The Social Contract

This post on “the social contract” is going to set up a longer post on liberalism as such.

Howes correctly, and astutely, points us to Hobbes and Locke to remind us that they locate the origin of the state in the suppression of violence.  The whole social contract thing is premised on the claim that a non-state society will be one of endless violence that pits everyone against every one else.  The state, then, is a protection racket.  The only incentive to join the social contract (which, after all, means alienating various freedoms to the state) is to gain some protection against the violence visited upon oneself by one’s neighbors.

This argument–that states are necessary to the suppression of violence–can be found in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.  The basic claim is that, without the effective and systematic enforcement of laws against violence, an endless cycle of vengeance will result.  Where law enforcement prevails, violence crimes, especially homicides, become less common.  There is very impressive statistical evidence–not least among black populations in the United States–to justify this conclusion.  Correlation is not causation, of course.  But the correlation is there.

Here is Jill Leovy’s statement of this thesis:

“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death. homicide becomes endemic.

African-Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the long-standing plague of black homicides.  Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence–the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force.  A monopoly provides citizens with legal autonomy, the liberating knowledge that the government will pursue anyone who violates their personal safety.  But slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations worked against the formation of such a monopoly where blacks were concerned.  Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans every year” (page 8).

The biggest problem for this way of thinking is that states, because of their capacity to organize acts of violence through the creation of armed units like the police and the army, are capable of much more violence than the perpetrators of non-state violence (even where those perpetrators are organized into gangs or Mafias.)  We seem to have a tragic double-bind here: either anarchic perpetual violence in the absence of the state or large-scale state-sponsored violence.  Choose your poison.

Or, in other words, Leovy is not denying that the state uses its violence against black people.  Many of them are victims of state violence.  But the state’s failure to prosecute those blacks who murder (or violently harm) other blacks also enables a different form of violence against blacks: namely, the black on black violence that is the single biggest source of violent death among African Americans.  Despite the high incarceration rates of black men on our country, the majority of crimes in which blacks are the victims of violence go unsolved.  The “justice system” incarcerates for drug offenses and for crimes against property–and for violence against white people.  But it mostly ignores violent crimes against blacks.

Hobbes and Locke imagine individuals as having the opportunity to make a choice between anarchic freedom or a protectionist state. (The key word here is “imagine.”) They think almost everyone will choose the state.

One final thought here.  In a comment to an earlier post, Susan Bickford warns against taking violence as “natural.”  We get into a tragic bind only if we see violence as an inevitable feature of human sociality.  That’s a tough one for me.  On the one hand, I do want to support thought experiments that imagine what social conditions would generate a violence-free human togetherness.  Utopian thinking is vitally important.  But, on the other hand, I call such thinking utopian because I don’t know that we have any actual historical or contemporary instances of non-violent societies.  Yes, we have people who live their whole lives without ever acting violently–but are they members of societies in which no violence occurs?  This gets back to my worry that non-violent social movements are enabled by the protection of a state.  And this could lead to an additional worry that leading a life of non-violence is a privilege some get to have while others do not.  All of which may be just a way of saying that Ghettoside is a sobering read.

I don’t know entirely what to do with the “natural” issue.  I am inclined to say that lions are naturally violent–and that we would think it rather absurd to attempt to “reform” lions of their violent proclivities.  But what humans do is so varied that a single notion of “human nature” appears invalid.  I am very fond of the old saw that there is only one valid sociological law: some do, some don’t.  So let’s not claim anything about human behavior is “natural,” if we mean by that term behavior that is inevitable and incorrigible.  But that still doesn’t help us with designing the conditions under which violent behavior would become rare, unthinkable, or extinct.



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