Saturday, September 12, 2009

Monopoly on Violence and the American State

Does the American state (the federal government and individual states, to be more specific) have the monopoly on violence? On one hand, the question seems trivial. The monopoly on violence is, of course, a part of the modern definition of "State". Besides, which state has more powerful military organization than the US. Indeed, thanks to TV, many people associate the violence monopoly with American units, such as the LAPD, NYPD, FBI, and Secret Service.

Yet this question is far from trivial.
First, the monopoly on violence is a comparative phenomenon: no state has a perfect monopoly and no state lacks it completely (otherwise it would be a "failed state" at best). Thus, it's fair to say that the Italian state has a stronger monopoly on violence in Northern parts of the country than the Southern. Second, the monopoly comprises at least two dimensions. Prisons, armies, tribunals, and police forces are institutional means of violence. Criminal law of provocation, self-defense, and lynching, for their part, regulate the actual use of violence.

In fact, the American state does not have such a strong monopoly on violence, and has not felt a compelling need to claim it. Examples abound. It is striking that the US still accepts privateering and deploys companies like Blackwater in Iraq. Private prison industry has been a high-growth business for years. Universities, such as Harvard and Yale, have their own police forces (this was the first that really struck me when I begun my studies in this country). With regard to physical violence, American criminal law (again, there are several regimes) allows for significant amount of violence in protecting property interests. Lynching is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, especially in the South. And on it goes.

The monopoly on violence raises several sociological and normative issues, but has received scant attention in comparative law and legal history. I intend to discuss these issues in several future posts.

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