Friday, May 30, 2008

Flirting with Anarchy

Why does America have the highest rate of crime in the Western world, despite the highest incarceration rates, and extraordinary wealth? The explanation of poverty does not hold water--there are many poor countries where the poorest have little involvement in crime (this title goes to the middle class). Race and poverty do play a part, but not in the way that we expect. For underlying the argument that race and poverty are the causes of crime is the assumption, and indeed, the justification, of the idea that the downtrodden have the right to take justice into their own hands. It is believed that the disadvantaged have the right, even the responsibility, to 'fight the power.'

This is not simply an outgrowth of the ill-fated revolutionary movements of the sixties. The ideology of those movements followed a common stream of American thought laid down as early the second amendment, the right to bear arms. Those arms were aimed at foreign invaders, but they were also aimed--and more often, as time went on--at the gub'mint. For among the entrenched principles of individual action so esteemed in the American experiment, was the esteem of lone justice, the strong man with a gun and two fists who brought justice to his community, whether he was a lawman or not.

The lone bringer of justice enforced justice as he saw it, not the justice detailed by laws and governments. He did what needed to be done, whether it was legal or not. American settlers in the west moved into a vacuum; the people outraced the government. In Canada, settlers arrived to find the RCMP already in place. The RCMP has had a checkered career since: the brutality of the strikes during the 30's, thuggish behavior and intimidation during the 70's. But the establishment of official lawmen before settlement set a precedent and a mode of conduct. You didn't fight the power, you partook in it, through democratic and economic participation. Whatever followed, those early mounties did us proud, establishing global precedents of detective work and negotiation.

But in America, the love of lone justice has inspired a problem. If justice is left to the individual, if one person can be judge, jury, and executioner, then how do you ensure that that person is qualified? The answer is that you can't, and that means that all manner of imbeciles will arrogate to themselves the right to impose their own manner of justice by force. The result is not just the likes of Timothy McVeigh, but an endless procession of underclass losers who have decided that the world has done them wrong, and they are going to get their own back. It is no accident that so many American criminals are of the lowest tier of intelligence; these are the very people who are prone to assuming that their failures are the fault of the 'system', and taking violent action to address this perceived injustice. The old left's insistence that this is the case only makes this worse; it shifts the burden of responsibility onto external entities, rather than upon poor choices. This is sometimes true, as in the case of people who have invested for their retirement and find their saving wiped out by the rapacious manuverings of stock brokers. But for those who do nothing, save nothing, or waste their money on get-rich-quick schemes, the temptation to blame it all on anyone but themselves is very strong, and they have a readymade ideology that encourages them to do just that.

So the gap between the far right militias and the ghetto gangs is not so far distant. Both are united in the belief that if you want justice, you have to impose it yourself. This belief not only encourages violence, it undermines faith in the democratic process. This is the dark underbelly of libertarianism; the government cannot be trusted to do anything. You have to do it yourself. And yet, this includes violence, and the government monopoly on violence is an integral part of the rule of law, without which you have anarchy. Libertarians would, no doubt, flinch from the very phrase "state monopoly of violence", but that is the price of peace, order, and good government. That is the Canadian promise, but at the moment, it seems to be the American dream. Perhaps it is time for them to look north, and understand how we did it.