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 stateâ€"an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of forceâ€"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 Yorkâ€"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 violenceâ€"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 approachâ€"engagement. Development assistance. “Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation,” he declared.

Conservativesâ€"at least the interventionists, which is still most of themâ€"scoff at this. They say the world is full of bad actorsâ€"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 insuranceâ€"and dictate what kind. Concepts common to foreign policyâ€"such as sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determinationâ€"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 policyâ€"individual sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determinationâ€"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.

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  1. an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force

    That seems like a tautology to me. Government has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, therefore all uses of force by government are legitimate.

    A much better definition of government would be organized violence, because everything, without exception, that government does is predicated on a real threat of organized violence.

    1. I would generally enjoy Hinkle’s articles but for this pattern of having that one sentence or phrase that just leaves such a bad aftertaste.

    2. replace “legitimate” with “widely regarded as legitiate”. But there is nothing wrong with a little bit of tautology in a definition anyways.

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    3. That seems like a tautology to me. Government has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, therefore all uses of force by government are legitimate.

      It’s not a tautology — Hinkle seems to think that some, but not all, use of violence by the state mafia is OK, and said so explicitly.

  2. The state might have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence

    No, no, no, no, no! The state has the monopoly on violence, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

    1. I would use the word the ‘legal’ but not use the word ‘moral’. And I would refrain from using the word ‘violence’, and replace it with ‘aggression’. The government has a monopoly of law production too, as a consequence of it’s monopoly of legal aggression. As the monopolist law producer, they get to decide what’s (statutorily) ‘legal’ and whats not.

      And furthermore, the government should be destroyed.

  3. an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force

    And who legitimizes the use of force? Government does. Around and around and around it goes; where it stops, nobody knows.

    1. An aquaintance who was then a majoritarian argued to me that the majority, just because it was the majority, could legitimize a government. I responded that his argument presupposed an existing authority to define a polity and its voting membership. He admitted that I had him.

      1. I would have asked him if that would legitimize the majority murdering him, if they put the question of whether to murder him up to a vote and won.

        1. they’ll say “yes” and then point out that “that would never happen”, because they are ignoramuses about history.

          1. That was pretty much his attitude.

  4. If us commoners would just accept the will of our leaders, then there would be no need for all those armed agents. But no, we have to be unruly and stubborn. Why, we might resist having and fight back if someone came into our homes or places of business without our permission to force some regulations on us! So you see, all those armed raids are absolutely necessary.

  5. All this time and we still haven’t figured out a better way than this.

  6. this is a really, really stupid article. The TNR writer never said the violence was metaphorical but that the use of the term “monopoly” was, because

    “In today’s Western, law-abiding, strictly regulated world, we tend to think of the “monopoly on violence” as a metaphor. Who, after all, is seriously challenging the state in terms of its control over the military or the police?

    However, Ukrainian events have demonstrated that control of violence is still at the very essence of the state. Remember that it was only after direct clashes with the police, after the first victims appeared, and after the police started joining the protestors that real regime change began in Ukraine.

    This is a factual description of what a State looks like, NOT that the violence is “metaphorical”. What a failure, Hinkle.

  7. I believe “the licit use of force” would be a more accurate description than “the legitimate use of force”.

    1. It’s licit for the government to throw you in jail for smoking certain plants. That doesn’t make it right or moral.

        1. But that means “licit”, i.e. lawful, isn’t any better than “legitimate”. The correct word to replace legitimate is retaliatory.

          1. That’s the point. Something can be lawful without being right or moral, so it’s the perfect descriptor of the state’s use of violence.

            1. Not in Libertopia. In Libertopia moral and lawful are synonymous. It may describe how it is now and has been but it doesn’t correctly describe how it should be.

              1. Well we’re not describing the government as it ‘ought to be’, since morally speaking the government ‘ought to be’ abolished and non-existent.

  8. The state might have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence

    The notion of the state mafia having a “legitimate monopoly” on the use of violence is an oxymoron.

    1. The state DOES have a “legitimate monopoly” on the retaliatory use of force. That’s pretty much their purpose.

      1. If you want to know what machine’s intended purpose is, look at what it produces. Government’s produce murder, extortion and injustice. Thus, their ‘purpose’ is to function like a parasite.

  9. The correct definition is: an entity with a monopoly on the RETALIATORY use of force.

    1. Retaliatory or initiated violence? The state can do the latter with impudence. Individuals can use the former under done circumstances but not the latter. For the state, both retaliatory and initiated violence are “legitimate”.

      1. The initiatory use of force is NEVER legitimate. When carried out by the state it’s called tyranny.

        1. Then every government in history was and is tyrannical. Without the INITIATION of violence, the state doesn’t exist.

          1. Yes, they are. Did the Constitution require the initiatory use of force?

            1. Do the American Revolution and the genocide of the Indians count?

              You guys really think all of political philosophy can boil down to this “initiation” bullshit? Simple does not mean true!

