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Between Us and the State of Nature

Government in America today does many things. It builds roads, educates and feeds our children, supplies housing to millions, and gives living assistance to older citizens. And this is just the start of its vast array of responsibilities. Important as these activities are, however, none of them provides the primary reason why people instituted a government in the first place.

This reason was perhaps best described by the English political philosopher John Locke, author of the Second Treatise on Civil Government. Published in 1689, some 80 years before the events that led to the American Revolution, Locke’s Treatise was the most widely read book in America in the 1770s, the Bible excepted. It still deserves our attention today. The work speaks directly to the inchoate movement currently roiling the nation, which calls for defunding (or disbanding) police forces and demands using the money recovered to “invest in people” and adopt “a holistic model of public safety.”

John Locke takes us in a different direction. All human beings, he argued, possess a set of drives or instincts that lead them to try to preserve their lives and security, safeguard their liberty, and protect what they have worked to attain. The simple name Locke gives to these instincts are life, liberty, and estate (or property), from which the famous words of the Declaration, slightly revised, are drawn: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These drives represent the first things people care about when they approach politics. They are the basis of our natural rights, “natural” because they derive directly from man’s makeup or constitution. John Quincy Adams rephrased this idea, derived from Locke and the Declaration, when he wrote in 1821 that Americans “proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.”

The challenge Locke faced was to figure out how to maximize the prospects of securing these basic rights. People must agree, he reasoned, to a social contract setting up a government that assures fair policing and proper judging and punishing. A neutral force would stand above all individuals and have the authority and power to restrain those of criminal inclination. It would also dissuade the many who, in the absence of police, might act on their own out of uncertainty to protect a possible assault on their rights. A feeling of calm and certainty should prevail, which is a primary goal of government itself. People can survive roads with potholes and even live without an education, but they will always need police and a system of justice.   

“[The] lawless in spirit . . . [are] encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

Abraham Lincoln, “Lyceum Address”

Think of what the protection of law means to an ordinary citizen. In one scenario, a person happens to find himself alone late at night in a dangerous section of town. Peering over his shoulder, in fear being of robbed or assaulted, he is gripped with the sudden disquiet of knowing that he could not call in time to receive the government’s protection. There is no effective 911. This psychological position is akin to finding oneself in what Locke calls a “state of nature,” a circumstance without a superior force that safeguards citizens and discourages wrongdoing. Law-abiding people who fear being in such a state are beginning to think of how they might react in encountering a lawless environment. Some, as so many New Yorkers are now doing, will doubtless search for a house in the Hamptons, while others, maybe as a last resort, will run out to purchase a handgun.

Looking back in American history, no one more vividly described the effects of the breakdown of law than the young Abraham Lincoln. In 1838, with a mobocratic spirit growing in the states of the West and South, Lincoln spoke of a condition in which “all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.” He went on to focus on the “lawless in spirit,” who are “encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” A jubilee of the suspension of government is the state of nature on steroids that Locke sought to avoid.

Nothing is extraordinary or shameful in people worrying about this breakdown of law. For example, in the normally quiet environment of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, many came to worry for their safety following a spate of reported assaults and rapes a few years ago. Administrators responded at first by having the police send out regular warnings of danger zones, by supplying transport to students at any hour, and by offering lessons in self-defense. All of these steps were preparatory to employing a large new private security force, euphemistically labeled the “ambassadors” (though none issued visas or attended late-afternoon cocktail parties). The fine personnel in this force were assigned to patrol, at all hours, every corner of the university and its surrounding residential areas, deterred by neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, adding another layer of security to the regular police forces. As students have begun to feel safer, they forget about safety and view security forces more as a problem than a solution. Protesters last week joined the national movement against the police by calling for “the need to defund the Charlottesville, Albemarle County and University of Virginia police departments.”

Policing, of course, presents problems of its own. A force that regularly acts unfairly against segments of the public is as bad or worse than having no force at all, as the gruesome murder of George Floyd illustrates. At other moments, though, Americans have demanded greater rigor and more policing to provide protection against sexual assault, school shootings, and the destruction of buildings and property, from which the livelihood of many derives. With more policing, however, it is impossible to avoid all wrongdoing. The more people randomly disrespect and attack the police, the fewer qualified persons there will be who choose this profession. Better training, along with some changes in police union regulations, can make things better, but never perfect. In the end, people need to have police. As John Locke made clear, it is the reason why we have government.

Reader Discussion

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on June 23, 2020 at 08:33:07 am

Important issue these days. Yet, no one denies, or at least, no reasonable person would deny the absolute necessity for police force, enforcing law and order. But, the respectable author of the post, has mentioned the: “invest in people” and adopt “a holistic model of public safety " as alternative, yet, in contrast ( somehow) with John Locke ( which takes us " in a different direction").

But, we couldn't understand that new approach. No explanation and details have been given to us in that post it seems. To my best knowledge, it does consist of investing in education, well being of more vulnerable classes of society in order to prevent the roots of crime or criminality, over arresting criminals locking them behind bars or deterring them. I guess that it is also about, having police force affiliated rather with local community, over, the state as a whole, let alone federal forces or unites.

