The Law of Force
October 22, 2002
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
doesnt 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 it.
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 dont 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 cant protect us. Thats 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
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.
Its 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
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.
worth recalling Simone Weils 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 its necessary. Like Thomas Hobbes, we
have come to believe that social life would be impossible without the
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 creation.
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.