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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 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 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 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.

[Breaker quote: Can evil 
produce good?]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 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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