Thanks

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El roam
on June 23, 2020 at 08:38:17 am

Here links giving some idea, about that new approach mentioned:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52960227

https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/10/how-one-city-provides-public-safety-without-a-police-department/

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El roam
on June 23, 2020 at 08:43:17 am

Comment of mine has been swallowed, so here again:

Here link giving some idea, about that new approach mentioned:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52960227

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El roam
on June 23, 2020 at 08:44:42 am

And here another link ( the new holistic approach mentioned):

https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/10/how-one-city-provides-public-safety-without-a-police-department/

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El roam
on June 23, 2020 at 10:09:25 am

Not having police at all, Hobbes replacing Locke, is unthinkable and no one seriously wants it. Defunding the police will be a complex task. Which tasks can be taken from them? Who will become responsible instead? We are stuck at a rhetorical and theoretical stage of the debate which is really games playing. We need someone to test reduced policing in practice. Minneapolis where the crisis began would be an excellent testbed. It has a city council unanimously in favour and a stable voter base that ensures a trial would get a fair run. Most people intuit that reducing the powers of the police would result in increased lawlessness but we won't know until we've tried it. No Republican city will lead the way. It's a Democrat idea and they have the means to demonstrate whether they're right. It's up to them. If they're wrong they can always hire a new police force. I just wonder whether the idea will survive the election if Biden wins.

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DG Forbes
on June 23, 2020 at 10:48:57 am

Life, liberty and property, but slave owner (slave breeder?) Jefferson couldn't put that on paper, could he.

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Flowerplough
on June 23, 2020 at 19:31:00 pm

It amazes me that so many have jumped to the firm conclusion that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings, when (to my current knowledge) neither the genetic nor historical evidence firmly establishes that that occurred. Genetically up to 22 (?) other male relatives could have been the father, and perhaps his brother Randolph or a nephew or a cousin (I don't recall all the details) has the high possibility via historical records of being sufficiently available as a sperm donor. T. Jefferson may well have been the father of some of the Hemming children, but why are so few willing to add the caveat of the (still existing) ambiguity surrounding this assertion?

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R2L
on June 23, 2020 at 13:08:20 pm

For Locke, we originally descend into war because individuals cannot be trusted to use their natural executive authority fairly. We set up government to fairly, neutrally execute the law. A government that doesn’t execute the law in a fair, equal manner is on the road to tyranny.

Locke is clearly on the side of the protesters. From the Lockean perspective, the structural racism in policing practices, disproportionate force, and mass incarceration—these are fundamental challenges to the legitimacy of the state. These are acts of tyranny. The “lawless spirit” is embodied by the police, not people protesting the police.

The “lawless spirit” that disrespects police is not a threat to good government, but rather a way to keep it from sliding into tyranny. As Locke makes very clear, if you fail to keep the people happy, that’s probably because you did a bad job of governing. The always-present underlying threat of revolt is supposed to keep a government honest and fair. It is a limiting force.

Would Locke really be imploring people to please de-emphasize the widespread abuse of police power and to emphasize the necessity of police? No way. But that’s what this article does.

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Whitney
on June 23, 2020 at 14:47:56 pm

sorry friend, but there is NO "running out to buy a handgun" in New York City....more like a marathon in the mud

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dr bob
on June 23, 2020 at 23:07:33 pm

Many of the discussions about defunding the police assume that the role of police is limited to "law enforcement." While this role is important, it is insufficient for a proper consideration of the role of police. The arguments of Professor Ceaser, on one hand, are very relevant to those situations in which conflicts arise in societies from the rational pursuits of competing interests. In these situations, enforcement of law by legitimate authority provides benefits that alternatives, such as dueling, feuds, assassinations and so forth do not. Professor Ceasar is correct that law enforcement is essential to civilized society. This is where the debate over "re-imagining" policing, and "holistic models," "and "new paradigms," begins and ends. Perhaps this aspect of policing can be updated and improved in some way. Police however play other roles in society that are far less amenable to theoretical fancy and ideological tinkering. There is a subtle, but real distinction between "enforcing the law" and "protecting the public."

When a policeman writes a ticket for a broken tail-light or arrests someone for trying to pass counterfeit currency he is enforcing the law. When police responded to the Aurora theater shooting, they were protecting the public. This distinction might be waved off by claims that enforcing tail-light laws do, in a way protect the public, but doing so misses a crucial distinction (it is also a formal logical fallacy): there are some threats to the public that do not derive from carelessness, or rational self-interest, but rather from malice and psychopathy. There are some threats that are only ended with violence. When a policeman enforces the law, he protects the public indirectly by defending the rules and ordinances that society determines is necessary to its proper functioning. When a policeman engages an active shooter, he protects the public directly by confronting a threat that is impervious to considerations of law, justice, fairness or any other abstraction that is insufficient to stop bullets. Sometimes the role of a policeman is to use force, because there is no other option. Good luck trying to defund this role of policemen. Imagine how an alternative policing model would have responded to the Pulse Nightclub shooting, or to spree killings, the motivation of which makes sense only to the perpetrators.

The inconvenient observation is that the level of mental illness, psychopathy and sheer evil is relatively fixed in societies. These cannot be educated or counseled away. We will always have Charles Mansons, Eric Harrises, John Wayne Gacys and Syed Rizwan Farooks to contend with, and this contention requires force. Unfortunately, this aspect of policing presents opportunities for abuse, fiascos and tragedies. Force is sometimes necessary and it is often chaotic. It may be necessary to prevent greater harm but also entails collateral damage and occasional outrages. This is simply an uncomfortable and lamentable fact, but one that cannot be eliminated by pretending that is not so. Stephen Paddock's and Andrew Lanza's pathogies had nothing to do with inadequate funding for social workers, or insufficient attention to restorative justice. There is some truth to the claim by Kipling/Orwell/LeCarre: People sleep peaceably at night because rough men stand ready to do violence in their behalf. We will always have need of at least a few such men.

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z9z99

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.