Government Power Rests on Violence and Coercion

From police brutality to the events in Ukraine, we're reminded daily that government power is based on violence.


"Ukrainian events have demonstrated," writes Maria Snegovaya in The New Republic, "that control of violence is still at the very essence of the state." She says Vladimir Putin's aggression proves that Max Weber's definition of the state'"an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force'"is still relevant, even though we in the West "tend to think of the 'monopoly on violence' as a metaphor."

We do? That would be news to the relatives of Kelly Thomas, a homeless California man beaten to death last year by police officers (who were later acquitted). And to the relatives of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was shot to death by New York City police officers (who were also acquitted). It would be news to a lot of black and Hispanic men who have been stopped and frisked in the streets of New York'"or bent over the hood of a squad car anywhere in America.

The idea that governmental violence is merely metaphorical would be news to the employees at a gold mine in Chicken, Alaska, who were stunned last year when armed and armored agents from the EPA swooped in to search for violations of the Clean Water Act.

It would be news to Gibson Guitar Corp., subject to an armed federal raid for using the wrong tariff code on imported wood. It would be news to Audrey Hudson, a reporter whose home was raided in October by armed federal agents who seized her files and notes. And it would be news to countless others whose property was seized through eminent domain.

Governmental violence is not a metaphor. It is not even an aberration. It is a daily occurrence. Often it is entirely justified: If a bank robber would rather shoot it out with the cops than surrender peacefully, his death will bring no loss to the world. If Osama bin Laden starts a fight with the U.S., then America should end it.

Still, Putin's aggression does draw attention to the prevalence of state violence'"and the often incoherent attitude toward it on both sides of the American political divide.

During the Bush years, progressives spent a great deal of time lamenting American militarism. They found the promotion of American values through brute force misguided and cruel. The neoconservative project of reshaping the wider world through hard power was, progressives said, arrogant. Abusive. Bullying. As a piece in The Nation explained: "U.S. involvement abroad, even when well-intentioned, is perceived on the receiving end as heavy-handed meddling."

"For eight years we have paid the price for a foreign policy that lectures without listening," Barack Obama said in a 2008 speech at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington. In that speech, he said the U.S. needed to try a different approach'"engagement. Development assistance. "Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation," he declared.

Conservatives'"at least the interventionists, which is still most of them'"scoff at this. They say the world is full of bad actors'"actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened nations willing to use force to do it.

But then turn the discussion to domestic affairs. Suddenly progressives are more than happy to use the coercive power of state violence to make the world a better place, as they define it.

Economic inequality? Redistribute wealth. Obesity? Tax the Twinkie and ban the Big Gulp. Health care? Make everyone buy insurance'"and dictate what kind. Concepts common to foreign policy'"such as sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination'"go right out the window, replaced by heavy-handed meddling. After all: The country is full of bad actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened parties willing to use force to do it.

Many conservatives display no more consistency. For years, voices on the right have ridiculed the federal government's utter inability to get anything right. The standard conservative critique holds that government is inept, corrupt, and grotesquely wasteful; peopled by incompetent bureaucrats whose only concern is in expanding their fiefdoms; and completely blind to the law of unintended consequences. Government, say conservatives, has no business telling a company what benefits it must provide and no business telling families how to raise their children. Butt. Out.

Until the discussion turns to foreign affairs. Then all those concepts common to domestic policy'"individual sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination'"go right out the window. Suddenly it is perfectly fine for the United States to order the rest of the world around. And when it does so, there will be no incompetence, no corruption, no self-interest, no unintended consequences. When the U.S. marches off to war, the federal government can do no wrong. And if you don't stand behind the troops, pal, feel free to stand in front of them.

Both sides are half-right. The state might have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but that doesn't mean it should be prodigal with the stuff, either at home or abroad.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.