The State: Who Does it Protect?

Saturday’s car bomb attempt in New York saw the response of numerous government officials, who evacuated the area, investigated the scene, and made an arrest. So how can I say that we don’t need the state to keep us safe?

For one thing, services that enough people want can be provided on a consensual basis. Large numbers of people don’t want flaming shrapnel flying through their neighborhood, and do want actual crimes and potentially dangerous situations investigated. So there would be willing customers and willing suppliers when it comes to investigation, disaster response, and firefighting. Patrol might often be done on a local volunteer basis in a free society, but even if professionals were hired it would be possible to hold them more accountable than is possible with the current system of hostile paramilitaries who are accountable mainly to their bosses and the cliques in their business.

For all of the surveillance systems and police officers monitoring Times Square, it was a street vendor who first drew attention to the problem. This is another example of ordinary people defending themselves against crimes classified as “terrorist attacks” (a highly politically-charged term). Government was powerless against the September 11 attacks, shoe bomber, and underpants bomber. Any effective resistance was accomplished by nearby people breaking out of the role of victimized receiver of orders, a role constantly drilled into people who don’t wear the right uniform.

What about previously attempted terrorist attacks that were stopped by government action? First, we usually get the government’s story on these, and the government can hardly be considered impartial. But let’s assume they are telling us something close to the truth, and the government isn’t the only gang of thugs who want to hurt innocent people for political reasons.

There would probably be less to motivate terrorists to attack Americans if the United States government was not involved in destroying people’s lives around the world. However, government’s primary function is to enable some people to rule over others, and people hurt by this activity do not always respond in a morally-justifiable way.

Bruce Schneier notes that governments’ previous successes in preventing attacks relied on intelligence-gathering and investigation, not security checkpoints, surveillance systems, or similar police state fixtures.

In his article “Fixing Intelligence Failures” Schneier discusses the importance of information to effective prevention: “Our [sic] intelligence organizations need to trade techniques and expertise with industry, and they need to share information among the different parts of themselves.” Sharing of information doesn’t happen enough “because of inter-agency rivalries, a reliance on outdated information systems, and a culture of secrecy.”

This is a structural defect. Government’s typical answer to security threats is to respond with bigger bureaucracies (more people to share irresponsibility) and more repressive, stronger-looking enforcement. Organizations that exist because of, and in pursuit of, consensual association are generally more flexible, and do not waste time and cooperative potential trying to become the dominant bureaucracy in the power structure. When a bureaucratic mindset conflates the organization’s power with the safety of people it is assigned to protect, the incentive is to consolidate and expand power, not to work with people outside your tribe for mutual benefit.

Because street vendors were the first to sound the alarm about Saturday’s attempted bombing, we should also consider government efforts to sanitize and homogenize the streets, enforcing their view of what the city should be upon people who actually make it function. Food vendors and other merchants are frequently the targets of government bureaucrats. Fewer vendors would mean that fewer people actually watch the streets instead of using them to rush to their next destination.

People pushed to the margins of society are probably less likely to alert police of danger. Drug sellers, sex workers, and homeless people might be reluctant to share information that could lead to thwarting an attack like the one in Times Square. Because the demands of state power are supreme, there exists a hostile relationship that overrides what should be a common interest in streets that are safer for everybody – not just those who can afford to be on the city government’s good side.

While there are probably government agents who care sincerely about treating every individual justly, the institution of government exists to protect power, and individuals it protects are incidental to this goal. Anybody who gets in the way of government expanding power will become the target of government. If it suits some politically powerful group, their possessions will be taken and their livelihood destroyed. Whatever amount of violence enforcers want to use against them is expected to be suffered passively, and will almost always be blamed on the victim.

The nature of government institutions makes bad behavior on the part of enforcers more likely. Police departments are organizations seeking to preserve their own existence, they are not funded on a voluntary basis, their workers are accountable to higher-ranking officials and cliques of thugs instead of to the general public, and they are given the status by media and authoritarian culture as untouchable preservers of life’s valuables – we are supposed to believe they are the thin blue line between order and chaos, rather than the servants of the primary disruptors of consensual order which they are.

If you expect one powerful gang to keep you safe from other powerful gangs, you are placing yourself at their mercy.

Government creates a state of fear to facilitate political control – attempting to use terror for political ends. But being a government makes them exempt from all of the bad words that are used to label their enemies.


Schneier on “Fixing Intelligence Failures”:

Articles about city government and street vendors: and

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