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Bryan Maloney

Laboratory Coordinator, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi


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Must government rest upon violence? If so, what are the implications?

All extant governments rest upon violence. That is, there is no government that does not have at its disposal the means of violence, willingness to use such means, and desire to restrict or even monopolize the means of violence. Furthermore, these means of violence have always turned out to be used more than once in a self-serving fashion, of government against the people, even in countries where this is theoretically "impossible"--if nothing else, some official starts to treat a police or military entity like a private gang of thugs. What is more common is convenience of government is given automatic priority over rights of the people and the means of violence are used to enforce this convenience.
Is this a fundamental necessity of government? Must government have at its disposal not only means of violence but willingness to use them? If the answer to this question is "yes", will this always mean that these means of violence will end up at some time or another being used against the best interests of the people?


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    Feb 18 2014: Initially laws were not simply instruments of social control and sanctions. It was because strangers from afar were often ignorant of how to behave, therefore edicts would be posted identifying for all to just what the important customs and expected deportments of members of a community were. Nor were they arbitrary edicts but ones that deemed to be universal to the community. In the 1700's B.C. a leader named Hammurabi - of what is now Iraq - is believed to have been the first to codify or systematize the rules for all he governed. Many of the new laws simply standardized social, family and economic relationships such as contractual obligations, wages for certain professions, inheritance and divorce requirements.

    Over the ages laws become more about legislated prejudices, marginalizing minorities and gamesmanship between competing political parties designed to give their backroom backers an economic edge in the marketplace.

    The 'right to violence' that is accorded governments was supposed to be related to protecting the realm from enemies without and wrongdoers within. Of course, how you define enemies and wrongdoers has always been a contentious issue, usually favouring those who support the government and sanctioning those who do not.

    But violence has always been the principle form of social control for primates and human beings are no exception. After centuries of accepted tolerance, It is only recently that violence within the family has become a source of contention and it is no coincidence that more and more people are starting to question the use of violence by the state.

    Bullying at school, whether it be emotional, physical or psychological, is now being challenged as potentially forming the very foundation of so much of other forms of social violence we see around us. And it is the bullying and violence perpetrated by parents, care-givers and especially siblings that will need to be resolved before that of the state can be addressed.
    • Feb 18 2014: Edits were posted...

      Was this before or after written language was invented, or during the time where only the learned few knew how to read?

      The code of Hammurabi was FAR from the first code. It is simply the oldest known still existing. Indeed, most of the code was economic in nature, establishing standardized weights and measures, setting out the legal tender, setting rules for governing debt, contracts, etc.

      As I see it, the problem with questioning the use of violence by the state is "How do you induce compliance without risk of escalation to violence?"

      Even with the risk of use of force, up to and including violence, we can barely get people to comply.

      It seems to me that people are trying to rationalize away a very basic element of human nature, self-interest.
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        Feb 18 2014: Self interest runs rampant when there is no risk involved. But in a survival situation common interest wins out every time. The threat of violence is the first resort of the self interested and the arrogant, simply because it is so effective in the short term. But in the long run it has been an abject failure.

        Once the community becomes accustomed to the threats and the violence many of its inhabitants also become desensitized to the controls behind the threat, In fact, the threat of violence becomes a tool the oppressed can then use and have used time and time again to overthrow the oppressors.

        However, since so many of them only knew oppression and threats of violence as social controls they are most likely to fall back on the same practices and become oppressors of some minority or another themselves.

        But in a community where consensus is required and respect for all voices is a given, common interest dominates and threats and violence are viewed as the tools of the unimaginative and petty.
        • Feb 19 2014: William,

          I would argue that the threat of violence has been very successful, rather than an abject failure in the long term . Government has universally rested on a monopolization of force since it's inception more than 5000 years ago. The unity provided by that monopolization took us from the Stone age to the Enlightenment, from the age of Might Makes Right to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

          As we live in humanities most peaceful time, ( the odds of a human dying by violence are lower now than any time in history), you might argue that the monopolization of force by governments has led to a widespread decrease of force in the lives of individual.

          This monopolization is a method, and a highly successful one. It is not an end in itself. Government does not exist in order to monopolize violence, but to promote social unity, (voluntarily or no, that is the point of the force). The fact that this method can, has, and is being abused, does not invalidate it's place in our history.

          The fact that violence is a species wide trait should speak to it's innate quality in our psychology. That it is constrained in individuals is a remarkable achievement, and in part due to the long tradition of leaving it to the state. The more anarchistic the environment, the more intimately violent. Look at the odds of being killed in Mogadishu vs. Montreal. Somalia has a weak monopoly on force, Canada a strong one, but both place have local gangs in conflict.

          That we can even imagine an idealist society where force is not required is a mark of the methods success, rather than it's failure. Note that I do not maintain that this monopoly is morally correct, merely objectively functional. By citing it a success I am innately asserting that civilization is better than being a hunter/gatherer, (though studies show most h/g's work less than 18 hours a week), and that unity with less individual violence is better than dis-unity with more.


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