The Hidden Violence in Our Laws

What it means to think ethically about state power

A simple fact about the nature of government is this: It’s violence. 

I know we live in a democracy where we decide together what the laws should be, and with the aim of achieving a better life for all. “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” Rep. Barney Frank (supposedly) once said. And we get angry when the state conducts itself violently, like when an NYPD police officer murdered Eric Garner.

But hear me out. Yes, most laws are created with the intent of improving the state of things. And, yes, police brutality isn’t a necessary feature of a well-run government. Yet the reason Daniel Pantaleo choked the life out of Garner is because Garner was selling unlicensed cigarettes. At some point, well-meaning people decided that, if we’re going to allow the sale of cigarettes, only some people will be allowed to sell them, and Eric Garner wasn’t one of those. 

That law—“You must not sell cigarettes without a license”—is only a law, and not a request, because it carries with it a threat: If you disobey, people working for the state are permitted, or compelled, to command you again, and then punish you if you persist. Or, in some cases, regardless of if you persist. 

That punishment might be a fine, of course. And for the sale of unlicensed cigarettes, it certainly wasn't on the books to murder the offender during arrest. But every law, to effectively be a law, must carry with it the threat of violence—and the understanding that the threat is serious and will be carried through. 

Take a pretty innocent law. The owner of your favorite professional football team talks the elected leaders of your city into forking over tax dollars to help him with the costs of a new stadium. You like the team, but you know the owner is quite rich. He certainly has more disposable income than you do. Furthermore, you’re skeptical of claims that the spent tax dollars will be more than made up for in additional revenue from additional business the stadium will bring to the city. (You should be.) The city’s passed a law saying your taxes are going up by some amount, though. That’s a command. What happens if you disobey? What happens if you withhold an amount in taxes equal to what the city wants you to give to the rich football owner?

Obviously, they might not catch you, in which case nothing happens. But what if they do? You might get told to make an adjustment in how much you’ve paid. But what if you refuse? They could issue you a fine. But what if you don’t pay? Eventually, men with guns will show up at your door and demand you come with them. But you say no. At this point, they’ll use physical force—violence—to make you anyway. Resist and that violence will ratchet up. Resist hard enough and they very well could kill you.

And it’s like this for every law. Jaywalking? There’s violence waiting for you if you persist. A ban on incandescent light bulbs? Better hope they don’t catch you stockpiling them. It’s easy to overlook—or imagine away—the necessary connection between law and violence because most people obey, and if you’re fortunate enough to live in a low crime area, you don’t typically see what happens when people don’t. Still, every time you say “There oughta be a law...,” what you’re actually saying is “Men with guns should use violence against people who do (or don’t)...” 

But so what? Even if we don’t typically think through all the processes behind each law all the way down to the violent foundations, what does doing so matter? Surely we need laws. We can’t live in a state of lawlessness, and if occasional violence in their enforcement is the price we pay for a lawful society, it’s a price more than worth it, no?

Here’s why thinking of law as violence matters: It gives us a clearer sense of what it is we’re doing when we do political things. The far right tends to get this. They recognize that state action is grounded in violence, but they celebrate it. They fantasize about directing that violence at their enemies, or out groups, or disfavored racial and ethnic categories. They cheer when cops bust heads, or when their presidential candidates promise carnage if they don’t get their way. They have no illusions about this aspect of the state’s nature, but they have a profoundly unethical perspective on what we should make of that.

The left, on the other hand, particularly the progressive left, tends to pretend the state is something different. (The Marxist/Lenist or Maoist far left, on the other hand, frequently looks more like the far right when it comes to recognizing the state’s violence.) Progressives and mainstream left leaners, unlike the far right, either believe, or tell themselves they believe, Barney Frank’s line. Laws are just us working together for a common purpose, and when things get violent, it's a deviation from the ideal. Banning the sale of unlicensed cigarettes isn’t a demand the state threaten violence, it’s a recognition that cigarettes are bad for you and the world would be better if they were less accessible. 

Neither this, or the glorying in violence of the far right, are ethical perspectives to take when engaging in politics. Not because the only ethical answer is to abolish all violence. It’s reasonable to conclude that at least some laws are necessary, and those laws must necessarily be backed by force. Rather, an ethical perspective on politics sees the state for what it is, while also believing that there’s nothing glorious or praiseworthy about the infliction of violence, and so proceeds cautiously and mindfully in political action so as not to create more violence than absolutely necessary.

This leaves open a lot of questions about institutions and justice, and that’s okay. We needn’t answer those now, if they can ever be fully answered at all. What’s key is that getting those questions right, and arriving at good answers, must begin with an ethical perspective on what we’re doing in the first place. If we ignore the nature of this powerful tool we bring to bear on social problems, if we cover our eyes or stick our fingers in our ears about the necessary violence of political action, then we will inadvertently or callously inflict too much, or set up and enable a system far more violent than we desire. Or, if we see the state for what it is, but relish that, then we will direct government not to just ends, but to evil ones.

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