State Violence: A Dialogue
Early that morning, a tiny, not terribly bright idea got lodged in Frank’s head. It happens quite often to the soft-headed. And, unfortunately, Frank was feeling ambitious.
“Hi Bill,” Frank said. Bill stood in his bathrobe, shivering at the front door of his house. The sun was barely up, and it was quite cold. Inside, the kids were having breakfast.
“What’s going on?” asked Bill. “Do you want to come in?” Frank did.
“This may sound strange,” said Frank, “but do you read Salon?”
“Sometimes,” said Bill. “Why do you ask?”
“Did you read this one?” Frank held up a printed article.
“Oh,” said Bill. “That one. About communism. He made some good points, I guess. But it seemed kind of lame. I mean, didn’t we already try communism?”
“We did,” said Frank, “but I’m not interested in communism.”
“Well what do you want?” asked Bill, clearly annoyed. “Can you make it quick? The kids need to get to school.”
“Sure,” said Frank. “I’ll be quick. I just want your television.”
“You want to borrow it?”
“No,” said Frank. “I want to claim it. Make it mine.”
“See right here,” said Frank, and he read, slowly and emphatically. His finger stabbed the words he thought were important:
But state violence… is inherent in every set of property rights a government can conceivably adopt…
In capitalism, competing ownership claims are settled by the state’s willingness to use violence to exclude all but one claimant. If I lay claim to one of David Koch’s mansions, libertarian that he is, he’s going to rely on big government and its guns to set me right. He owns that mansion because the state says he does and threatens to imprison anyone who disagrees. Where there isn’t a state, whoever has the most violent power determines who gets the stuff, be that a warlord, a knight, the mafia or a gang of cowboys in the Wild West. Either by vigilantes or the state, property rights rely on violence.
Bill looked him in the eye and chuckled, nervously. “Frank,” he said, “you’re not the government.”
“I am the government,” said Frank. “Remember? I’m a government agent.” Frank held up his ID badge.
“You’re an inspector. For the Department of Agriculture.”
“Why so I am,” said Frank. “And my TV isn’t nearly as nice as yours.”
“Is this some kind of a joke?”
“No, Bill. It’s no joke. It’s just how property is made. You want to deny it?”
“With what? With the state? Hah! And if you want to enjoy the rest of your property, I think – as a government agent – that I’ll be nice enough to let you. As long as I can have your TV.”
Bill grinned. “Why don’t you go pick on the Koch brothers, like the nice communist says?”
“I think they’re probably better armed than I am,” said Frank. He drew a small pistol from his pocket. “But you’re not.”
“Okay, okay,” said Bill. “Right over here, and don’t scare the kids.” He pointed Frank toward the living room. Blessedly, Sheila looked out from the kitchen. Bill pantomimed: He’s crazy. Call the cops!
“What’s going on, daddy?” asked Olivia from the kitchen.
“Never mind,” said Bill. “Just eat your breakfast.” He turned to Frank. “Did your boss tell you to do this?”
“No,” said Frank. “I’m doing it all by myself.” He unplugged the TV and began wrapping up the cables. “Do you have some kind of, I dunno, cart or something. To carry it out?”
“I do — I mean — what the fuck?”
“State violence,” said Frank. “Remember?”
“Is there any kind of law says you can do this?”
“Oh no, not at all,” said Frank. “But I’ll be taking the cart too. I expect I might… need it. You know, for the rest of the neighborhood.” He reached meaningfully into his coat pocket. Bill went to get a dolly. When he returned, Frank was looking around the room.
“Say, where’s the remote?” he asked.
“It’s not funny anymore, Frank. I mean, sooner or later you’ll meet up with the cops.” Sooner, Bill said to himself. Let’s make it sooner.
“I’ll just read them that article,” said Frank with a grin. “It’ll set them free.”
“But that’s — ”
“Violence?” asked Frank. “You bet it’s violence. We’re the state. Violence is… us.”
“Well,” said Bill under his breath. “I think that’s bullshit. These are people’s lives you’re messing with.”
“Not at all,” said Frank. “Only their possessions, which they don’t even rightfully own. I mean, if I wanted, I really should be taking your land, too.”
“Oh no you shouldn’t,” said Bill.
“I’m one-eighth Native American,” said Frank.
“And I’m black,” said Bill. “What do you think the system owes me?”
“Eh, well, whatever,” said Frank. “In the end it’s all the same, isn’t it? All states rely on violence. Restitution, slavery, it’s all the same. All just… violence. Might as well get when the getting’s good.”
Bill tried desperately to stall. “The getting,” he said “isn’t good. I mean, stop and think for a minute. What if someone came along and did that to you?”
“I’d have to ask myself,” said Frank. “…are they from the state?”
“What if they’re not?”
“That,” said Frank, “Would be very, very bad. That’s not how property works! Property comes from the state!”
“And if they are from the state?” asked Bill.
“Eh, okay, I guess.”
“Then,” said Bill, “what if someone else took your stuff from them? Or what if you came and took it back? Or what if they took it back again from you after that? Back and forth, back and forth — killing here, killing there, no one ever safe… you really want to live like that?”
“It’s just a TV,” said Frank. “Chill.”
“Hey look,” said Bill. “What if you do read the cops that article. And they join up. Then what?”
“Then we take the very best houses. We recruit the rest of the PD. We set up as warlords.”
“Ah,” said Bill. “What about the FBI? What about the army?”
“What about them?” asked Frank.
“You think they’re all going to stand by,” said Bill. “You think they’ll just watch you take whatever you like?”
“I’ll tell them what I know. And they’ll just grab what they can,” said Frank. “I mean, it’s basically good news, from where they sit. Nobody’s ever mad at the bearer of good news. I figure they’ll like me.”
“You’re crazy,” said Bill.
“You’re jealous,” said Frank.
“Fine, fine,” said Bill. “Maybe I am. But who says they’re gonna make you the king? You’re just some bullshit bureaucrat from the Ag department.”
“It’ll be some state of nature, then.” said Bill. “Why do you think you’ll come out on top?” He paused. “And not, say, the Koch brothers?”
Frank was silent.
“They’ll win, won’t they?” said Bill. “You know I’m right. There’s really just two choices — we either fight forever, like you want, or we all join up, and don’t fight.”
Just then the front door burst open. There was a flurry of badges and guns, tasers and handcuffs.
“Violence!” said Frank. “It’s all just state violence!”
“This nut’s trying to steal my TV,” said Bill.
“Hands where we can see them,” said an officer. Both men complied. In the kitchen, the children were screaming.
“Officers,” said Frank. “What you’re doing is violence! But think about it for a moment, please! What I’m doing is violence too! We’re like, a team!” The handcuffs snapped closed.
“You and me!” Frank yelled over his Miranda rights. “We’re brothers!”
“Thanks officers,” said Bill. “I mean, maybe it is violence, but it’s just violence to keep the other violence in check, you know? So it’s all good. And I’m so glad we can get on with our lives.”
Then a second set of handcuffs snapped closed, and the words died in his mouth.
One of the officers held up a baggie full of an herb. “You have the right to remain silent…”