              1. The genocide happened under the English and the Revolution gave us the Articles of Confederation not the Constitution. The State that we have now did not require one drop of blood to establish. That’s what makes America, America.

                1. Oh bull. The genocide continued under the Federal System. See: Sitting Bull, Trail of Tears, etc.
                  And the State we have now could not have been established without the Revolutionary War being fought, even if the Articles of Confederation were the first State that the colonies set up. Also, leaving aside the establishment of the current government, it certainly required violence to continue; see Civil War, Mormon Territory, etc.

                  1. Don’t forget that as recently as the 1950’s the Army was testing dirty bombs and radioactive carcinogen weapons on people who lived in government housing projects in St Louis. The genocidal monster that is our federal government ought to be destroyed and it’s participants treated no better than war criminals.

                2. A so called “government” cannot collect taxes without bloodying someone.

    2. The correct definition is: an entity with a monopoly on the RETALIATORY use of force.

      That implies that the state doesn’t initiate force against others. Retaliatory almost sounds self-defensey, so no that’s not the correct definition. The better definition is a ‘monopoly of legal aggression.’ or a ‘monopoly of the initiation of force’.

      The initiatory use of force is NEVER legitimate. When carried out by the state it’s called tyranny.

      So every time someone doesn’t pay their taxes and force is initiated against them, that’s an extrordinary case of the government working outside it’s mandated powers? That’s a bit of bullshit don’t you think? The initiation of force is the government. When they kick your door and shoot your dog, that’s par for the course.

  10. “All legitimate government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily agreed upon by the parties to it, for the protection of their rights against wrong-doers. In its voluntary character it is precisely similar to an association for mutual protection against fire or shipwreck.”

    1. — Lysander Spooner

    2. Under that definition, I know of no current government that is legitimate.

      1. Your insurance company is as close to a moral government as we have on the planet currently. If political institutions would just relinquish their monopoly of aggression and law production, all sorts of things would be insurable risks that aggregations of people could voluntarily protect one another against.

  11. Use of force is not the same as use of violence. For example, if the state searches a house with a legal search warrant, as previously spelled out in its constitution, it’s a use of force. If they simply bust into a house with no warrant, it’s violence.

    1. The problem is I think, that force is handed out a little to often by our court system. And the unneccessary violence used a little to often by the police.

      1. Unnecessary violence used even once is too often.

    2. The use of force as you described it because it is backed up by use of violence, if needed.

    3. “Legal” does not equal moral. The so called “State” actors point guns @ you and tells you what is “legal”, therefore “legal” is illegitimate.

      1. Well that goes for statutory law. There are higher forms of law, like natural law based on morality. In that sense alone, statutory authority is illegal. Even Common Law of precedents and common morality, is morally better than statutory law.

  12. Well, yeah, a government can never be a long-lasting government without violently ensuring any threats to its control over a country go away.

    Governments can wrap themselves in various types of legitimacy — various levels of democracy, proletariat dictatorship, mandate from god(s), economic success, etc. — but those are merely propagandistic tools to convince a good portion of the subjugated country to support its existence through violence and death.

  13. Personally, I do not give up the right to use force when I think it is in my interest, but recognize that foolish use of force will lead to my own demise. Because power is kinda like energy, accomplishing an end by imposing power (or the threat of power) is effective sometimes in small amounts. I keep the option available because otherwise my kids would rule my ass.

    Embrace the force, isn’t that what Obe Wan said?

    1. So you think murder should be ok if you think it is in your interest? Talk about subjective morality.

  14. Govern: synonyms: rule, preside over, reign over, control, be in charge of, command, lead, dominate; run, head, administer, manage, regulate, oversee, supervise …

    What part of “government” is so hard to understand?

    1. I guess it’s the euphemism part that people like you use to portray government as a cuddly teddy bear of love.

  15. Ina nutshell, violence works.

  16. Anyone who doesn’t realize that the government, any government, backs up it’s laws and regulation with deadly force, needs to study history. Even George Washington knew that: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” And I like to say that the definition of “to govern” is “to control.” Just how much control do you need or want from a politician or bureaucrat?

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  18. Are psychiatrists using State violence to establish the controversial DSM-5 Somatic Symptom Disorder diagnosis??

    1. Psychiatrists accuse parent(s) of medical abuse.

    2. The State seizes children/youth.

    3. The now wards-of-the-State are assigned an SSD diagnosis and “held for treatment”.

    4. Once established in an easily-seizable youth population, the SSD diagnosis can be more easily transferred upon the adult population.

    5. Once transferred upon the adult population, an SSD diagnosis is used to deny medical tests, treatments, research funding, social assistance, insurance claims, etc.

    Governments and insurers “disappear” complex chronic illness. Eventually, “the problem” goes away. Deny, deny until you die – as the saying goes.

    Please investigate, “Reason”!

  19. This is an interesting article. It is very well written, thank you!

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