A Serious Note on ‘The Monopoly on Force’

This year in the United States more than 35,000 people likely will die and more than 2 million people likely will be injured or disabled in road crashes. Of the people killed in road crashes, nearly 8,000 will be killed in crashes involving drivers ages 16- to 20-years-old.

Despite the high cost in life and limb, few question the social utility of driving a car by the age of 16, although it is well documented that adolescent brains cannot assess risk or control impulses. Americans today highly value the mobility of teenagers. Most Americans, still prizing independence in young men and women, will bear the risk of that independence.

When it comes to the use of force, a good many people believe—or will signal the belief (which is not the same as actually believing)—that the state ought to have a monopoly on the use of force, leaving no room for individual gun ownership, except as an atavism.

These beliefs share a kinship with beliefs that the state is fundamentally about force, such as those expressed by John C. Calhoun or Noam Chomsky (who have more in common than meets the eye), and are alien to the consent described in the Declaration of Independence. These misguided people have inverted the conditions of freedom, thinking the arc of History bends towards justice, but consent could bend just about anywhere. They forget the principles of the American founding: justice—“just government”—is derivative of consent, not the other way around.

Most Americans have been taught the fundamentals of this wrongheaded idea by the time they finish elementary school. Most basic civics classes teach that a “monopoly on force” is a defining feature of a functioning state. The principle is reinforced by their experience, as their schools respond to security issues with “lockdowns” and the ubiquitous command to passivity in the face of danger, “shelter in place.”

The opinions of family and neighbors, grown in the fertile ground of a bourgeois life with a low risk of violence, augment this. Antecedents to H.G. Wells’ docile and naïve Eloi, they cannot understand why always trusting someone else to defend you is not a safe and common sense arrangement. Interestingly—perhaps an antecedent to Wells’ Morlocks, who turn out to be the smarter of the two human descendants—in tough neighborhoods across America, one of the first of life’s lessons is there is one person you can count on to defend you . . . you.

For those who share the homogenized and ossifying opinions of the elite institutions, the idea that government might not control itself seems farfetched. They are more worried that government might not control those for whom the opinions of elite classes are not catching on. When the permanent state shares your political beliefs on all fundamental issues, its monopoly on force feels like—but only feels like—your monopoly on force. This explains the stridency of gun control opinions. which are put forth as an insult: “Fuck your thoughts and prayers.” This is not an opinion that asks for your trust; they don’t plan on needing it.

Maybe another angle on the discussion—if you call what is going on “discussion”—is rather than to emphasize the hardware, the arms, emphasize the man. That is, emphasize the importance of the principle on which the right to bear arms is derived: consent.

One can’t make an agreement if one party has no means to enforce it. Similarly, a people cannot give political consent without retaining the right to withdraw consent, in the event that consent is irreparably abused. This implies the use of force. It is contradictory to consent to government—to ruling oneself—and not also to have the right to defend that consent, if necessary.

Tragically, there is a price being paid for the intersection of this principle of consent with the descent into madness of a society that in too many places has cut ties with civilization. It may be small comfort to people that it is a far smaller price than the price paid for the practice of teenage driving. People routinely exaggerate remote risks that are disturbing, and understate risks that while imminent they wish to be remote in their minds. Americans value self-government and consent, which they instinctively realize is tied up with the right to bear arms. We hear a lot about the NRA bending the legislature. Truth is, the NRA wouldn’t get far without the American people.

Americans know the risks, and are willing to mitigate them, but not at the expense of the principle.

About Jay Whig

J. Whig is an attorney practicing in New York and a resident of Connecticut specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

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19 responses to “A Serious Note on ‘The Monopoly on Force’

  • An amazing and important essay for these times. Thank you, Jay Whig.
    Also, incredible, I had no concept of the auto accident death statistics.
    Flogging those numbers not an MSM priority. (FYI, I loathe the media white hot passionately)

  • Ever listen to a gun banner? I recall not long after the Trayvon Martin incident, being at a party here in NJ, and a Florida woman opined to me that “nothing would have happened” if George Zimmerman didn’t carry a gun that day. As far as she was concerned, we are all expected to be defenseless and surrender our neighborhoods, to cower behind closed blinds, to Trayvon Martin and his ilk. She is NOT alone in that mode of “thinking”.
    This is the essence of the red/blue divide.

