Bryan Caplan  

Of Vigilantes and Warriors

PRINT
Republicans and Technocrats... The Fiscal Outlook for U.S. St...
Remember my pacifism debate with Ilya Somin?  No offense to Ilya, but I heard that our hosts invited Robert Bidinotto first.  Bidinotto refused, I'm told, because he's now focused on writing novels.  And what's his novel about?  A vigilante.  But strangely enough, Bidinotto told Jeff Riggenbach that he doesn't support vigilantism in the real world:
The vigilantism in the novel is intended solely as a fictional device to highlight and dramatize the complete absence of justice in the current legal system. I deliberately crafted the [vigilante character] in the novel to hold a clear, specific code of honor regarding his illegal actions. He only kills killers; he does not target public officials with violence, but only with "poetic justice"; he takes no actions that will threaten innocents; and he would rather be arrested than use violence against cops. But in the real world, vigilantism would never be subject to such honorable constraints. Instead, it would degenerate into a violent competition of reprisals and vendettas unlimited by any moral or legal principle.
As far as vigilantes are concerned, I think Bidinotto is overly pessimistic.  But Riggenbach is exactly correct to point out that all of Bidinotto's concerns do apply to war:
Does Bidinotto not see that this is an excellent description of exactly how his beloved "War on Terror" has worked out in practice -- and of how it must work out in practice? The US government claims that its warmaking is "subject to honorable constraints," and that it strives to avoid taking "actions that will threaten innocents," but this is the real world, and in the real world, whatever high-minded platitudes politicians and military people may mouth, war is never anything but "a violent competition of reprisals and vendettas unlimited by any moral or legal principle" -- a competition in which innocents are maimed and killed and their property is senselessly destroyed.
Bottom line: If you can't believe stories about scrupulous vigilantes, you should reject stories about "defensive war" as fairy tales.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (6 to date)
Dorizen writes:

I tend to agree with you. I was wondering, however, (and this is an actual question, not a provocation) what would happen to a country that actually implemented that policy. Say South Africa adopts a no-war policy and terminates its army. Then tanks from Zimbabwe invade the country, just because they can. How could South Africa respond to that?
What distinguishes war from police work? Could it be that police work involves no decision from higher authorities, just following the law? So as long as a response to an attack derives clearly from the law, it would be justified police work and not a war? I think I could agree with that thesis.

Evan writes:

"A violent competition of reprisals and vendettas unlimited by any moral or legal principle" definitely accurately describes 99.9% of the wars that have been fought over the course of the history of the human race. Excellent point. However, I'm sure the obvious reply to this is that while reprisal itself tends to be pretty bad, threat of reprisal is extraordinarily useful.

@Dorizen

What distinguishes war from police work? Could it be that police work involves no decision from higher authorities, just following the law? So as long as a response to an attack derives clearly from the law, it would be justified police work and not a war? I think I could agree with that thesis.
I think the major difference between war and police work is that the police, in ideal circumstances, think of themselves as peacekeepers who are trying to prevent violence from breaking out. Warriors and soldiers, by contrast, tend to think of themselves as opposing some sort of specific foe, and have no problem with instigating violence to defeat them. I've noticed that the police do appear to have become more brutal as they've started thinking of themselves as fighting a "war on crime" and a "war on drugs." They're more violent because they think of themselves as warriors who have to destroy an enemy, not peacekeepers trying to prevent any violence from occurring.

I don't know if it is possible to translate the "peace officer" mindset of police work into war in any way that would make it work better. UN "Peacekeepers" are generally regarded as a joke.

CBrinton writes:

So the Winter War of 1939-40, in which the Finns waged a clearly justified defensive struggle against Stalin's invaders, by methods calculated to minimize civilian casualties, never happened. It's a "fairy tale".

You learn something new every day.

Of course, if one can simply declare that events uncongenial to one's thesis are "fairly tales", it's pretty easy to argue in favor of just about any viewpoint. I'll leave possible examples as an exercise for the reader.

James writes:

CBrinton:

No one is claiming that any historical event was a fairy tale. I think the point is that your expectations concerning the behavior of governments using force should be very similar to your expectations concerning the behavior of vigilantes using force. If you expect that most vigilantes would commit acts that you would disapprove of when using force, you should expect most governments to do the same.

Tracy W writes:

This strikes me as an argument against police as much as against viligantes or defensive war.
Anyway, while I don't believe in scrupulous viligantes, I also find it highly doubtful that society would be better off without some system of dealing violently with those willing to use violence. The looters in London recently were seen off firstly by networks of organised locals and then by the police taking a more active stance. Nasty things may be done by viligantes, police and armies, but that doesn't mean the alternative is preferrable.

Tim Starr writes:

The answer, of course, is that Bidinotto's wrong about most vigilantes. And Caplan's still abysmally ignorant of military history.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top