Cops, Vigilantes, and Protection

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2021-12-29


There is a fine line between the defense of oneself and others, which is proper to anarchistic relations, and the exercise of authority which (when unleashed) is paradigmatic of police. This is not to say that there is a fine line between reciprocal anarchistic relations and the state's jackbooted enforcers — that is not the case at all, those two things are poles apart. Instead, this is to say that the line where one steps from non-hierarchical, anarchist relations with others onto relations of authority and hierarchy which will eventually, at their most extreme, lead to statism and police, is difficult to trace in the case of defense. In this essay, I'll try to explore where that boundary is, as part of my ongoing attempts to approach reflective equilibrium and understand my anarchism better.


Let's start with a description of what it is that police do. Police, as agents of the state, are not, despite what pig propaganda would have you believe, tasked with defending the citizens.1 Their job is also not to prevent crime, resolve conflicts, or keep the peace.2 Education, economic equality, social aid, and similar things are far more effective in preventing crime and keeping neighborhoods safe, and introducing police into a situation is a surefire way to escalate a conflict. Even if police "end" a conflict by arresting some or all of those involved, that's often merely a band-aid on a situation that has much deeper roots, roots that will cause it to bubble up again and again unless someone deals with the real cause of the conflict. This is all because the real task of the police is to be the armed enforcers of the state's will: their only job is to punish people for disobeying laws. You can picture this like attempting to force a rigid mold onto something, brutally chopping off any of the parts that don't fit, squashing others, all so that it'll fit this arbitrary shape. The state has a list of rules it wants everyone to follow, and any disobedience is an offense to it that must be punished for no other reason than that the laws were disobeyed. Some of these laws have to do with protecting people — laws against murder, for instance — but that is certainly not the majority, and even those are enforced purely because they are laws, with an eye to social control, not with actual care as to whether they actually make anyone safer.

1 2:

The key point, then, is that the police do what they do independent of what anyone wants — independent of what the community wants, and independent of what the people involved in the situation want. They are there to force things to go a certain way, and will use any means necessary to do so. This is why we should fear police: ultimately, everything they say is backed up with a gun, and chances are they'll get away with using it, too — any attempt at accountability is laughable on a systemic basis when this kind of unilateral authority is handed to an organization. There is no counter-balancing force; there are the police, and that's it. There's no balance.


Nevertheless, protection is a necessary good. No matter how economically equal everyone is, no matter how educated, there will always be those who will try to hurt others. To some degree, this protection can be directly satisfied with self-defense, security, and direct conflict resolution between the parties to a conflict.3 I think it will be useful to outline what I mean here, as these are by far the simplest cases, the farthest on the spectrum from police authority.

Firearms are the great equalizer, obviating physical size, strength, and even reflexes to a significant degree. If everyone is armed, committing most crimes would be a terrible idea, more so in fact that in a society that relies on police for protection, since by the time the police arrive most crimes that require self-defense are already long since over, and police do not have a good track record in solve such crimes so most criminals get away with it. To quote the old adage, "an armed society is a polite society.


I cover what the difference is between self-defense and an exercise of violence and subordination in 'Anarchistic Relations'.

In cases where there is more ongoing, slow moving conflict, where in-the-moment self-defense is not needed, if people were less reliant on the state to determine how things "should" go, mediators would likely be all that is necessary. Both sides likely want to avoid conflict, as that is expensive, risky, and dangerous, and so naturally it would make sense to either try to solve the conflict on their own, or consult with a third party that they trust to make fair decisions that are beneficial to all. This has the added benefit of it being possible to address the root causes of conflicts, as well. Instead of only the proximate conflict being prevented, completely to the detriment of one side or the other in most cases, the interests of both sides would be represented equally, so the interests of the person starting the conflict will have to be considered and some concessions will have to be made for them. The force backing up any decisions made in an attempt to solve a conflict will be the capacity for self-defense, the defense of their own interests, of both sides.

