Open any news source, and violence is almost always front and center. It’s not just because editors sadly and rightly believe the concept of “if it bleeds it leads” will attract more eyeballs, it’s because violence is and always has been prevalent in human society. And it’s getting worse.
Unfortunately, instead of helping to tame this most troublesome part of human nature, the policies of a major political segment of Western societies are hell-bent on destroying the very institutions designed to protect us from ourselves.
The Heart of Our Behavior: Culture
Culture, according to Merriam Webster, is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” Culture therefore involves hierarchies, preferences and incentives: This result is better than that result. All of which drives differential behaviors producing differential outcomes. In that sense, there is little more important than culture, as it is simply the expression of who we are. Culture tells us what’s important.
And this is why anyone suggesting the Right’s focus on “The Culture Wars” should be replaced with more attention to bread-and-butter kitchen-table issues is seriously missing the point. On the contrary, our Culture Wars are better understood as policy and outcome wars because these value structures have real, significant, and potentially catastrophic impacts.
I’m going to spend some time today talking about what I believe is perhaps the most salient of these: policy impacts on crime and violence. My thesis is this: The Progressive approach to criminal justice is deeply flawed, certain to increase violence, is doing so today, and has been doing so for quite some time.
To understand this, we must consider the nature of human violence, the role of the state/government in its mitigation, and the inevitable violent-prone structures that accrue in the absence of that mitigation. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so stick with me, and we’ll get to Thomas Hobbes, Steven Pinker, Beowulf, Goodfellas, and a very smart L.A. Times reporter, among other things. But before all that, let’s start back in the Neolithic.
In The Beginning
The Neolithic revolution generally refers to the development of agriculture and farming in the Fertile Crescent. What most of us learned in high school and college, and what many non-specialists still believe, unless they’ve taken the time for a deeper dive, is that agriculture led to cities, which then produced surpluses, specialization, elites, and eventually the formation of the State.
(As an aside, over the past several decades that Fertile Crescent consensus as the first large cities has been effectively shattered, as sites like Gobekli Tepe in Turkey proved that humans were gathering in large groups and creating monumental architecture thousands of years before they became farmers. We don’t really know whether the builders of those monuments were enthusiastic volunteers or unwilling conscripts, but in any event the labor involved suggests a high degree of specialization and central planning, attributes previously considered unavailable before the advent of agriculture. Remember this when we discuss early civic structures and law enforcement later in this article.)
Opinions about pre-urban hunter-gatherer violence vary. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described those ancestors’ lives as “nasty, brutish and short,” a phrase pithy enough to have become almost a shorthand for the received wisdom about our predecessors.
In 2011, Steven Pinker made a similar point in The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. While Hobbes was arguing for the state as an essential civilizing mechanism, Pinker proposes that, absent the popular focus on wars, human societies have actually become markedly less lethal over time. Hobbes and Pinker both make some good points, but there are credible figures who vigorously dissent.
So, taken altogether, if we are going to think deeply about human violence, I think it fair to acknowledge both its ancient roots and current scholarly debate around how our ancestors behaved through time. It is relevant to our understanding us. That said, parsing how pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers sorted out their beefs has a limited (but nonzero) utility, because, even though the process was far more complex than anything we learned in our history books, humans eventually started to live in cities, and this introduced social dynamics that concern and plague us to this day.
Of course, hunter-gatherers had to actively employ strategies to control and mitigate violence, and the absence of records from non-literate societies proves nothing other than our inability to be certain. But solving today how to be very peaceful hunter-gatherers would do very little for us. Solving how to be very peaceful city dwellers is a different matter altogether.
Original Law Enforcement
Most people are at least passingly familiar with the Code of Hammurabi, even if only as one of the must-see items at the Louvre. Dating from about 1750 BCE, this seven-foot-tall stele is by far the most famous legal code we’ve recovered from antiquity, articulating specific offenses and the penalties for violating them. But it’s not the oldest one we have. Those honors go to the Code of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian legal code dating to about 2100 BCE, and, while we do not have the document, we do have references to the even earlier Code of Urukagina, by the king of Lagash in 2400 BCE. The oldest Mesopotamian city, Uruk, dates to about 3200 BCE, and cuneiform was invented around the same time.
So, within a thousand years of the radical decision to start living in cities and the colossal invention of writing, we see explicit legal codes, and these are just the ones that have survived for us to review 5,000 years later. It is certainly possible (probable?) that there were several or many earlier versions that did not survive into the present day.
Why is any of this important? Because of what it tells us about the problems we encountered when we began living close together in large groups.
Shockingly, we apparently weren’t adapted to it or very good at it, to the extent that we have example after example of people deciding rules were so important, they had to write them down. If kings took the trouble to have their scribes create these legal codes, can we all agree this presupposes a mechanism of enforcement? Monarchs aren’t exactly known for just making suggestions.
