotiation. Singapore has chosen a system of government where people only need to worry about one set of rules. This is a sensible choice for a small, densely populated island without a lot of local variation.

In America, there are fifty-one authorities that must be lobbied in order to abolish the death penalty. Each state has a limited monopoly on violence solely within its borders (and therefore controls crime and punishment within them). But there is also a federal government that has a separate limited monopoly on violence, in this case, violence across state lines or against the union as a whole. In such a system, it is perhaps easier for opponents of certain types of violence to see them abolished in one region or another (see, for example, the death penalty in Massachusetts), but much harder to see it abolished across the nation as a whole.

I should mention that this isn’t just a matter of scale or population size. Canada is also a federal democracy, but the monopoly on violence is held solely by the federal government. Therefore, there was only one organization that had to be convinced to end the death penalty.

Imagine now trying to abolish the death penalty in Syria. You would have to negotiate with the Assad Regime, the Kurds, Daesh, Al-Nusra, and the scores of small rebel groups that hold and administer territory. Not only will you face difficulty in each negotiation, you will face difficulty even trying to negotiate, because there is no umbrella organization with the means to force smaller subdivisions of political power to allow you freedom of movement or guarantee minimum rights. This is a different situation than in America, where the federal government uses (what is ultimately) the threat of violence to ensure that states allow the free flow of commerce, ideas, and people.

A single organization (or set of franchises) with a monopoly on violence doesn’t just make it easier to target specific cases of violence. It can in fact reduce the overall amount of violence in a society simply by virtue of existing. This is the other reason that Syria sees much more violence than polities where there is an organization that holds a monopoly on violence. As long as no organization exists to use the threat of violence to force other actors to refrain from violence – to jealously guard its own monopoly on violence, as it is – then these actors will use violence in disagreements with each other.

In a civil war, the central government loses its monopoly on violence and other actors attempt to use violence to gain their own monopoly. We see the same pattern of increasing violence in the Mexican Drug Trade. Aggressive government enforcement broke cartel monopolies on local violence, allowing for various groups to fight to attempt to create their own hegemony.

In the context of police violence, having one group to negotiate with is extremely useful. It means that there’s only one battle to be fought. And in constitutional democracies, it gives reformers a powerful weapon by way of the court system. The courts may force (using the threat of violence) individual police departments to conform to certain practices. Imagine a country instead with only private security forces and a court system without access to the threat of violence. It would be impossible to enforce any rulings on these private security forces.

Abolishing the police will not abolish people’s desire for protection. Leftists should be scared of unaccountable private security firms. Anyone who loves peace and order should be scared of the conflicts between these firms.

17th Century Philosophy

There is a very short list of political philosophers whose works have shaped and guided revolutions. To have written works that inspire such drastic change in society doesn’t require or even suggest correctness. But it does suggest an understanding of the values that people hold closest to their hearts.

The 17th century English philosopher John Locke is on that list. I’ve written about Locke in the context of justice before, but his ruminations on the state of nature are also applicable here.

During Locke’s life, there was open debate among philosophers as to the “state of nature” – the shape human existence would take without government or laws. The state of nature was an artificial construct. It shares more with the ideal zero energy state used in molecular dynamics simulations than it does with prehistorical societies; it’s a baseline to compare political arrangements with, much as zero energy states are a baseline to compare molecular arrangements with.

Hobbes famously claimed that in the state of nature life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – a war of all against all. On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the state of nature was the only state of true freedom; to him it was much preferable to life in the eighteenth century.

John Locke held a different view. He believed that the state of nature was generally pleasant – in the state of nature, all people had the rights “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” These “natural laws” might be broken by some people, Locke reasoned, at which point all people would have a right to punish them for their transgressions (as you can see, Locke was a Christian philosopher and his work is riddled with references to The Almighty; a less religious appeal to natural law would be an appeal to the moral impulses that seem to be more or less universal).

Locke did see one problem with this set-up. In most cases, those most likely to pursue justice would be the aggrieved party. While Locke believed that natural law gave everyone a right to punish wrongdoers, he also believed that in practice punishment would come from those they wronged. Locke understood that people were imperfect and not always capable of mercy nor proportionality. So Locke reasoned that justice could not exist without society and the people society appoints to mete it out.

Locke’s judges would by necessity need some force of bailiffs to assist them. There is an enormous amount of practical tasks that need to be done for judges to do their jobs. Suspects must be apprehended and interrogated, witnesses interviewed, physical evidence collected, and crimes investigated. These tasks must also be undertaken by someone other than the aggrieved party for there to be any chance at fairness. This is where police come in.

I don’t believe that the police are the only thing preventing us from existing in Hobbes’s state of nature. People are basically good and just. But they are also flawed and imperfect, closer to monkeys than gods. I also don’t believe in Rousseau’s claims of an earthly paradise; institutions do too much good for me to believe that life would improve without them (although, had I lived when he did, I may have felt differently). Locke, Locke I believe got it right. Without government, most people would be good, help their neighbours, and continue as they always had. But some people would take what isn’t theirs or hurt others.

I’ve heard total equality bandied about as a solution to the problem of violence and theft in the absence of the police. The logic goes that if everyone had total equality, we wouldn’t need police. This isn’t a real solution. Inequality currently exists. There is no way to redistribute possessions that isn’t coercive. You’re not going to convince Peter Thiel to give away his possessions out of the goodness of his heart (he doesn’t have one, except in the literal sense). The only way to force him to give money away is through the threat of force. This is impossible without an organization capable of carrying through on that threat. All legislation, whether it’s criminal law, CO2 emissions targets, or consumer protection, relies ultimately on the threat of violence against those who don’t follow it. Redistributive legislation – taxation – is no different.

