Published on:

It’s an official protection racket

My Times column last week was on the historical roots of government:


Nobody seems to agree whether Islamic State is best described as a gang of criminals, a terrorist organisation or a religious movement. It clearly has a bit of all three. But don’t forget that it aspires, for better or worse, to be a government. A brutal, bigoted and murderous government, its appeal is at least partly that it seems capable of imposing its version of “order” on the territory it controls, however briefly. It reminds us that the origin and defining characteristic of all government is that it is an organisation with a monopoly on violence.

The deal implicit in being governed is at root a simple one: we allow the people who govern us to have an exclusive right to commit violence, so long as they direct it at other countries and at criminals. In almost every nation, if you go back far enough, government began as a group of thugs who, as Pope Gregory VII put it in 1081, “raised themselves up above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime”.

Was Canute, or William the Conqueror, or Oliver Cromwell really much different from the Islamic State? They got to the top by violence and then violently dealt with anybody who rebelled. The American writer Albert Jay Nock in 1939 observed: “The idea that the state originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation — that is to say, in crime . . . No state known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose.”

Henry VII, the monarch who managed, after a century of gang warfare, to establish a monopolistic central government in England, funded his administration largely by extorting money from rich merchants with the threat of violence. That is to say, he ran a protection racket as blatant as any mafia don or IRA commander: pay up or lose your kneecaps.

Organised crime tends to evolve into government; and government begins as organised crime. The mafia emerged as a way of imposing order on a Sicilian society racked by arbitrary violence. People turn to gangs for protection.

A fascinating new book by the King’s College London political economist David Skarbek, The Social Order of the Underworld, documents how the huge expansion of the American prison population in the 1970s led to the breakdown of the simple “convict code” by which prisoners tended to keep each other under control, and brought instead the emergence in 30 different prisons within a few years of prison gangs.

Gangs proliferated in prisons, he argues, because they imposed a form of rudimentary governance that suppressed violence, increased trade in drugs and other goods, lowered prices and generally improved the inmates’ and prison officers’ lives — so long as nobody crossed or cheated the gang leaders.

The same thing has not yet happened in women’s prisons, which are still much smaller. Skarbek thinks this echoes what happened in early civilisations, where the simple, interpersonal norms that kept people relatively nice in hunter-gatherer society stopped working when society passed a certain scale, and government was invented by whichever gang managed to impose a monopoly of violence.

Caesar Augustus emerged from decades of civil war and mayhem as the man with the monopoly on violence in Rome. As Ian Morris observes in his book War: What is it Good For?, there was a paradoxical logic at work in the Pax Romana that he achieved. Because everybody knew that Augustus could send in the legions, he almost never had to.

Thus, the state’s monopoly of violence fades from view if all goes well. Should Islamic State’s caliphate endure, it is a fair bet that it will eventually become a bureaucracy peopled with functionaries rather than assassins. That is what happened in the original caliphate, after all. But the monopoly of violence is always there even in western society. If you doubt it, try not paying your taxes and see what happens when you resist arrest.

One of the great peculiarities of the United States is that it never quite managed to impose a state monopoly on powerful weaponry. The right to bear arms was a reaction to the presence of redcoats as an occupying army before 1783. The government got to own the tanks and aircraft carriers, but never pointed them at its own people, who were allowed to own guns much more freely than in other countries.

This is what makes the kit that the police displayed in Ferguson, Missouri, this month so alarming. With their camouflage uniforms, armoured vehicles and heavy-calibre machine guns, “law enforcement” cops looked less like a constabulary and more like an occupying army. In recent years, largely by exploiting the “war” on terror and the “war” on drugs, the American police have indeed been radically militarised.

In 2013 the United States Department of Homeland Security set out to buy 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition for law enforcement, some of it hollow-point — that is to say, forbidden by international law for use in war. That’s enough to shoot the entire population five times over. The US government has armed many of its agencies, from the Social Security Administration to the Internal Revenue Service to the Department of Education to the Bureau of Land Management, even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Republican senator Rand Paul commented in Time magazine that the federal government had incentivised the militarisation of local police, funding municipal governments to “build what are essentially small armies”. Evan Bernick, of the Heritage Foundation, warned last year that “the Department of Homeland Security has handed out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns across the country, enabling them to buy armoured vehicles, guns, armour, aircraft”. The Pentagon actually donates military equipment to the police, including tanks.

We have not yet gone so far in this country. Ofsted and the Met Office — as far as I know — do not yet arm their inspectors and forecasters. But the days when the state’s monopoly on violence was merely hinted at by a policeman’s uniform are long gone. You see police with sub-machineguns everywhere, and the Met is about to purchase water cannon to keep us in order. I hope that in combating violent gangs, our governments do not themselves turn back into violent gangs.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times