  • ‘The State’ has been examined by anthropologists and political economists for a long time. In general, ‘the State’ claims for itself the sole legitimate use of force. Thus, the Amendment II of the Constitution of the United States of American guarantees the right to keep and bear arms but does not guarantee the legitimate right to use force. Amendment II guarantees the right to the instruments of force, but the Article III Section 3 makes it clear that a crime called ‘treason’ exists and that it includes ‘levying War’ against the United States. Thus, the Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms but the State described in the Constitution still contains the State feature of retaining to itself the power to determine the legitimate uses of force. As far as the ‘militia’ component of the Constitution is concerned, Article I Section 8 Paragraphs 15 and 16 make it clear that Congress and the state governments determine when and how the Militia is to be called and commanded. Again, the State retains to itself the authority to determine what uses of force are legitimate.

    However, in the State as described in the Constitution is different from other historical States in that the justification of the State is the ‘consent’ of ‘The People’ (Article IX, X). Thus, the instrument of the State is a function of the government ‘of the People and by the People’ (to use Lincoln’s elegant phrase).

    • Does you essay say that I can have a gun but cannot use it unless some part of government says I can? How would we overthrow tyranny, then?

      • Yes. Using a gun without State sanction subjects one to possible criminal indictment. This has always been the case.

        If you take up arms against the United States of America, and fail you can be charged with treason. Treason is the only crime specified in the Constitution.

        The English colonists who took up arms against England were guilty of treason under English law. Had the American Revolution failed, all of the Founders could have been charged with treason.

        A number of prominent Confederates — including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — were indicted for treason but never tried due to a blanket amnesty by POTUS Andrew Johnson.

        Violence not authorized by the State is always subject criminal liability. ‘Stand your ground’ and ‘castle doctrine’ laws grant individuals sanction to use violence under specific circumstances, but, again, the sanction comes from the State.

      • “Stand your ground” laws guarantee an individual’s right to self defense. The State doesn’t sanction the use of violence in special circumstances. It is ( and I know we’ll disagree on this term) a natural right of mankind.

      • The important word in the phrase ‘Stand your ground laws’ is the word ‘laws‘.

        I believe that people should be able to defend themselves, including the use of lethal force if warranted. The State, however, views things differently and may seek to punish those who use force in a manner not considered legitimate from the perspective of the State.

        However, in the USA, one is normally entitled to a trial by jury, which, can, if it so chooses, nullify any law of the State by choosing to find one not guilty. In matters of law in nations with trial by jury, the jury is the ultimate source of resistance to unfair law. If the jury believes that you acted according to (and I think you see this coming) ‘community standards’ they are free to let you go whether your action was permitted by the State or not.

  • The monopoly on force is part of the general police power that, to this day, the Supreme Court insists is vested in the states, not the federal government.

    In 1642, Parliament took the monopoly on force from the Crown in the Militia Ordinance and kept it after the Restoration in 1660. That’s why we say the British Army but the Royal Navy and Air Force.

    From 1632 onwards in the Massachusetts Bay Colony the general police power represented by justices of the peace, constables and control of the militia was vested in the towns, not the colonial government in Boston or Cambridge. After a very unpleasant election in 1637, the losing faction was disarmed by the winning faction. The reaction was such that in 1639, the General Court allowed the losing faction to form the independent Boston Artillery Company (now The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company) which immediately established close ties to the town militia formations and then functioned as the colonial equivalent of West Point until 1690.

    The key break with this long Anglo-Saxon tradition was the Militia Act of 1903 (the “Dick Act”) which gave the federal government effective control of the active state militias.

  • To give some perspective to gun violence, we lose 100 people a day to car accidents.

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