Hobbes’ Defense of Police Force

In recent debates over the #BlackLivesMatter protests, an argument which has been widely deployed in defense of police violence is that anyone who doesn’t cooperate with police is effectively a criminal, and consequently police are justified in using whatever force is necessary to gain compliance. This is essentially a recapitulation of Thomas Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan for an omnipotent sovereign: because it’s important to preserve order, the sovereign can use pretty much any means necessary to maintain control. The logical conclusion of this argument is a totalitarian police state, since every citizen is a constant potential threat to public order. Of course, this conclusion is repugnant to most people, so advocates of police violence tend to use Hobbes’ argument in a vague and inconsistent way (the rhetoric of “criminals,” “thugs,” etc.).

Personally, I consider clarity a virtue, so below I’ve embedded video of two clear articulations of Hobbes’ argument as applied to law enforcement.

The first and more sympathetic one is the protagonist’s iconic “I am the law” speech from the 2012 film Dredd, which takes place in a fantasy world based on 1980s and 90s War on Drugs rhetoric.

The second articulation, from 1998’s American History X, takes place in a realistic world. It’s less sympathetic (because it’s delivered by a neo-Nazi) but more closely and specifically tracks a common tautological defense of police violence: cops are the only people qualified to judge what counts as excessive force, so all police force is by definition justified (unless there’s a consensus among other cops to the contrary). Starting at 2:35, Edward Norton’s character defends the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LA police.

Who are you to say what’s excessive? I think it was totally appropriate. And I think they’re in a better position to make that judgement call than you are. In fact, we as society grant cops a certain amount of authority to make those calls because we acknowledge that their job is difficult and dangerous. You know? And unfortunately, very few people respect that and respect that authority.

Here, I’m not going to get into the merit of Hobbes’ argument. I just want to be clear about what this particular defense of police violence is really saying, when the weasel words and vagueness get stripped away.


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