The Measure of a State

This is going to make me sound somewhat more libertarian than I actually am, but here goes:

The most important duty of a state is its effective control over and responsible application of the monopoly on violence, delegated to it by its citizens, in the service of the protection of its citizens, and the protection of all people present within its territory.

All the other trappings of statehood — a currency, a post office, universal healthcare, the name of your state on a placard at the UN General Assembly, some transportation infrastructure of some sort, passports, some stamps you can apply to passports issued by other states, a national Olympic team and/or Eurovision Song Contest entry (as appropriate), a flag — are nice to have, but not really essential.

Usually when the words “failed state” get thrown around, it’s due to that effective control of the monopoly on violence bit. Of course, you can’t apply this statement absolutely. A bar brawl in Cleveland doesn’t mean you get to stop filing 1040s. But do you have a chronic, widespread problem with marauding gangs of murderers? You might be living in a failed state. (I’d love to see this definition of failed-statehood expanded to include the in the service of protection bit, but I’m not enough of an optimist to believe we’ll get the arbitrary and capricious application of state-sponsored violence considered universally unacceptable in any real sense during my lifetime.)

I’m having a hard time seeing the creeping militarization of law enforcement, as exemplified by what (mediated by the media an ocean away) looks like the armed occupation of Ferguson, Missouri by its own local police, as anything other than the loss of control of the monopoly on violence by the governments of the State of Missouri and of the United States. I’ve been uncomfortable about the apparently arbitrary and capricious application of state-sponsored violence by American local police forces for some time, even though there’s very little chance it will be arbitrarily and capriciously applied against me: let’s face it, I’m a white guy with US passport who doesn’t speak Spanish, and I spend my increasingly rare time on American soil in the company of other mostly-white people in mostly-white parts of whatever town I’m in. The Dallas police aren’t going to raid the IETF meeting next March for illicit standards development, no matter how much weed certain Internet-Drafts may appear to have been inspired by.

It’s probably no use appealing to federal authority to roll back this creeping militarization, since in many cases it’s the federal government who supported the transfer of military hardware to local law enforcement in the first place. America continues to reap the fruits of its wholly overblown fear of things that do not exist. And I know there’s nothing I’m saying here that John Oliver hasn’t already said better. But I hope, as life in Ferguson slowly returns to a semblance of normal and all that military hardware goes back into storage, that we don’t forget what happened there as a warning that maybe it’s not such a good idea to flood areas of even minor conflict with completely unnecessary and irresponsibly controlled arms.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE