Mamet Is No Anarchist

by Charles C. W. Cooke

I want to defend one part of David Mamet’s piece. This:

The police do not exist to protect the individual. They exist to cordon off the crime scene and attempt to apprehend the criminal… Violence by firearms is most prevalent in big cities with the strictest gun laws. In Chicago and Washington, D.C., for example, it is only the criminals who have guns, the law-abiding populace having been disarmed, and so crime runs riot. Cities of similar size in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere, which leave the citizen the right to keep and bear arms, guaranteed in the Constitution, typically are much safer.

Discussing this conceit, ThinkProgress’s Zack Beauchamp complained on Twitter that the very suggestion that “the police are supposed to arrest criminals, but not have a monopoly on legitimate force” was “nuts.” He was not alone. When I suggested something similar to TPM’s Josh Marshall recently, Marshall called me an anarchist. Andrew Sullivan, responding to Mamet’s piece today, channelled Marshall, contending that Mamet’s first sentence was one “only a teenage anarchist could write.”

Sullivan is right to point out that police do and can protect individuals. And he can certainly question Mamet’s numbers, his view of the relationship between guns and crime, or his “broad generalization” that the police don’t protect people from criminals. But Mamet’s broader philosophical point about the role of the police is correct — and it is certainly not redolent of anarchism. There is no need to react hysterically to the suggestion that the police are merely public employees, a layer of hired protection that exists simultaneously with a free and armed citizenry. Police forces didn’t exist in America until the 1830s, and the country did not fundamentally change when they were created. To reject the notion that individuals may legitimately commit violence — and thus the implication that the state doesn’t hold any real monopoly here — is to betray an awkward ignorance not merely of American philosophy but of American law.

The state does have a monopoly of sorts, in that it gets to decide whether or not an individual’s violence is — well, was — reasonable. It can do this either in a blanket, pre-emptive manner via Stand Your Ground laws, Castle Doctrines, and their various cousins, or it can do this on a case-by-case post-hoc basis. Sometimes, authorities will look at the details of a self-defense case and decide that an individual’s action was unreasonable — “illegitimate” if you will. That, certainly, is their prerogative. Then they will prosecute that person. Nobody rejects that the state should have this power.

But they won’t always prosecute that person. In millions of cases, unilateral self-defense — done without any prior reference to the police or to any authority — is wholly legitimate, and is defined as such by the state. To observe that the state/police/army should not be expected and are not required to take care of everyone — as the Supreme Court repeatedly has done — is not to endorse an anarchic, Hobbesian state of nature that recognizes no rules and undermines the basic social compact that underpins the state. Instead, it is to recognize that individuals can and do have the right to commit legitimate violence on account of their unalienable right to self-defense and the auxiliary, inextricable right to the means of self-defense. As the Bill of Rights makes clear, we do not surrender everything to the state by agreeing to its bounds. As the courts have made clear, we have not outources our self-protection to professional law enforcement. To expect to be allowed latitude to protect yourself without reference to the government isn’t an indication of an “anarchist mindset,” but of healthy American republicanism. Long may it last.

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