The Law of Force
October 22, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     The killer who is terrorizing the D.C. area may not 
be affiliated with al-Qaeda or any other "terrorist" 
group, but whoever he is, he certainly learned something 
from the events of 9/11. It doesn't take many people to 
create tremendous fear and disruption -- and to baffle 
the combined police resources of three states, along with 
the Pentagon. Anyone who is determined to do this can do 

     I was trying to be rational about this, reasoning 
that the odds against my getting shot were roughly the 
same as the odds against my winning the lottery (which is 
why I don't buy lottery tickets). Then, as I drove into 
an airport parking lot last week, I noticed a white van 
behind me and I felt an immediate pang of panic.

     I should know better. The police can't protect us. 
That's not really their job. Their job is to give us 
tickets on various pretexts, taking our money for the 
state. An unexpected challenge like the sniper catches 
the state unprepared and exposes its real nature. Its 
legitimacy rests on its claim that it protects us from 
crime, but its own activities are essentially criminal. 
It claims a monopoly of force, but now a competitor is 
denying that monopoly and it is helpless.

     Yet the state continues to take our money -- the one 
function it performs with some success, largely because 
we are resigned to it. We know that if we really, 
physically, resist state robbery, we are likely to be 
killed. The state is nothing more than organized force, 
and real defiance means death. That is the law of force. 
In that sense, the threat of death is implicit in every 
parking ticket.

     Maybe a plausible case could be made for the state 
if it were confined to (and capable of) protecting us 
from violence. Then it would only threaten violent 
criminals. But it has taken on so many other functions 
and passed so many petty laws that it must always 
threaten all of us.

     It's as if you were forced to join a club from which 
you could never resign, and which kept imposing stiff new 
membership requirements and raising your dues. Obligatory 
membership, in fairness, should mean minimal requirements 
and dues. But the state takes full, cruel advantage of 
its power to impose extraneous and compulsory conditions 
on members.

     Until recently I was among those conservatives who 
believed it was possible to "tame" the state with 
"limited, constitutional government." But a limited state 
is a contradiction in terms. Sooner or later the state 
itself will twist any constitution into what Jefferson 
called "a blank paper by construction." And all that will 
remain of the "constitutional" state will be its monopoly 
of force.

     In the same way, civilized men have vainly tried to 
"tame" war with rules of "civilized warfare," sparing 
noncombatants and so forth. They are shocked when others 
resort to "terrorism," which is really no more than war 
that observes the logic of war: damage the enemy by any 
means, with no nonsense about mercy to civilians. Yet the 
"civilized" men have found it hard to abide by their own 
rules, as witness Dresden and Hiroshima. Under pressure 
and temptation, "civilized" warfare, like 
"constitutional" government, is cast aside.

     It's always worth recalling Simone Weil's definition 
of force: that which turns a human being into a mere 
thing, either a corpse or a slave. We modern men are so 
used to living under the law of force that we hardly 
notice it. Indeed most of us think it's necessary. Like 
Thomas Hobbes, we have come to believe that social life 
would be impossible without the state.

     Yet to say that society requires the state amounts 
to saying that human social life depends on granting some 
men the power to kill and enslave others, rather than on 
freedom, love, cooperation, and production. By this 
logic, the Soviet Union should have been the most 
prosperous of societies. But it was just the opposite. 
Ruling with uninhibited terror, it killed, enslaved, and 
impoverished millions, never producing so much as a new 
egg-beater or can opener. Force is the mortal enemy of 

     Still, countless men persist in believing that human 
life can be improved by giving the state, the most lethal 
of social institutions, new powers -- that is, by further 
increasing the ratio of force to freedom. But all the 
clever people who have tried to bring good out of evil 
have only given the world tyranny.


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