The conflict over police abolition is essentially a fight over how we view humanity; in the battle between Hobbes and Rousseau, the Englishman wins.
Over the past few weeks of protests and civil unrest following the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, discussion of police brutality has been widespread and bipartisan. Politicians, journalists, and regular people across the ideological spectrum have come together around the idea that police reform is necessary. This is an excellent development, as any changes to American policing need to be generally popular with all groups to have any chance of being made permanent and accomplishing their goal of improving public safety for us all. Unfortunately, radical (and unpopular) ideas have come to dominate some aspects of this conversation, particularly on the political left. The idee du jour among American progressives is the concept of total police abolition, or in its slightly tamer variant, the defunding of the police. In this article, I am going to group these two somewhat different ideas under the same heading of police abolition for one major reason: those advocates for defunding of the police often see it as a step towards a wholly new model of public safety that does not involve policing at its heart. To me, this seems like a slower version of the more aggressive slogan of ‘abolishing the police’, so it is fair to lump them together when thinking in the abstract.
This post is not a full broadside against the idea of police abolition, as other authors more well-versed in the literature than I have done yeoman’s work on that necessary task. What I will explore is the fundamentally dichotomous views of human nature espoused and implied in the police abolition debate. These views revolve around the philosophical idea of the ‘state of nature’, essentially what humanity looks like in the absence of civilization or society. Two philosophers came to represent the two poles of the spectrum of views on the state of nature – Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes, who lived from 1588 to 1679, was an English philosopher of politics and government whose most-famed work, Leviathan, showcased his ideas about how humans should live and govern themselves. In this extensive treatise, Hobbes discusses his views on the state of nature, saying that:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII
As you can likely tell, Hobbes did not have a high view of human nature and saw the lack of civilizing society as returning mankind to its natural savagery, even creating a state of war of “all against all”. In this view, humans are naturally antagonistic towards each other and compete violently for resources and status in the absence of civilizing institutions. Rousseau, on the other hand, saw things in an almost diametrically opposed manner. The Genevan-born philosopher, who lived in the eighteenth century, is well-known for his political and moral philosophy and especially his influence on the French Revolution. His thoughts on the state of nature are idyllic and utopian; Rousseau saw humans as not naturally antagonistic and saw the state of nature as devoid of issues like envy, pride, or fear of others. He firmly believed that the natural state of mankind was peaceful and neutral, one where man looked to satisfy his natural urges and live in harmony with his fellow men. Rousseau, contrary to Hobbes, saw increasing civilization and society as causing and creating the problems which plagued mankind. Hobbes saw the state as a necessary curative to those same endemic issues.
These conceptions of the state of nature are relevant to the idea of police abolition because the functions of policing and justice, like them or not, have been essential to the proper ordering of human society and the flourishing of human civilization. Before the creation of the Metropolitan Police of London, the first modern police force, by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, the functions of law and justice were carried out by proto-police organizations, from military gendarmes to local sheriffs and bailiffs. Justice may have been more organized with the creation of a police force, but it was not left unheeded before policing as we know it existed. Advocates for abolishing the police do not wish to return to the early days of justice meted out by aristocratic sheriffs or military men, but instead pine for a utopian world in which justice is carried out only through community functions if it is needed at all. These activists have a fundamentally Rousseauian view of humanity, as they claim that policing and capitalism cause the violence and crime which occurs in human societies and see the abolition of these purportedly malign forces as necessary to returning man to a peaceful state of nature. These activists are fundamentally wrong about human nature, something which can be seen throughout history and the present day.
As I stated earlier, the modern police force is an idea that is less than 200 years old, but we can see the problems inherent in human nature in the absence of justice before and since. Many advocates for defunding or abolishing the police tend to look to local communities to keep themselves safe and deal with crime and other problems; this has a long history in both the US and abroad. Unfortunately, that history is replete with what we should all see as horrendous outcomes. Some examples are in order.
In the US, vigilantism has been a problem that has plagued areas with low levels of law enforcement or a history of looking the other way; in the newly-settled western areas of the country in the nineteenth century, frontier justice was often provided by whoever had the largest arsenal and could gather the biggest posse with which to wield it. This did not lead to low rates of crime, as the moniker ‘Wild West’ attests. Abroad, we also see examples of ‘community justice’ gone awry. In places like India and Pakistan, extrajudicial killings are fairly commonplace; honor killings (something progressives rightly abhor) are found throughout the world where policing is less strict or normative. Vigilantism also tends to harm minority groups disproportionately; one only need look at the long and gruesome history of American lynchings to see why communal justice does not work. Indeed, one of the recent episodes which spotlighted American vigilantism, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, has been a rallying cry for the anti-police activists. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand that reduction in or abolition of the police forces would only lead to more of this horrific extrajudicial violence. Removing law and order creates power vacuums which are filled by local warlords or other armed groups, including violent gangs. For instance, the French Revolution displaced the ruling authority in the name of Rousseauian ideals, yet quickly devolved into a far more violent and dangerous regime of mob rule, lynchings, and unfair trials and executions. Order was only restored under Napoleon Bonaparte through the return of law and the end of tolerance for mob behavior. Somalia is probably the most egregious example of this trend in the current day, as it is a failed state without widely-accepted legal codes and totally lacking in public order. According to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Somalia is rated as at severe risk of crime, terrorism, and violence. The lack of policing did not fix these problems, indeed it has exacerbated them significantly. Other examples abound, from the infamous Corsican vendetta system to the ethnic cleansing which often happens in the absence of authority (see the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Syrian Civil War, etc.).
Police abolition is clearly a fool’s errand and reflects a fundamentally naive view of human nature in the absence of governing institutions like law, justice, and policing. There are, however, reforms which could absolutely improve the way we currently go about the task of policing, including ending qualified immunity, abolishing public sector unions, sharply reducing the number of laws on the books, attaching mental health auxiliaries to police forces, demilitarizing most police departments, and increasing police training. What will not solve the problems of societal violence, crime, and disorder is removing the civilizing institutions which serve to enhance our humanity and allow us to thrive as human beings in society. In the philosophical battle between Hobbes and Rousseau over the state of nature, Hobbes was indubitably right.