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An official protection racket

September 13, 2014

Matt Ridley gives us a lesson in the history of governments – think of it as Civics 101 – while he writes about the militarization of police in the United States.

Government begins as a monopoly on violence
It’s an official protection racket

My Times column last week was on the historical roots of government: […]

The deal implicit in being governed is at root a simple one: we allow the people who govern us to have an exclusive right to commit violence, so long as they direct it at other countries and at criminals. In almost every nation, if you go back far enough, government began as a group of thugs who, as Pope Gregory VII put it in 1081, “raised themselves up above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime”.

Was Canute, or William the Conqueror, or Oliver Cromwell really much different from the Islamic State? They got to the top by violence and then violently dealt with anybody who rebelled. The American writer Albert Jay Nock in 1939 observed: “The idea that the state originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation — that is to say, in crime . . . No state known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose.” […]

One of the great peculiarities of the United States is that it never quite managed to impose a state monopoly on powerful weaponry. The right to bear arms was a reaction to the presence of redcoats as an occupying army before 1783. The government got to own the tanks and aircraft carriers, but never pointed them at its own people, who were allowed to own guns much more freely than in other countries.

This is what makes the kit that the police displayed in Ferguson, Missouri, this month so alarming. With their camouflage uniforms, armoured vehicles and heavy-calibre machine guns, “law enforcement” cops looked less like a constabulary and more like an occupying army. In recent years, largely by exploiting the “war” on terror and the “war” on drugs, the American police have indeed been radically militarised. […]

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