Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Anarchist and the Criminal

William Ernest Hocking explains the anarchist’s attitude toward the criminal as follows:

As for the criminal, his existence is not forgotten; but it is thought that he is either such by definition only, as one who has disobeyed what we have commanded; or he is such by response to the unnatural environment of the state and the inequalities which it fosters; or else he is the unusual individual of determined ill-will who is best dealt with by near and private hands, since the life of the will, whether for good or for evil, is always intimate, individual, and unique. ("The Philosophical Anarchist," in Hoffman ed., Anarchism, Lieber-Atherton, 1973, pp. 116-117)

Suppose we consider these three points seriatim.

1. The criminal is such by definition only. No doubt this is true of some criminals. If the Brady Bunch were to make hand gun possession by decent folk illegal, then those people would become criminals by a mere act of irrational legislation. An example liberals might prefer is that of the peaceable fellow who cultivates cannabis sativa solely for his personal enjoyment, or for the alleviation of a medical disorder. The notion that every criminal is such by definition only, however, is palpably false. The reader is invited to supply his own counterexamples.

2. The state fosters inequalities that drive people into criminality. The state fosters inequalities? I would have thought that people left to their own devices pursuing their interests in accordance with their talents and ambitions would be source enough of inequality. Why is X’s net worth greater than Y’s? Because X works hard, saves and invests, and practices the ancient virtues, while Y devotes himself to wine, women, and song. Surely that is true for many values of X and Y. The modern state seriously penalizes the sort of productive behavior that naturally results in economic inequality while rewarding unproductive behavior.

3. The criminal is best dealt with locally. This is perhaps true of some criminals. But it takes more than a bunch of local yokels to put the finger on the likes of Bonnie and Clyde. The professional criminal is precisely a professional, and it takes professionals to control him.
When thugs like Machine Gun Kelly, B & C, and Pretty Boy Floyd roamed the land, even professional law enforcement had a hell of a time getting the drop on them due to the former’s superior firepower. A six-shooter is no match for a Thompson submachine gun.

Now let’s consider the (inclusive) disjunction of the three points: every criminal is either (1) or (2) or (3). In other words, can we parcel out the criminal population in such a way that every criminal falls under one or more of these heads? Obviously not. Where does one place a serial killer like Ted Bundy? This dude was no criminal by mere extrinsic denomination. His intrinsic attributes more than justified the appellation. Nor can the blame be placed on state-induced inequalities. And again, a local posse got up by Jethro and his brother is unlikely to corral a guy as smart as Bundy. Examples are easily multiplied.

Further questions: How would an anarchist society deal with aggression emanating from foreign states? How would voluntary associations ever on the brink of dissolution be able to stand up against ruthless gangs that enforce severe internal discipline and kill apostates? A fortiori, how would such voluntary associations be able to counter terrorist cells that enjoy state-sponsorship?

I am sure that a sophisticated anarchist has an answer to these questions and many more besides. It would be interesting to hear what those answers are. For the nonce, however, I remain a conservative, one who holds to the moral justifiability of a limited state.

And another thing. Aren't anarchists making the same mistake that leftists make, namely, ignoring the ineradicable propensity for evil in human nature? Arguably, that propensity is part of the justification for having a state in the first place. The opposites meet in the same strange bed.