In cases where someone wants to prevent a conflict from arising, or protect something other than their person, locks and other similar security measures are usually enough to deter most thieves and vandals, and this is what most people rely on even when police do exist anyway. That need not change in an anarchist society. Pretty much the only time such passive security measures will not work is in the case of absentee property ownership, where someone else regularly occupies or uses whatever one is trying to defend, or in the event that someone is really determined to get something. In the first case, that's probably something that should not be defended from its actual possessor, then, and in the second case, that's what security cameras, and then a follow-up attempt at conflict resolution as described above, are for.


But what if self-defense and its accompaniments are not enough? There are such cases. For instance, it can be very costly, debilitating, and problematic to have to constantly deal with possessions being stolen and/or destroyed, and having to seek out the perpetrators for restitution and resolution to the conflict. Alternatively, you could be dealing with someone gathering up superior numbers in an attempt to enforce their will on you — gangs, mobs, etc. In these cases, something more structured, communal, and robust is needed.

This is where the concept of vigilantes might come to mind. If there is no state, no central authority to determine whose acts of force are legitimate and whose are not, it is possible that individuals might take defending others' interests into their own hands. If a pedestrian sees another person being mugged, for instance, or someone breaking into someone else's house while they're out grocery shopping, they might, if they were so inclined, attempt to stop that person. If someone sees another person attempting to exercise authority over others, growing a gang to enforce their will, and so on, they might be motivated to gather up allies to put a stop to such nonsense. This might sound like the anarchist's dream: distributed, individualist, stigmergic action in order to maintain harmonious anarchistic relations. However, there are features of this sort of interaction that should be examined further.

In the case of the first two examples, the vigilante is starting to act a little like a cop. Specifically, they were asked to do what they did by neither of the parties actually involved in the conflict, and it really didn't have anything to do with them. The victim might be glad that they stepped in to help, but alternatively they might not, and there is no way to find out beforehand. Moreover, since the vigilante does not consult with the victim's wishes before they step in, they cannot be a representative of the victim's will — instead they are enacting their own will. That's not something that's inherently bad, especially if they are trying to prevent violations of autonomy, but it is still a dangerous line to step across. Vigilantes also fall victim to many of the same problems as cops. Because they do not know the context of the situation, and are likely only interested in solving the immediate conflict at hand, they are at best a band-aid on a root cause which will bubble up again later, when they aren't around.

In the case of the third example, however, things area little different. Someone trying to set up authority effects everyone in the area (the 'community'), so someone gathering up people to try to organize a resistance to it is much more legitimate. It's something they should have a say in anyway, and if others disagree with what should be done they simply don't have to be involved. In this case, the vigilante is representing themselves still, but that is fine because they are not stepping in on behalf of a set of people that actually doesn't include them.

Of course, vigilantes in the real world often spend the majority of their time focusing on enforcing The Law: tm:, or stopping immediate conflicts, instead of actually trying to protect people or solve problems. This is partially because everyone in modern society has had the idea of 'the law' and its ultimate authority so ingrained in their heads that it is difficult to think outside that paradigm, but also because that is actually the approach that vigilantism actually lends itself to most naturally.


So, if self-defense and passive security doesn't always cut it, and vigilantes are a mixed bag at best, what is the most consistently anarchist way to handle protection? Obviously, as I've said before, one should not attempt to plan, or predict, what an anarchist society will look like with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, I have two solutions which I favor. I talk about them at some length in 'Two Principles of Anarchism', so you can read more about the abstract notion there. Here, I'd like to instead quote some historical examples directly, from Roderick Long's great article, "'Anarchy in the U.K.: The English Experience With Private Protection'. I don't endorse exactly replicas of these solutions, but I like many features of them: they all existed in a large power vacuum where there was no state to back them up, they all worked fairly well for long periods of time, and they all exited in systems that had markets, but were pre-capitalist, and were organized around principles of mutual aid and free association.

