15 years ago I published an essay entitled “The Thing Itself,” which argued that state power and “the law” were blunt instruments. I worried that we had lost sight of the limits of state capacity. The years since I made that claim have not been reassuring. The past six months have convinced me I need to reprise and refresh the argument, because we have clearly learned nothing.
The ”Thing Itself” is a reference to a mid-18th century anonymous tract by Edmund Burke, in which he discusses “natural” and “artificial” government.
In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse! Observe, my Lord, I pray you, that grand Error upon which all artificial legislative Power is founded.
It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
In vain they change from a single Person to a few. These few have the Passions of the one, and they unite to strengthen themselves, and to secure the Gratification of their lawless Passions at the Expence of the general Good. In vain do we fly to the Many. The Case is worse; their Passions are less under the Government of Reason, they are augmented by the Contagion, and defended against all Attacks by their Multitude.
The essay was a satire of Lord Bolinbroke’s argument about religion, and clearly does not reflect Burke’s mature perspective. But the argument now seems prescient: some people think government is the only possible solution to every problem that comes up. They “fall out only with the abuse,” saying that we need better people in office. If only we can elect “good” people, the argument goes, government itself will be good.
Others (and I am obviously of this view) would regard government as, at best, a difficult, dangerous, and exigent tool for accomplishing shared goals. Worse, once state power is invoked, there is no reason to expect government actors to limit themselves to “shared goals;” instead, the personal goals of the rulers dominate. Any government powerful enough to do what is desired must be expected to do more, and other, than desired.
One cannot escape the dilemma by reforms, the manipulation of structure. The monarch (“a single person”) becomes an oligarchy. But those few have the passions of the one, meaning that elites unite around their shared interests, and use the tax “commons” to finance their schemes.
It might seem that if we could only get power in the hands of “the people” we would finally have reached Nirvana. But “In vain do we fly to the Many, The Case is worse; their Passions are less under the Government of Reason, they are augmented by the Contagion, and defended against all Attacks by their Multitude.”
Wow: “they are augmented by the Contagion.” Burke is referring to populism, but the combination of populism and fears of a global pandemic fit the model pretty well.
In the essay I wrote, I told the story of a federal government scientist who entered a DC Metro station eating a candy bar. A DC Transit cop noticed this (they were passing on escalator, down vs. up) and admonished the scientist. Scientist nodded, ate the last bite of the candy bar, and headed toward the subway platform.
The cop hurried back down the escalator, and aggressively confronted the scientist. (Both cop and scientist were African-American women, if it matters). The cop roughed up the scientist, and then aggressively searched her, going so far as to put her hand up and feel around inside her bra.
Some people at the time thought the cop had just gone crazy. That view makes the mistake of “falling out only with the abuse.” This was not an abuse of the system; it is the system. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “That cop didn’t go crazy. That cop went cop!”
What I mean is that violence and literal enforcement of the law is not a distortion or perversion of state power, but is rather the essence of state power. The law said “no eating.” The person was eating. That person must be aggressively prevented from flouting the law. I’m not sure exactly what the scientist should have done, since she couldn’t spit out the candy bar. But when she ate the rest of the candy bar, after being told that eating was illegal, the state had to come down hard.
In the past few weeks, we have seen videos of police violence targeted at civilians. I started to say “innocent civilians,” but that’s not true. In an environment where a police order to “get off the streets, move away” has been issued, the failure to move away is very much like popping the rest of the candy bar in your mouth. The state, in the form of police violence, is asserting its power to control the population. Once you begin to see like a state, you recognize that failing to use violence to exert control would deny the nature, and in fact the very self-justification, of the enforcement power.
A government does other things also, of course, but the ability to survive and to use violence to force citizens to obey, is the core function of the state. Or, “the thing itself.” As Max Weber (1921) put it:
What is a ‘political’ association from the sociological point of view? What is a ‘state’? Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state. Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association—namely, the use of physical force…
…[A] state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence. Hence, ‘politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state. (pp. 396-7; emphasis added).
This brings us to the point, and to the problem. If you want to use the state to accomplish your goals, you cannot “fall out only with the abuses.” You have to recognize that it’s the nature of the state, the thing itself, to use violence against its own citizens.
Notice that I am not blaming the police, at least not directly. In my article 15 years ago, I pointed out that we had created a set of laws, not manners or cultural norms, but actual laws, that forced the police into the position of being baby-sitters and wardens of citizens. Once you recognize that the police in all those videos are focusing violence against citizens who have done nothing but disobey an order to disperse, you realize that “better police” is not the answer.
The only answer is “smaller state.” Because the excessively large state isn’t going crazy, it’s just going state.