A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

You Can’t Have Freedom Without Law

In Law And Order on September 1, 2010 at 6:48 pm

By Stephen Wan

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

A powerful military, and a powerful police force, are necessary preconditions for any free society, to prevent anarchistic chaos.

"On The Edge"When it comes to discussing how important the law and government is to human society, the first thing to do is to head off criticisms from anarchists, who claim that all government is necessarily a restriction of freedom, and that a government is both morally wrong and practically inferior to a stateless society.

Let’s blow out the main assumption that anarchists make – that humans are morally perfect, or perfectible given the right circumstances. As any liberal mugged by reality will tell you, human beings inevitably tend towards doing the wrong, not the right, unless there is some sort of harsh restriction or penalty put on doing the wrong things. That kind of punishment can only come from a government which has the sole, legitimate right to use violence and coercion to keep people in line. Simple things like peer pressure will not be enough, as some anarchists may claim, to keep the strong from taking advantage over the weak.

Furthermore, if you do happen to live in a stateless society, the vast majority of your life is going to be dedicated to trying to defend your life and property from others who want to take it from you. It would be “brutish, nasty and short” as Hobbes once said. There may, in one sense, be an absence of external restrictions on what you can or cannot do, but there isn’t the ability to enjoy that kind of freedom, because of the dangers posed by other individuals. It’s not just theoretical freedom that people are interested in – it’s the actual ability to enjoy it that matters.

In short, we would be better off with a government – the question is, do we want a stronger government or a minimalist one? Many libertarians argue that a minimalist government is better, one which takes less of a role in the economy and focuses on defence of the country, enforcing contracts, and preventing crime that actively harms others. I would argue that we should prefer a stronger one.

The reasoning behind why we should prefer a strong government as opposed to a weak one is obvious from the onset of our very childhoods. Just think back to school, when you were in the classroom, and had two kinds of teachers – one that could control the class and one that couldn’t. Which one was more effective at teaching the class? I would wager that the stronger, more disciplined teacher was – and it didn’t matter how much more the weaker teacher might know about the subject, the more disciplined one would always be able to impart more knowledge to the class as a whole.

In a similar way, libertarians, as much as they laud market efficiency, fail to acknowledge the biggest inefficiency that exists in every society – crime, and social disorder. And in believing that there should be a small a government as possible, they show a marked contempt for the real, actual causes of crime which lie in socio-economic conditions including inequality, lack of job opportunities, poor education and an absence of strong civic organisations backed by civil support.

That is why the economy, education, equal opportunities and community projects should all be considered law and order issues primarily – budgets should be based on its impact on crime, curriculum set to instil strong moral values. No human society is too far away from complete social disintegration, as New Orleans will quickly show you. A powerful military, and a powerful police force, are necessary preconditions for any free society, to prevent anarchistic chaos.

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  1. Firstly I’d like to censure you for implicitly conflating anarchy (“without rulers”) and anarchy/chaos. Mosts anarchists do not advocate chaos (although some do, as many violent criminals in Greece proved), instead wishing for a society based on a voluntary, rather than forced order (e.g. all philosophical anarchists, such as: Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon, Spencer, Tucker, Spooner etc. etc.)

    This is beside the point, though, so I will get on to the real question: what makes a society peaceful, and what makes a society violent? A scholarly attempt at this question might define violence extensively, and discuss at length the implications of this definition in comparison to given societies today and historically. This is a blog comment, and that length cannot be quite justified. However, even in a short comment one can make important points.

    Firstly, while humans/people are basically good, there are factors in society and societal relations and interactions which have the capacity to lead to violence within groups. I do not subscribe to the implied view of the author of the blogpost, i.e. that humans are inherently on the verge of chaos and rampant violence. To test this claim, may I ask what Mr. Wan expects he would do, if tomorrow the police were abolished. Does he claim he would suddenly live a life of rape, murder and pillage? Does he claim that all the bonds established in his life would count for nil? Does he claim that he expects this is the general profile of all human beings? I expect he would not, because such claims appear patently absurd. One factor in humans’ refraining from ill action is certainly retribution by the state and their agents (and indeed we may question the value of locking those who act ill with thousands of other wrongdoers). However, a much greater factor in most people’s “action-calculus” with regards to, for example murder or theft, is whether it is a good or right action to take.

