Law, Government, Violence (not what you think)

The purpose of government regulation is not to create a utopia. It is to get a bunch of primates to get along…at least most of the time.

There’s a lot of talk about the “role of government” in this or that. But let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about the role of government, any government, when we look at these primates we call humans. Government allows humans to live in large groups.

I’m with the Band, Man

Humans, evolutionarily, do not do well in groups over about 150 people. Most of human evolution took place in groups that anthropologists call “bands.” These bands are small groups of humans, under 150 members, who are generally attached to each other by kinship—by descent and by marriage.

With these bands, only two types of social distinctions were made. One was gender, and the other was age. It was not until the rise of horticulture that people started developing ways of solving social conflict that allowed everyone to stay together. Even this early farming required a certain amount of investment in the land and staying together. Before that, if the groups grew too large, they tended to fragment into two or more smaller groups.

Getting people to work together in groups larger than band size requires hierarchy—at least rudimentary government. If two or more bands had to live together and get along, this meant a certain amount of social organization. This led to the advent of the “big men” (and “big women”) as social leaders. These “big” people were leaders, but their children did not inherit their power. Effectiveness, and not lineage, marked people as leaders.

As the groups working together became larger, the forms of leadership became more strict and more formalized. In time, humans developed cities, and eventually states. The important thing to remember is that basic human behaviors didn’t change much. Our situations changed, but not our basic drives.

A Monopoly on Violence

One of the most basic functions of government, especially state government, is defined in its monopoly on violence. The state tells us who we can kill, and under what circumstances. Yet, as people, we are prone to violence when we find our livelihoods, our persons, and our own “bands” threatened.

The state requires a trade-off. It takes away our freedom to seek redress through violence. In return, it offers to solve those same problems in other ways. This is one of the basic purposes of law, and the reason that law not only restricts violence, but also controls financial interaction, from contract enforcement to theft. Modern law, at its root, takes away our right to violence. It also attempts to regulate and solve the problems that we, as primates, would usually address with violence.

For example, say that a typical Joe-schmoe invests in an enterprise, and that enterprise is a rip-off. Now, as a primate whose livelihood is threatened, Joe wants to solve the problem with a club. But the state, holding a monopoly on violence, says, “Hold on! That is not your responsibility!”

By forming a monopoly on violence, “government” has taken away Joe’s ability to effectively (or ineffectively) respond with violence to threats against his livelihood. If we remember that humans are violent primates, then one of the main functions of government is regulating violence.

Governments never say “no violence.” Instead they regulate it. Perhaps violence in self-defense is okay. Or violence against certain groups. Or violence against outsiders. The point is that government decides what is, or is not, legitimate violence.

The Trade-Off

In order for thousands or even millions of humans to live together in close quarters as we so commonly do, we have emplaced rules against violence. However, at the same time, we have rules and regulations there to prevent the very situations that lead to violence.

In order to live together, we have to give up the right to use violence individually. We relegate this power to the state, and then rely on the state for redress.

That should be the perfect system. Except, as with all things that touch the real world and human nature, the reality is much coarser, and messier. Institutions, including governments, tend to be reactive. If we recognize, however, that the purpose of regulation is generally the need to stem violence, rather than the need to “promote fairness” or any other high-minded goal, then we can see where the slippage comes in.

While law may have its own purposes, government (in its basest form) has no pressing need to address a problem until it threatens to spill over into violence. When we see this clearly, then we can more calmly address what seem to be “failures” in government. Though the system may not work as advertized, it certainly works as designed.


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