Perhaps we could achieve equality and then abolish the police. But equality is a disequilibrium. Even if all skills were equally in demand (they aren’t) and all people equally capable of work (they aren’t), innate differences in desire for work or possessions would remain. Some people would work more – and presumably be rewarded more – than others. Even at the height of collectivism in communist Russia, with private ownership of any means of production outlawed, people found ways to game the system or took to the black market to accrue wealth. Equality can’t last without someone to enforce it, violently if it comes to that. You can call these enforcers whatever you want, but they will always be essentially ‘the police’.

Leaving that problem aside, there is no evidence that equality would stop all crime. In a society that undergoes radical transformation, there would be sore losers, willing to fight to get their old power back. There would also be all the crime that has nothing to do with wealth or possessions. Equality can’t stop murders committed by jealous spouses, road rage, hate crimes, vicious bullying, and a host of other crimes that draw their motive from something other than worldly possessions.

So this society without police would have to deal with crime. John Locke’s theories on the state of nature show us how this would fail. Justice, if it could even be called that, would become a private good, available to those with the resources to pay for it (admittedly, not a problem if you’re violently enforcing equality) or the wherewithal to do it themselves.

But would it really be justice? If society wanted to maximize the number of wrongdoers it punished, then it wouldn’t bother with things like “reasonable doubt” or “right to an attorney”. One of the little discussed uses of the police is to make it look like things are being done whenever there is a scare around criminal activity, so as to prevent public panic. Police might authorize extra patrols not to protect the public, but to protect people matching the description of alleged criminals from vigilante “justice”.

Without the police, people would have to seek their own justice. And they’d do it poorly. Given that society (at least, every society I know of) is racist, can we really expect individual people to do it any better than the police? Imperfect due process (and I know the due process counts for far less when you aren’t white) is surely better than none. Without the police, people of colour face a nation of George Zimmermans.

Recent Statistics has looked at violent crime data out of Chicago after the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder was released. They found a (statistically) significant increase in violent crimes, correlated with a decrease in proactive police behaviour (here measured by a decrease in police patrols and stops). They weren’t able to tease out the root cause of the decrease in proactive policing (it could have been the release of the new video or an increase in the amount of paperwork officers now must do after interacting with the public). The increase in violent crime bucks seasonal trends and can’t be blamed on a warmer than average winter – winters even warmer than the last one have seen no large spike in deaths.

This should not be surprising in light of the earlier sections. When the police are proactive, it is clear that the state has a monopoly on violence and is willing to use it. But as the police retreat and arrests go down, we see both the effects of different groups competing to fill the void and reprisal killings (which are much more difficult when suspects are behind bars).

I don’t wish to say that the answer to all violent crime is more police patrols and more random stops. As the FiveThirtyEight article points out, there are costs associated with proactive policing. Sometimes police tactics labelled as proactive are also unconstitutional. Opposing unconstitutional police tactics – even if they reduce violence – is one of the trade-offs around violence I discussed earlier and one I strongly endorse. If alienation, segregation, and police violence is the price we pay for a reduction in violence through proactive policing, then I would believe it to be a price not worth paying. Some police tactics should be off the table in a free and democratic society, even if they provide short term gains.

But if, on the other hand, proactive policing saves lives without damaging communities and breeding alienation, then I would oppose rolling back these policies. One article in a newspaper – even one renowned for its statistical acumen – isn’t enough to drive public policy. More research on the costs and benefits of various policing programs, including controlled studies is desperately needed. To this end, the lack of a centralized police shooting database in the United States is both a national tragedy and a national disgrace.

A Legitimate State Monopoly Over the Means of Violence

The modern definition of a state acknowledges that it must have a monopoly on the means of violence within a territory. Without this monopoly, a state is powerless to do most of the things we associate with a state. It cannot enforce contracts or redistribute wealth. It cannot protect the environment or private property rights. I have yet to see a single serious policy proposal that adequately addresses how these could be accomplished without police.

This is all not to say that the current spate of police shootings is tolerable or should be tolerated. Free and open societies can and must expect better behaviour from those they empower with the ability to use violence in undertaking the aims of the state.

As citizens of a free and democratic society, we should continue to pressure our leaders to accept and perpetrate less violence. But we also must acknowledge that the bedrock our society is built on is the threat of physical force. This doesn’t make our society inherently illegitimate, but it does mean we must always be contemplative whenever we empower anyone to use that force – even if they’re people we otherwise agree with and especially when force is used primarily against the most vulnerable members of society.

We should fight for a society where the government holds only a legitimate monopoly on the means of violence. Where violence is used only when truly necessary and not a moment sooner. Where security forces are truly subservient to civilian leaders. Where police shootings of unarmed civilians are an aberration, not a regular occurrence. We aren’t there yet. But we could be.

Epistemic Status: Ethics

[1] Trade-offs between different rights are the proper territory of legislation and acknowledging this is separate from the harmful moral relativism that has infected leftist rhetoric on international relations. There is a distinct difference between trade-offs among competing rights and a fearful refusal to acknowledge universal and inalienable human rights.


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