    Secondly, the earliest police response in nearly all cases, presuming one is able to get to the phone, make the call, including one’s phone number etc. (which is impossible in nearly all important criminal cases!) is 10-30 minutes, and often much later. By this point the crime is committed. The following point cannot be emphasised enough: the police put off crime by fear of discovery and retribution, but they cannot protect anyone from criminals. This cannot be their purpose, it is utterly impracticable and has never been seriously attempted. The only thing which can protect people from criminals is self-defence, yet there are comprehensive and extensive laws against self-defence in most countries, including many large cities in the USA.

    I will finish with a couple of facts (and source);

    * Washington D.C. enacted a virtual ban on handguns in 1976. Between 1976 and 1991, Washington D.C.’s homicide rate rose 200%, while the U.S. rate rose 12%. (1)

    * Florida adopted a right-to-carry law in 1987. Between 1987 and 1996, these changes occurred:

    homicide firearm homicide handgun homicide
    Florida -36% -37% -41%
    USA -0.4% +15% +24% (3)

    http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp

  2. I was just about to go to sleep and then it came upon that I had left a quite unjustified jibe unanswered, specifically that: “they [liberals/libertarians] show a marked contempt for the real, actual causes of crime which lie in socio-economic conditions including inequality, lack of job opportunities, poor education and an absence of strong civic organisations backed by civil support.”

    This is entirely untrue. Libertarians (many libertarians, including myself, dislike the term “libertarian”, preferring “liberal”) spend a high proportion of their time attacking costly social programs which cause crime.

    The criminalisation of drugs is the “biggie” and I would go as far as saying that the majority of crime in society stems from drugs being illegal.

    Firstly, nearly three quarters of all prisoners in US and UK jails are in there for drug related reasons. They are concentrated together with violent criminals, and through this we undoubtedly see repercussions. The brutal atmosphere in prison leads to greater potential for the committing of worse crimes (than drug dealing etc.) when released.

    Secondly, there is inter-gang rivalry. Criminal gangs control drug sale in most “Western” countries, reaping a huge profit from the artificially high price of drugs, driven up by the “risk wedge” created by enforcement efforts. This is why gangsters supported Prohibition in 20s USA and drug dealers support the Drug War today — it makes them money. This is why dealers murder each other in turf wars and innocents get killed in the crossfire.

    Thirdly, we have the other side of the coin. It takes roughly £30,000 a year to fund a heroin-addict’s addiction at today’s street prices. Since most heroin addicts make their money through shoplifting and reselling at roughly 1/5th of the price, this requires roughly £150,000 of theft each year — theft/shoplifting is highly related to drug prohibition. Since a year’s worth of heroin could be produced for less than 1/200th of that in the free market, crime could be easily avoided by liberalising heroin laws.

    Drug law is one of many ill-advised government programs that contributes to crime.

  3. I shouldn’t get so drawn into this, but I am wondering which anarchists you have read, given your claim that their philosophy is based on an assumption of moral perfection or perfectibility. At its core, anarchism is simply based on Juvenal (“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”) or paraphrasing [and adapting the meaning of] James Madison; if men were angels, no government would be necessary, if men are fallible, they are not fit to govern.

    • Hello Ben,

      Thanks for your constructive comments, and I hope you stick around TDS to read more on our law and order series! Please do feel free to contribute if you ever want to write a blog entry for us (clearly the length of your comments alone shows you’re not adverse to writing!). We also have a Facebook group, if you want to keep up with our latest blogs, http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/group.php?gid=163987107682&ref=ts. I can assure you other bloggers of far more talent and political nuance also write here.

      Ok, now in response to your comments, I will just begin by saying my blog posts (and sometimes comments) are almost always unnecessarily combatitive. However, if I do start to sound a bit sarky or unnecessarily aggressive, I apologise in advance, and assure you that I don’t mean it.