History vs. The Progressive Notion of Criminal Justice
Thus, we get to the tip of the spear: Law enforcement in whatever form it existed, beginning at least as early as 5,000 years ago and continuing in some form or other in all large societies ever since.
Put plainly, at least since the advent of the first cities, the human propensity for violence has been a challenge substantive enough to require formal structures of mitigation, and the evidence for this is overwhelming and uncontroversial. There’s more to say here, but it’s worth noting that stopping now would still give us more than enough evidence to leave the modern Progressive approach to criminal justice on very shaky ground.
Very clearly, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest marginalization, demonization, and defunding of law enforcement will accomplish anything other than increasing crime and violence, and we are seeing exactly that in American cities today.
Accepting the Progressive premise that law enforcement itself is the problem requires us to assume that we’ve gotten it wrong from the beginning. Rather than being empirical evidence of structured attempts to contain and mitigate violence, fidelity to the Progressive approach would suggest that these codes are instead the first evidence we have of the formalization of dominance hierarchies, structures established to maintain the power of elites at the expense of those they oppress.
If that sounds ridiculous, it should. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Progressives have none whatsoever to support a claim that legal codes existing in society after society across thousands of years and in every part of the globe are anything but what they obviously are: responses to the problem of social violence. This also puts to bed the lie that American police are simply outgrowths of slave patrols. Police are just enforcement, full stop. What we have today is our version of what’s been around at least since our friends in ancient Mesopotamia were trying to figure it out.
But, while necessary, this is far from sufficient. Abundant evidence that every large society on earth has come to a different conclusion than those reached by our contemporary activists doesn’t address the why. After all, these activists would have us believe that they’ve cracked the code, solving a problem that nobody else has been able to fix in all of human history.
Somehow, according to them, beginning in Mesopotamia and continuing in everywhere for millennia, we humans have managed cross-culturally to hit on exactly the wrong answer to mitigating violence, every single time.
That’s a bold claim, but rebutting it requires us to at least consider why it seems to be so damn hard for us not to kill each other, and what are the implications of this?
Not So Stranger Danger
Medieval Germanic Law’s contribution to the challenge of violence was the concept of the Weregild, a concept most encountered while reading Beowulf. With informal beginnings later codified into law, the Weregild was a blood price, usually varying based on social status, paid as recompense to the family of the murdered victim.
The idea was for the payment to function as a sort of circuit breaker, preventing a bloody cycle of retributions. And this is because the history of violence is a little counterintuitive. While it is true that large scale problems of crime and violence seem to have their genesis after different groups of humans began living in close proximity to each other, any criminologist will tell you that the majority of criminals and victims actually know each other. If strangers aren’t really the problem, what is?
There are some assumptions built into the Weregild that give us clues. The very idea of a blood price suggests that there are other parties with an interest in the transaction. In other words, the majority of murder is not fundamentally an act between two individuals, perpetrator and victim, unknown to each other, but rather a transgression between groups (families, gangs, tribes, militias, etc.).
The problem of violence, and the thing that happened when we all started to live together, is close contact between people who know each other, but belong to different groups. These groups are often linked to family relationships, but they all function as tribes, or clans.
In Rule of the Clan, Mark Weiner argues that “in the absence of a democratic, liberal state devoted to principles of individual freedom, other institutions naturally grow to fill the void. And for most of human history, the primary institutions of legal and social order have been kin groups dedicated to the principles of Status – clans.”
Therefore, a democratic liberal state is a necessary precondition for the concept of individuality and safety from clan dynamics, but how much of The State do we want and need? Many reading this would probably say, “as little as possible,” and I’d probably agree. But little is not none.
Thanks to The Godfather, Goodfellas, and some high-profile, real-life trials, the Mafia is probably our most familiar example of how these clans operate. Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill narrates Goodfellas, taking the audience through his rise in Martin Scorsese’s screen version of New York’s Lucchese family, headed by Paul Cicero. Midway through the film, Hill gets to the point, explaining to us how these clans function:
“That’s what its all about. That’s what the FBI can never understand – that what Paulie and the organization offer is protection for the kind of guys who can’t go to the cops. They’re like the police department for wiseguys.”
Weiner illustrates Hill’s point more academically that “honor killing is but an extreme instance of the core cultural values of societies of Status. It lays bare the mechanisms by which clan societies confer supreme value on group solidarity at the expense of individual freedom.”
Whether the players are Sicilian immigrants, Scotch-Irish moonshiners, Mexican Cartels, Middle Eastern militias, or urban Black gangs, the only thing that differs are the specifics of their setting. Each group operates in the same way as a society of Status, and the interaction between competing groups has always been and will always be a catalyst for violence.
A good way to think of this is in the context of a Failed State, a term we normally apply on a much larger scale (i.e. Libya). Some would argue that swaths of Mexico under Cartel domination meet even that criteria, but in other cases, even in America, we see micro-pockets, smaller bubbles surrounded by more or less effective governance but having the internal characteristics of a failed state in which the monopoly on violence has not been surrendered.
