Violence and the State

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Whenever a government official is murdered, the media immediately comes on stage to recite its well-rehearsed script reminding us that the lives of those who work for the state are more important than the lives of the rest of us. The killing of a police officer is always good for two or three days of television coverage, while the death of a convenience-store clerk goes largely unreported. The recent murder of a Chicago judge’s spouse and mother received many days of media attention, as did the killing of an Atlanta judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and a federal agent.

As the well-televised search for the Georgia killer continued, a gunman went into a Wisconsin hotel and murdered seven participants in a church service before killing himself. Despite twice the number of dead compared to the Atlanta shooting, the Wisconsin killings received only cursory media coverage; a brief interlude between the many hours spent — even after the capture of the Georgia suspect — discussing the "what ifs" and "what to dos" about attacks on judges and other government officials.

While I do not respect the work done by state functionaries, I have always regarded their lives as inviolate as anyone else’s. To engage in violence against others — no matter who the target or what the excuse — is to diminish one’s own character. If we are to live with integrity, our actions must be in harmony with our enunciated principles.

But the political establishment — as reflected in the voices of its media babblers — does not share this sense of the innate worthiness of people. Those who labor on behalf of establishment purposes — be they politicians, judges, police officers, military people, or bureaucrats — enjoy a more elevated status than those with more mundane interests — whether convenience-store clerks or those who attend church services in hotel rooms. The same attitude carries over to entire nations: those who support American establishment interests are reported upon in tones of respect, while those who insist on pursuing their own interests are characterized as "rogue," or "terrorist" regimes, or a "trouble spot."

In an age of simplistic thinking, in which criticism of American foreign policy is regarded by vacuous voices as "America-hating," or condemnation of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians is labeled "anti-Semitism," one must speak slowly and with added clarity when offering opinions which many are far too eager to misconstrue. It is often easier for the intellectually slothful to distort an idea than to confront it.

To the media and other state-supremacists, every "problem" is a call for further extending state power; every realm of individual liberty is a "loophole" to be excised from a legislative scheme. Accordingly, statists will remain true to past form in assessing the causes of these recent murderous acts. The need for more armed deputies in courtrooms has already been offered as one prescription, while one can expect the gun-control crowd to go into its knee-jerk reactions to further disarm Americans. Such responses overlook the fact that the Atlanta killing took place because an armed government deputy provided a temptation to an unarmed defendant! The politically-minded might be better advised to offer proposals for disarming the state!

One possible explanation for social violence that will not be appearing soon on a television screen near you, is that this phenomenon may have its origins in the state itself. Some thirty years ago, I wrote a law review article, titled "Violence as a Product of Imposed Order," in which I developed the thesis that the regulatory nature of the state — by interfering with and thus frustrating the goal-directed actions of individuals — produces aggressive, violent reactions. People have been conditioned, since childhood, to look upon political institutions as a means of protecting their lives, liberty, and property interests from those who would victimize them; what I referred to as the "hygienic" function. Not only has there been a failure of such expectations, but the state’s system of taxation, regulation, conscription, and warfare has generated what I called the "structuring" function of political systems. The combined failure of the state’s "hygienic" function, and the proliferation of the "structuring" role that increasingly interferes with the pursuit of private interests, has generated violence in our world. The effort to impose order, in other words, will produce disorder. (I elaborated upon this theme in my later book, Calculated Chaos.)

Employing the "frustration-aggression" hypothesis, one psychological study concluded that "[a] person feels frustrated when a violation of his hopes or expectations occurs, and he may then try to solve the problem by attacking the presumed source of frustration." Another study found that "we are witnessing at all levels of our social network a conflict based on dualistic thinking, the polarities of which are personal or individual freedom as against social structures maintaining the functions of regulation and control." Such conflict, the study added, produces "protest and violence."

Study after study reached similar conclusions. In the words of one writer, "[v]iolence comes from powerlessness. . . . As we make people powerless, we promote their violence rather than its control." That government regulation of the personal and economic behavior of individuals helps to foster this sense of powerlessness is a verdict unlikely to be disputed by regular readers of this website. The increased transaction costs, the restriction or outright prohibition of opportunities, and the diminution of the liberty to control one’s life or other property interests, are among the more obvious consequences of governmental action that frustrate the self-directed pursuits of people.

We live in an age of politicogenic conflict, wherein any condition that a sizeable number of people wish to see changed is presumed to give rise to state authority to redirect people’s lives. Farmers are subjected to criminal penalties for plowing their lands if their acreage is the nesting ground for some favored species of bird or rat. Homeowners have had their residences condemned, through eminent domain, and turned over to private businesses for the building of a factory or shopping center. Before one can enter various trades or professions, one must secure a license, to be issued by a state agency controlled by those already licensed. Prisons are over-populated with individuals whose only crime has been to choose which chemicals to ingest into their bodies. Parents are penalized for not educating, medicating, supervising, or raising their children in accordance with the preferences of those who presume the state’s role of "super-parent." Individuals are subject to state mandates regarding health care alternatives, including forthcoming government controls over vitamins and supplements. The police system expands its surveillance and weaponry into more and more corners of life. Our world has become as dystopian as that envisioned by Herbert Spencer, in which "no form of co-operation, small or great, can be carried on without regulation, and an implied submission to the regulating agencies."

Taxes and government regulations continue to escalate, while the contractual promises of the state (e.g., the Social Security system) or the quality of state services (e.g., government schools) continue to collapse. Implicitly — if not explicitly — people are becoming increasingly aware that every political system and program is a racket, grounded in nothing but lies and illusions. The expectation that the state will protect your life, property, and income, so that you may be free to pursue your private interests, is an article of faith that no longer fires the social spirit of intelligent men and women.

The state’s relentless efforts to regulate and micromanage the lives of people frustrates goal-directed behavior and, as a consequence, produces the anger and violence that manifests itself in so many sectors of modern society. In the daily murderous events to which we look for entertainment — be they performed on a world stage, or in courthouses, churches, or neighborhood convenience stores — we can see played out the violence implicit in our thinking. In the words of Arthur Eddington, "our ignorance stands revealed before us," but only if we choose to look at what we have made of our world.

State-supremacists will labor to convince you that the explanation for our violent ways lies other than in the existence of their agencies of force and violence. Guns, violent movies and television programs, rock lyrics, and video games will each receive its share of the blame for what we have become; and, of course, new governmental programs will be announced to curb violence by further restricting individual liberties. And so the vicious cycle continues its revolution, . . . right back to the same well-worn rut of regulated madness in which we find ourselves!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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