      Your censure of my conflation of anarchism is of course well justified – I did use the term in a far broader sense than I would be happy to use in a political essay. Leeway must be given for any political group to be differentiated between their various strands and ideas. I will add though that some philosophical anarchists have advocated violence, such as Emma Goldman, although as a means to achieve an ends. Few anarchists do, as you say, advocate a chaotic society, mostly because of their belief in a natural order that will come about without the aid of government.

      You are quite right to note that what makes a society violent is a legitimate, and exceedingly difficult question to answer. Also, you are quite right to question my preconception of human nature, and to what I can justify such a claim. I might add that you are also quite right to draw out personally what I would do morally tomorrow if authority was indeed abolished – I would certainly not do the horrendous crimes as described. However, I would justify my claim as I did in my blog post using the example of the floods in New Orleans, and the social breakdown that occurred when the police really were, in some sense, abolished (or at the very least, inoperable). I would ask how you can reconcile your belief that humans really are fundamentally good with clearly abhorrent situations such as these.

      You are furthermore quite correct in questioning the effectiveness of the police when it comes to how well they protect society. However, I would argue that your argument might work on a micro-scale, that in any individual case of a crime, the effectiveness of the police in protecting the individual from the crime is minimal. On a macro-scale, the entire criminal justice system, which has more than one purpose, serves as a deterrent, quarantine, rehabilitation service and delivers retribution, and is a generally considered effective system for the delivery of these roles. This is a point that may be disputed, I agree, but it is quite wrong to ignore the wider roles and impacts the entire criminal justice system provides. I would argue that taking the entire criminal justice system into account, on the whole it protects people, by preventing more crime than would otherwise happen (although that’s a coutner-factual, which I hate using).

      In response to your libertarian point (and if I might ask, why liberal over libertarian?), certainly perhaps I was unjustified in making the claim, and that I should have make my points much clearer. I believe anyone with sense will take time to attack costly social programs that cause crime; the only problem being, perhaps my definition of a costly social program that causes crime is different to yours, or that I am using different criteria. However, I do like your points on the legalisation of drugs, although I dislike the rather blunt way of putting all crime stemming from drugs as the same; it is useful to differentiate between user-related, economic-related and system-related drug crimes, with the latter classification meaning legalisation will by definition lower drug related crime, but what interests me is whether legalisation will lower economic-related crime in attempts to fund drug habits. Nonetheless, I am fairly convinced that drug legalisation would be a good thing for society overall, and would certainly agree that it is a ill-advised government program. That doesn’t mean, of course, society would be better off with no government altogether – it just needs to enact smarter policies, not ones that help the rich and the powerful, as you mentioned with the drug dealers.

      As to what anarchists I have read, I can’t say I’ve sat down and read an anarchist bit of work from front to back (a fault I’m going to rectify soon enough). I have, however, read a number of extracts and chapters (so you may, if you wish, attack me for not placing enough weight on context). There is Herbert Spencer’s work, which if I quote correctly goes something like eventual ethical evolution of man will lead to “the perfect man in the perfect society”. I think there was William Godwin as well, who said something along the lines of “our virtues and vices may be traced to the incidents which make our lives, and if these incidents could be taken away from every improper tendency, vice would be gone from the world” (as scribbled in my notes). If you believe I’ve misinterpreted their quotes and works, please say so.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Wan, DavidWeber(DingDong). DavidWeber(DingDong) said: http://bit.ly/9zwXM0 Stephen Wan (successfully) winding up Anarchists #thedailysoapbox […]

  5. […] never could resist an argument with an anarchist. Ben Southwood rightly takes Stephen Wan to task for some of the assumptions inherent in Stephen’s recent article, so I of course intend to […]

  6. Yo stephen don’t take this the wrong way, but from reading your article you don’t know enough about anarchism to make a legitimate critism. All of the positions you claim anarchists have are caricatures, and seem to be taken from stereotypes rather than knowlege of anarchist theory, and the arguments you make against anarchism are the ones that any anarchist theory aimed at complete beginners will specifically deal with refuting – since they are the common objections of people who are uneducated in anarchism beyond vague stereotypes. I would go though and try and help you out, but i’m kinda tired atm and hope you’ll just read yourself.

