Violence, Role in Resource Allocation

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Violence, Role in Resource Allocation


Violence, or the threat of violence, is a source of political and economic power, a means of acquiring either assets, income, or influence over their use and distribution. It is, however, not the only source of power, though perhaps it is the most familiar.

Simple acts of violence, such as robbery, can achieve short-term gain, or they can achieve long-term gain by setting precedents to support future threats. Well-established threats are the basis for systems of tribute or protection money. The difference between these two approaches is that robbery is typically furtive, making use of stealth to compensate for a lack of real superiority in force. In contrast, a tribute system is public to the extent that the violent agent is confident of superiority in force, so that general knowledge of the threat offers little protection for others and instead increases income from collections. What the two approaches share in common is that violence can take the crudest forms and be effective, since the goal is to acquire finished goods without involvement in the production process.

If the use or threat of violence is to be involved in the actual process of production, matters get more complicated. The goal shifts from collection to coercion, and both the exercise and threat of violence need to be more carefully calibrated parts of a program of supervision, as in the case of slavery and other forced labor systems.

A great many societies until recent times, including most colonial regimes, have had economic arrangements centered on threats of violence in order either to collect finished goods and money as tribute or to coerce labor services.

In modern capitalist societies, violence continues to play a role in the defense of property and enforcement of contracts, but under normal conditions it remains in the background while the law occupies the foreground. Violence seems to have played a key role in the acquisition of property during the centuries preceding the modern era, a process sometimes referred to as original accumulation. It still can play that role during periods of war or other severe crisis, but this use of violence is rarely acknowledged as a regular part of modern economic arrangements.

Critics of violence, in every social arrangement from ancient to modern, point to the suffering and destruction it causes. Some simply insist that no countervailing benefit could ever compensate for the horrors of violence, and they push at every juncture for its elimination. Others argue that both the destruction caused by violence and the parasitism of those who live off acts of violence constitute economic waste.

Apologists of violence usually claim that its elimination is an unachievable dream and that the best hope lies in channeling it instead, at least to minimize harm but possibly to do some good. To those who decry its economic wastefulness, they reply that this waste is more than compensated for, insofar as it leads to additional productive activity. In a world where most people are viewed as wasting timeand this is a view that many colonial rulers had of their subjectsapologists can argue that unless rulers demands for tribute or labor are excessive, little more than this wasted time is actually lost, while production in the meantime is increased.

Perspectives on violence can depend somewhat on what theories people hold on how it arises. In classical economic theory, competition for scarce resources can give rise to violence in the form of wasteful strife and warfare. In this view it is desirable and efficient to develop a state structure with a monopoly on violenceas Thomas Hobbes most vividly advocated in Leviathan (1651)and to use it to build a legal system of property rights and contract enforcement that encourages resource allocation through markets instead. Böhm-Bawerk (1914) painstakingly showed that once property rights are secure and contracts enforceable, introduction of additional force in an effort to control market dynamics was futile and wasteful, and this has been the neo-classical view ever since.

In certain political realist theories, such as those of Eugen Dühring (criticized by Friedrich Engels in Anti-Dühring, 1894) in the last century, violence arises more from its own profitability: The resources expended in a violent campaign to extract goods or labor yield a return as good as or better than from any other use. Because property rights and contracts are not here assumed to be firmly established, this in itself would not contradict the classical view, but political realists go further to argue that violence can be efficient also on the macro level, primarily because of its function in extracting productive labor from people that otherwise would not have been performed. According to those views, the state with its monopoly on violence contributes to economic activity by institutionalizing the labor extraction function, leaving to the market a decidedly secondary role of efficiently allocating resources thus extracted. Perhaps where land and resources are abundant and hard to dominate, a property system might be inferior to a tribute or slave system in terms of productivity.

Georges Sorel (1906) explored the potential for violence to liberate the oppressed, suggesting that the huge problem of organization could at least in principle be overcome by a general strike of all workers. According to him, the general strike, constructed as a myth as well as organized as much as possible in reality, represents the socialist answer to oppressive violence from above.

According to other theories, including certain psychological views, such as those expressed by Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), most violence cannot be accounted for by either of the above economic theories. Roughly put, violence instead arises from protracted and intense frustration brought about by all kinds of social experience, such as role conflict or inhibition of biological impulses, and it is best understood as an expressive rather than instrumental phenomenon. In other words, in the view of these theories, rather than a rational act for gain, violence is a kind of lurch into irrationality engaged in by someone for whom no rational option appears.

Finally, some theories are inspired by biology, claiming that violent behavior that is irrational at the individual level might appear rational at the species level. The survival prospects of the species are enhanced even though those of particular individuals appear not to be, and therefore some mechanism of natural selection might breed in a certain amount of violent tendencies that could not otherwise be accounted for.

SEE ALSO Accumulation of Capital; Capitalism; Colonialism; Competition; Confiscation; Freud, Sigmund; Giddens, Anthony; Hobbes, Thomas; Imperialism; Primitive Accumulation; Property; Property Rights; Slavery; Urban Riots; Violence; War; Weber, Max


Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen von. 1914. Control or Economic Law? Trans. J. R. Mez. In Shorter Works of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. South Holland, IL: Libertarian Press, 1962.

Engels, Friedrich. 1894, 1947. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dührings Revolution in Science. Trans. Emile Burns. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Freud, Sigmund. 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York and London, W. W. Norton & Co., 1961.

Giddens, Anthony. 1987. The Nation-State and Violence. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan: or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. New York: Collier, 1962.

Sorel, Georges. 1906. Reflections on Violence. Trans. T. E. Hulme and J. Roth. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1950.

Weber, Max. 1951. Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Michael J. Brun

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Violence, Role in Resource Allocation

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