Consider the Hatfields and McCoys, participants in the most famous family feud in American history, and it’s easy to see their conflict as a sidelining of legitimate governance within a relatively small geography. General and basic policing was occurring in the surrounding areas, but all hell broke loose within a few Appalachian Hollers, as these two tribes abandoned any recourse to the State in resolving their conflict. (If that’s a little too far back for you, substitute Crips and Bloods; there’s no material difference.)
The result, as it always is and always will be, was a torrent of retributive bloodshed. The premise here is that tribal or clan organization is neither accidental nor incidental. On the contrary, these are the fundamental human social organizing structures. It’s what takes control when there is a void in state-sponsored law enforcement. We’ve been doing this for a long, long, time, and we are hard-wired for it. After all, the first homicide in Genesis touches on exactly these themes. As penalty for his slaughter of Able, Cain is cast out, severed from his family/tribal connections. And he protests, pointing out to God that he “shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” God relents, marking Cain in some way that makes it clear “if anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be take on him sevenfold.” To make the obvious point, you can’t kill someone seven times. God here is threatening retributive tribal justice on anyone who kills Cain. This is Pablo Escobar saying, if you cross him, he’ll murder not just you, but everyone in your family, and their family, and so on. Here, God acts as law enforcement, and Cain survives.
As I said, this stuff goes waaay back. The rise of the state and the notion of individualism are developments that mitigate the influences of these tribal orientations, but the tribe is always operating in the background, waiting for the void. What the Progressive political project crucially misses is that there will always be justice, and if you remove the state from the equation, the justice you get will be personal, and much worse.
All of this makes the rather obvious point that defunding the police moves us not in the direction of Utopia, but rather toward dangerous anarchy. But we need not speculate, because the most tragic part of this story is that we’ve already tried it and are seeing it in action today. As L.A. Times writer Jill Leovy notes in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, this is “a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic…specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence.”
It is an uncontroversial fact that the Black American homicide rate consistently hovers around eight times the White American homicide rate, a staggering number that makes life for many young urban black males as dangerous as a literal war zone. Leovy makes the persuasive case that this is a function not of too much policing, but rather too little. A community in which law enforcement lacks legitimacy (and the incentives and resources to do its job) becomes a gangland, with an endless cycle of reprisals meted out by competing groups. A community in which law enforcement consistently fails to hold murderers accountable surrenders justice to the clan. Individuals pursue extra-legal remedies for resolving conflict, and the status-impact to competing groups requires violent retribution.
And here’s where we come full circle: This is the social experiment we’ve been running in Progressive urban America for decades, and the results have been utterly predictable – and destructive.
The incredible naiveté (or disingenuousness) of the Activist Left is a direct consequence of their ideology. At its core, the Progressive seeks to follow the traditions of French academics Foucault and Marcuse, deconstructing institutions in the service of individual freedom. Whether the target du jour is law enforcement, conventional marriage, religion, notions of gender, or anything else, the premise is the same: institutions of any kind are social constructs promoting a “discourse,” and that discourse always serves to maintain and extend existing hierarchies of power the Left dislikes. Thus, they must be dismantled. This is the core tenet and fatal flaw of Post-Modern Leftist thought, and it is the operating premise behind what we see from Progressives.
Weiner, again, makes the case very well: “The individual freedom that citizens of liberal societies rightly cherish, even our very concept of the individual, is impossible without a robust state.” I’ll go further than Weiner and mention that institutions in general are necessary anchors in society, and the Progressive movement fundamentally misreads that concept. The quest for their version of freedom weakens and destroys those institutions which serve to create and protect freedom and individualism in the first place. Not at all incidentally, this is the operating dynamic you see in the Progressive desire to assault any institution it encounters, and violence is but one of its children.
In summary, and to reiterate: Without a robust liberal democracy and the institutions (like law enforcement) which spring from it, orientation around tribal lines and the violence it spawns is predictable and indeed inevitable.
Our American urban killing fields are exactly and precisely expressions of this dynamic in action, and efforts to delegitimize law enforcement (and other institutions) are gasoline on the fire.
None of which is to suggest blind fidelity to law enforcement institutions. On the contrary, every American citizen should expect professionalism and transparency from those to whom we surrender our monopoly on violence, and we should vigorously call for reforms when those are lacking. The problematic incentives of police unions, the challenges inherent in local D.A. investigation of allegations of officer misconduct, and the less than adequate tracking of police encounters that result in fatalities are all legitimate areas of inquiry, and there are no doubt others. But none of that presupposes the compromising or destruction of these institutions, steps the Radical Left has been calling for from the rooftops, loudly and repeatedly.
There is no path to peace within the Leftist program, no scenario in which the oppressed, finally free, lay down their arms and join hands. There is only more: more violence; more murder.