This is an attempt to examine the question:

Vigilantism is justified when the government has failed to enforce the law.

In the following, two aspects of this question will be examined. One is to examine a famous example of the social custom of vigilantism in a very libertarian society in our American historical past. The second will attempt to touch on some of the foundational political aspects of this question, i.e., to look at authority and society and where force fits into that picture. Please find bulk of the essay “below the fold”.

Charles Lynch (wiki) was noted by historian David Hackett Fisher in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America as the person to institute vigilantism in what Mr Fisher terms the “western backwoods” folkway. The backwoods folkway were members of a society that in many ways can be described as the libertarian ideal. Personal freedom was extremely high and its heroes such as Patrick Henry were notable for their drive for independence and then after the Revolution completed pushing for independence from the Federal government(s) as well. However the very limited (or perhaps non-existent) central government in these regions in the pre-revolutionary times meant that there were also large somewhat organized predatory gangs. These gangs were larger and more organized than any given homestead could deal with when threatened and as a result, the organizing of townspeople for common defense against such groups was named after similar undertakings by Mr Lynch. This society was libertarian enough that the law books and statutes that existed provided little to no defense in the way of penal strictures against assault and injury to person (but property damage and theft was dealt with in a more standard, for the age, manner). It seems likely that the reason that rape, battery and other insults were either not or lightly penalized is that the expectation is that your “folk” would deal with matters themselves. Vigilantism was the natural expectation for these people. Mr Fisher recounts for example to illustrate this the marraige of Andrew Jackson our seventh President. Mr Jackson was a backwoods person. According to Mr Fisher’s account, Mr Jackson married his wife Rachel who was at the time married to another man. When this man sought legal redress, Mr Jackson chased him out of the district at gunpoint ending the legal dispute. This was “how things were done” in the region and era and that ended the matter.

The point of this allusion to the past regarding the question at hand is that in the past there have been cultures which for other reasons, in this case their the strong value placed on personal liberty, the people in a region wished to have a very weak central government. And as a result the government itself did not have the ability (or to be frank the desire) to enforce and insure the personal safety of its citizens. They expected and did act to ensure their own personal safety themselves. Vigilantism, in this case lynchings and lynch gangs, were a result of citizens gathering together to combat and protect themselves from violence and violent gangs in their midst. The Roman Cincinnatus was revered in Rome for being called up to serve as a military dictator/leader in time of need (war) and then returning to his farm when the crises past. Similarly in the backwoods western frontiers, lynch mobs served as ersatz police forces when needed which, when the crises past, were disbanded.

It can be argued that Thomas Hobbes in the classic work Leviathan set the foundations for modern political theory. His idea that people choose to cede their personal freedoms to form a larger political entity was done explicitly in order to protect themselves from the dangers spur the emergence of vigilantism. Bertrand Jouvenel in his under-appreciated less know book Sovereignty points out an important flaw in Hobbes idea of the state, that it is psychologically, anthropologically, and historically a complete fiction. We cede authority to individual leaders, often these leaders are deceased in which case we cede that authority to their written or spoken practices and memory. Our Constitution and Declaration, for example, serve as founding documents preserving the authority granted to the founders. With this viewpoint the authority rightly exercised by a state is that authority to which the people grant it. This sounds tautological but in fact with some reflection makes sense. A authoritarian or totalitarian regime, paradoxically enough, is a violation of this arrangement, that it is having failed to obtain the authority freely it instead uses force and terror to obtain it.

What then does this have to do with vigilantism? Vigilantism then is authority being granted to a none state temporary entity because the state has failed to assert and exercise the authority was being offered. That is, the people wanted protection and granted the state the necessary authority to achieve it, but in its failure a quasi-state or community organ (the vigilantes) was in its stead granted that same authority.

Finally, to close out this little essay, it seems pertinent to remark on a common misunderstanding of M. Jouvenel’s understanding of just authority noted above. Vigilante mobs as well as Hitler’s Germany and Nero’s Rome committed acts of atrocities, be it burning Christians or performing genocide. The ethical behavior of the state does not rest on the authority granted to its state (Rights do not protect, following Rousseau’s incisive critique of Locke’s softening of the Hobbesean state’s tendency to tyranny). Ethical behavior by the state, i.e., the problem of lighting the Appian way via torching Christians, in that whether or not the state has been granted the authority to act in that way it remains unethical for Nero as well as his soldiers to actually perform said torching. Or in the case of Nazi Germany, it was not out of bounds for the German government to posses the authority to genocidal slaughter of the insane, the deficient, the gypsy, and the Jew but it was immoral, unethical, and indeed monstrous for individual Germans to do so to participate or even to stand aside and allow it to happen.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityGovernmentMark O.

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