The first solution I present is the idea of 'crime insurance.' Briefly, this is the idea that you can sign up to an organization where each member agrees to help you pay restitution for any crimes you commit, and you agree to do likewise. Maybe you all pay into a common pool on a monthly basis, which then you all draw out of when you commit a crime, or maybe the co-payment happens when the crime occurs. Roderick Long describes something similar in ancient England:

Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, government in England was radically decentralized. The King had little or no role in setting domestic policy; this was left to the moots, local courts that passed judgment in accordance with customary law. The King's authority lay primarily in the area of foreign policy, and here he acted simply as a war leader, a kind of military entrepreneur, whose followers supplied financial contributions and military service voluntarily. England possessed neither a police force nor a standing army; law enforcement and national defense alike were the prerogative and responsibility of the armed citizenry.

For purposes of security, the most important social unit was the borh. A borh was an association, typically of twelve people, who stood surety for one another's good behavior. If a member of a borh committed a crime, the other members were committed to bringing him to justice — but also to helping him pay restitution for his crime. (Financial restitution rather than retribution was the normal sentence for most crimes; those who refused to pay restitution were outlawed, that is, placed outside the law — meaning that anyone could kill them with impunity.)

The borh may have originated as a kinship group, but if so, its kin-based aspects soon dwindled; at the height of the Anglo-Saxon system, borhs were purely contractual arrangements. Individuals were free to apply to a borh of their choosing, and members of that borh were likewise free to accept or refuse the applicant; once accepted, an individual was free to leave, and could also be expelled. Since the members of the borh would be held responsible for one another's actions, there was a strong incentive to police members' behavior. Likewise, there was a strong incentive to belong to a borh and not be kicked out, because few were willing to deal with someone who belonged to no borh; such a person was in effect an uninsured risk, since he had no fellow borh-members standing surety for him. The borh system thus created powerful incentives for responsible behavior.

It might be objected that such a system could not work in today's vast, impersonal, and highly mobile society, where the close ties and personal knowledge required for effective borh membership are often absent. Reputation, it might seem, can serve as an effective incentive only in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. But the experience of the Law Merchant suggests otherwise: this vast system of private mercantile law that operated via reputation, credit, and economic boycott, was able to regulate commercial transactions across all Europe in the late Middle Ages, among merchants of different nations, without the benefit of either face-to-face interaction or government enforcement. And in the modern information age of instantaneous electronic communications, credit reports, and the like, one might well expect reputation to serve even more effectively as a tool for maintaining social order privately.

Another option, which could exist separately or could be used in tandem with crime insurance associations, depending on what people need, is the mutual protection association. Something similar to this was seen in England in the 1800s:

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the mutual-aid approach to law enforcement was active in England once again. England had no police force in the modern sense before 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (whence the term "Bobby") established Scotland Yard for the London area; similar police administrations for other areas followed in the 1830s and 1840s. The classical liberal feminist and social reformer Josephine Butler responded with alarm, penning a ringing denuciation of the budding police state in her book Government by Police.

But before the reign of the Bobbies, English law enforcement relied heavily on organizations known as Associations for the Prosecution of Felons — also known as thief-takers' associations. Imagine a cross between a Neighborhood Watch group, an insurance agency, and an Old West style posse. People in a particular neighborhood would pool their resources, and supply their own labor, to support their local thief-takers' association. The association would keep its eyes open for robbers (particularly those who robbed houses displaying the plaque of association membership!). If a crime (against an association member) did occur, the association would hunt down, or pay to have hunted down, the wrongdoer, often cooperating with similar associations in other districts — and then use the pooled resources to pay for the felon's prosecution in a government court. (Criminal justice was not free in those days.)

The traditional English system — with its roots in Anglo-Saxon antiquity, but extending as recently as the nineteenth century — is worlds away from the modern system of centralized police and gun control. Under the old system, every able-bodied male citizen was in effect a policeman, and the behavior of these policemen was regulated not by government edict but by the laws of economic self-interest. Despite important differences in details, both the borhs and the thief takers operated according to the principle of mutual assurance: individuals pooled their resources and effort for the purpose of mutual protection.

My own ideas for mutual protection associations differ in some relatively significant details from these old thief-takers' associations — for instance, their services would have to be directly called in by the people subscribing to them, and they would be governed by the decisions of their members in a vote, etc — but there are enough relevant similarities as well that some idea of how these things would work can be gathered from the quotes above.