    I have personal disagreements with this faq, but its generally where you point people too if they are trying to understand anarchism: http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnAnarchistFAQ

    Hope this helps, look forward to seeing a new article

  7. Hey Pierre, I certainly wouldn’t take any legitimate criticism the wrong way! I’m afraid I may have been more hasty than I should have been when writing this article, and whilst I’m certainly not an expert in anarchism, I do like to think I have a little knowledge. Unfortunately, I have a tendency when I write articles to take a very particular viewpoint (this one is Hobbesian inspired), and it rarely reflects my rather richer knowledge. However, thank you for the link, I will do my best to absorb and come back to you.

  8. “Let’s blow out the main assumption that anarchists make – that humans are morally perfect, or perfectible given the right circumstances.”

    Thats just untrue.

    “That kind of punishment can only come from a government which has the sole, legitimate right to use violence and coercion to keep people in line.”

    This isn’t justified – why is a government necessary to “use violence and coercion to keep people in line.” Personally, I think most people see that it is in their self interest for some force to use violence and coercion to keep people in line. It wouldn’t have to come from a government. (Note here that yes, the definition of a government is a monopoly on the use of force. Anarchists don’t oppose this per say, but rather what they see as the unjustified power and actions of those who hold a the current monopoly on the use of force.)

    “Furthermore, if you do happen to live in a stateless society, the vast majority of your life is going to be dedicated to trying to defend your life and property from others who want to take it from you. ”

    Isn’t it in the self interest of groups of people to band together for mutual protection?

    “As any liberal mugged by reality will tell you, human beings inevitably tend towards doing the wrong, not the right, unless there is some sort of harsh restriction or penalty put on doing the wrong things. ”

    Being mugged is possibly the most hilariously bourgeois example of the darkness in the hearts of man I have yet come across 😛

    Most people tend to go for war, haha.

    Regardless this is totally unsupported and the example given is absurd compared to the enormity of the claim you are making. This kind of “critique” is basically considered a running joke in the anarchist circles.

    I think the Hobbesian argument is a good one, but I would guess from reading what you have written that maybe you misinterpret it.

    It isn’t about any claim of man’s “bad nature” of the need for the bad nature of men to be disciplined by some kind of overwhelming force (Don’t you find it kinda silly to conclude that because man will seek to harm others for his own gain, we should set up a group of people in a unique position to do?), its a lot cleverer than that, and I think it applies to any kind of capitalist society that wishes to do without a state very well. Hobbes states very clearly that it *doesn’t matter* whether men are naturally good or evil (in his own personal view, most men are not innately bad), but that without a single power, people will be forced by the violent actions of those who would harm others for their own gain to become violent to protect themselves. So society would launch into a eternal arms race/struggle for power over one another to keep up with the assholes who are willing to screw people over for their own gain. Possibly you already know this? Idk

    Obviously, this doesn’t apply to any communistic form of anarchism, and i expect you can see why?

  9. “Hobbes states very clearly that it *doesn’t matter* whether men are naturally good or evil (in his own personal view, most men are not innately bad), but that without a single power, people will be forced by the violent actions of those who would harm others for their own gain to become violent to protect themselves. So society would launch into a eternal arms race/struggle for power over one another to keep up with the assholes who are willing to screw people over for their own gain. Possibly you already know this? Idk”

    “Furthermore, if you do happen to live in a stateless society, the vast majority of your life is going to be dedicated to trying to defend your life and property from others who want to take it from you. ”

    Sounds like he does know this. 😀

    I don’t know why the Hobbseian argument doesn’t apply to communistic anarchism. I thought communistic anarchism was a difference in philosophical viewpoint (IE X would happen in anarchy, rather than Y), rather than a difference in practical policy.

