Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Leviathan State Deters Crime

I am reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) at the moment, and a curious passage leaps out from the pages.

Pinker notes what happened when a police strike occurred in Canada (a pretty civilised country by all measures):
“Those who prefer real-world experiments to sophisticated statistics may take note of the Montreal police strike of 1969. Within hours of the gendarmes abandoning their posts, that famously safe city was hit with six bank robberies, twelve arsons, a hundred lootings, and two homicides before the Mounties were called in to restore order.” (Pinker 2011: 122).
I am sure some people (perhaps not just libertarians) might scoff at the notion that Western societies would descend into anarchy if police services were temporarily suspended, but the interesting real world experiment above makes you wonder. Obviously, one can point the finger at petty hoodlums or professional criminal classes who are normally deterred by the police, but what would happen as law abiding people were forced to defend themselves as this sort of disorder continued?

For example, some libertarians point to episodes where traffic lights go on the blink and (they claim) some kind of spontaneous order develops in traffic flows. Well, maybe that happens, but what would happen if the police were to disappear? I doubt whether “spontaneous order” would result.

Nor is the Montreal example the only instance of a real world experiment in what happens when the Leviathan state’s provision of law and order is taken away: in 1923 half the police force in Melbourne (Australia) went on strike, and within days the city had riots and looting. In Brazil in 2012, a police strike set off a crime wave.

If nothing else, the lesson is: the labour disputes of the police should be taken seriously!


Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.


  1. Of course! Just look at the phenomenon of rioting. People who would otherwise be law-abiding begin looting and wrecking things. We see similar instance in those unfortunate cases of gang-rape in secondary/high schools in the US and elsewhere when a bunch of drunken idiots go after some girl at a party. Individually maybe one of the ten involved would actually ever rape someone, but once the herd mentality forms, all bets are off.

    Human beings are just as likely to generate spontaneous disorder as they are to generate spontaneous order. A glance at human history confirms that.

    "Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics." -- CG Jung

  2. Actually, if the police disappeared, a spontaneous order would emerge. We'd probably call it feudalism.

    Spontaneous orders ALWAYS emerge under ANY set of constraining conditions, whether they are "natural" or man-made. We have a spontaneous order even under a system of police. The Hayek-thumpers want to misdirect you from the fact that systems of property are just as constraining as other systems of law, and thus from the fact that we already live in a "spontaneous order".

    Why the scare quotes? "Spontaneous order" is an oxymoron. Social spontaneous orders always emerge under inescapable, socially constructed constraints, so how can they be considered spontaneous? Especially if we can experimentally find the constraints that give us an order we desire?

    1. Yes, feudalism is a good perfect example of "outsourcing" private protection.

      And, yes, if we do define order from one dictionary definition as an "arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method", I suppose a system of constant warfare, murder and theft could be called an "order".

      But I am using the word "order" as most people would conceive of it: in relation to "law and order", peace and stability.

  3. Lord Keynes, I tend to agree with the views that you express in the above entry.

    Let me add some conjectures:

    Violence and viciousness will occur or not occur depending on (a) the relationship of costs to benefits, (b) technical feasibility (of violent or vicious acts), and (c) situational context.

    There is no reason to assume that anybody or any group of human beings throughout history are exempt from these conditions, and hence potentially violent and vicious.

    In fact, I would think it rather unlikely that man could have or could presently survive without the ability to aggress / act aggressively (mostly subject to a-c above).

    As for spontaneous order, I feel, we ought to make a distinction between (i) the generic term and its (often) eponymous (ii) subtopics.

    The universe appears to be a spontaneous order (i.e. it is self-generating at least in the sense of not having been created by man); our bodies are spontaneous orders, and the liberal state under the law in the Hume-Hayek conception is a spontaneous order, in that its overall outcome(s) may be derived by "human action, but not by human design".

    The crux of the Hume-Hayel approach being, in choosing the rules or instructions, as the case may be, we intend to follow, we ought to take into consideration whether society is a mechanism that we can directly and minutely control according to our desires or whether we are better advised to observe general rules that increase our ability to successfully adapt to an order that we cannot directly and minutely control.

    Spontaneous order as a characteristic of a free society in the Hume-Hayek vision depends ABSOLUTELY on the enforceability of certain rules (that we tend to subsume under the term "the rule of law").

    Tragically, the classical liberal philosophy which considers the state to be hugely important, indispensable and, at the same time, in need of appropriate constraints seems to be in the process of being given up by growing numbers of libertarians, who replace it by an unconditional hatred of the state and an attitude whereby moping about the state is all that is required to build and defend liberty.

    Grateful as ever for the insights and challenges of your blog,

    Georg Thomas

    1. Thanks for this comment. Yes, even Mises and Hayek - both broadly within the Classical liberal tradition - would no doubt have supported the state as the source of law and order and justice.


  4. "what would happen if the police were to disappear?"

    Most anarcho-capitalists believe that private security forces would replace the state police in a libertarian society rather than some sort of spontaneous "law and order" with no structure as implied in your post.

    1. I am well aware of that, but you do not need to look far to see the types of Rothbardian comments - say, over at - that I feel this post is directed at, e.g., the "state can do nothing right," "the state never works," the "state only increases violence," etc. etc.

      E.g., Gene Callahan points to exactly the type of libertarian myths I have in mind here:

      "The anarchist story that the state is the source of some huge increase in violence are empirically false. By empirical measures, the state take-over of crime prevention from private persons seems to have succeeded "remarkably." And despite absolutely awful outbursts of state violence from time to time, violent death as a whole has also kept dropping since the creation of the state. And, we have excellent theoretical case for just why this has happened: see Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, etc."