  10. I don’t know who this “p” guy is, but I have never read one anarchist philosopher, blogger, scholar or adherent that “he definition of a government is a monopoly on the use of force. Anarchists don’t oppose this per say, but rather what they see as the unjustified power and actions of those who hold a the current monopoly on the use of force”.

    No, anarchists do oppose this per se, otherwise they are not anarchists, they are archists who disagree with the form of the government in question, which in the UK includes 100% of people to some extent, and communists, socialists, liberals/libertarians, hard fascists (we live under soft fascism) etc. etc.

    @Stephen,
    You are right to say I shouldn’t treat the bad effects of drug policy uniformly, but I think that since they all show the same outcome (i.e. in each of your categories we undergo bad results with prohibition) the distinction isn’t important in this discussion. Herbert Spencer may have said that, but temper it with the fact that all through Social Statics he is saying that this is the end point of a truly voluntary society, rather than the situation we are in today.

  11. “I don’t know who this “p” guy is”

    Yes, you do. Go further up the comments section…

  12. Dave:

    Yeah perhaps Stephen does, I wasn’t sure due to the other stuff he has written about man’s “innately bad” nature and so on.

    And no, communist anarchism considers some of the things that “capitalist” anarchism advocates “coercive” and so would oppose them, as a matter of practical policy. There are obviously a myriad of disagreements between anarchists as to what type of society would occur if government was removed, but both sides are willing to use force to remove what they consider to be coercive.

    (The problem is that many people find this debate confusing, mostly due to anarcho capitalists defining force as something different than what it means in the vernacular (usually the the same as coercion, whereas usually people take force to mean anything imposed by violence.) which kinda spreads the idea that anarchists oppose all “force”, when what they really mean (if we were to put what they say in ordinary language) is they oppose all things they consider to be coercive.)

    Anyhow, I don’t think Hobbes argument applies to Anarcho Communism because it advocates, basically community enforcement of laws…So, for Hobbes argument to apply the community would have tolerate “immoral” people who are willing to use violence for their own gain, and therby start the whole “cycle” where everyone is forced into an increasing arms race. I believe most communities would see it was in their self interest to stop society devolving into a war of all against all.

    Ben:

    I’m “P!” – I was just being lazy.

    As you know, I’m familiar with “anarchist philosopher, blogger, scholar or adherents,” as I know you are, so I can’t really think of why you would disagree with me here unless you didn’t understand what I was saying. 99 percent of anarchists are obviously communists, who clearly do not believe in force being handled by competing private agencies. As I am sure you are aware, in any Anarcho communist society, the monopoly on force is going to belong to the community. They don’t call this “government,” but if we are to strictly define government as such they don’t have any problems with it per se. Furthermore, in the one percent of those who claim to be Anarchists who believe in private property, there may be various competing pda’s in one area, but I don’t think any of you lot have any problems with a community setting its own laws or so on. Anyway – at the smallest scale, a single proprietor has the a monopoly on force on his/her property, right? Obviously both of these anarchistic ideals are hugely different from what we have today, which was my point. Anarchists are opposed to the “bad” way monopolies on force are structured now, not them wholesale (Of course I understand that a community controlled monopoly isn’t really very monopolous, and neither is a patchwork of various pdas..I was trying to make a simpler point since David/Stephen seemed to think us Anarchokiddies believed there couldn’t be any monopoly on force at all in the strictest definitional sense (e.g. communities defending themselves was wrong, and anarchists would just have to rely on everyone being perfectly moral to each other or else the entire project was fucked.)

  13. “Anyhow, I don’t think Hobbes argument applies to Anarcho Communism because it advocates, basically community enforcement of laws…So, for Hobbes argument to apply the community would have tolerate “immoral” people who are willing to use violence for their own gain, and therby start the whole “cycle” where everyone is forced into an increasing arms race. I believe most communities would see it was in their self interest to stop society devolving into a war of all against all.”

    I don’t think it’s so much communities not seeing their own self-interest, but communities not having sufficient strength as single entities to enforce their own will. And if they did, that would if anything be more controversial — there’s no telling what people who found themselves in a minority might do.

    Sorry I didn’t reply to this before.

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