If drugs dealers are innately violent, where did the violent alcohol dealers go?

I think there is another set of corollaries that help us understand the world, the role of government, and how physical violence dominates our lives.

Here is my underlying premise: there is a ruler (or rulers) capable of violence, in each aspect of society, that will impose Justice on you. Better to elect (pick) this ruler through a process than have them impose themselves on your through violence.

We are familiar with the image of gangs, fighting for corners to sell illegal drugs, battling for power and imposing Street Justice on one another. We might assume that drugs, gangs, and violence in innately intertwined. These kinds of people are violent by nature you might assume. Or perhaps anyone involved in drugs is innately predisposed to violence. But what happened to the violent alcohol dealers?

There certainly were violent bootleggers and mobsters during prohibition. Where did they go? Better asked, why did they go away?

To better examine, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. You are doing business with someone, for example selling me jeans. Both of us are subject to certain rules. If I give you the money, you must give me the pants. The exact pants I ordered. If you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, I go tell the police. Then there is a system of consequences, called the judicial process in this essay.

What if there was no police and you were wronged, say I stole your jeans or gave you fake money. You might take the wrongdoing on the chin, but then word would get out that you can be taken advantage of. There is no police to prevent the next passerby from doing what I did. When you are on your own to impose justice, you are incentivized to act in such a way that not only retaliates for existing wrongdoings but also to deter future issues. You want to make it so that people don’t think it is worth it to wrong you.

If you are selling illegal drugs, there is no police to go to. This hypothetical situation above is their reality. It behooves you to develop a preventative reputation. Do we see this happen? Undeniably yes! Gang members are “the kind of people you don’t want to mess with”.

However if drugs were more like alcohol, both parties would have a mediating third party (judge, jury) and a commonly understood and reliable set of rules (laws and penal codes). You don’t need to be violent yourself, the judicial system will handle it. But to be clear you need the things working (in order):

  1. Consistency. Rules are consistently understood.
  2. Impartiality. A mediator that people can count on to fairly apply rules.
  3. Enforcement. An ability to reliably hand down punishments.

So if we look where our judicial system fails… it seems to be in places where one of these three is broken.

In illegal drugs, there is no mediating party and thus no ability to effectively hand out punishments. The police will not help you if you are a dealer getting robbed. Simply put if you are outside the scope of the judicial process you will see Street Justice. There are rules that are understood, but no (formal, legal) entity to determine when they are broken and impose consequences.

If you are cartelier, you have an army to battle the police. The cost of war is worth it. This is more similar to a revolution than it is a drug issue. A large and influential part of society (violence is very convincing) is advocating (fighting) for another way of life. There are rules, there is a police force, but they are simply unable to effectively hand out punishments. A military/government coup is approximately the same. There are times when cost is fighting the legal enforcers is worth the potential spoils so people “muscle up”.

If corruption prevails, you may be better off imposing your own justice than counting on an unreliable system.. But you still must be worried about the authorities. Corruption is a wicked situation where you are under someone’s but also can’t rely on them to support you. In essence, with corruption, because you can’t count on enforcement you can’t count on impartiality and thus the whole system is undermined. Democracy tries to battle this by rotating authority via election. If your leadership is unreliable you can replace it.

What about high school? School bullies violating small social agreements not to be dickheads to each other. This is actually a key point of failure of the system. So many small offenses happen, that the judicial system (principal) is overwhelmed. Discipline is a foundational element of a functional democracy. Big issues bubble up to the system, small ones are sorted out by physical violence (bullying). In effect, the system is unable to effectively operate with the volume it encounters. Thus we wind up with a majority of offenses being more like illegal drugs than like legal interactions. Violence rules.

Furthermore, because the principal knows that more is happening than it gets to, the consequences for getting caught are harsher than they should be. They are preventative rather than simply retaliatory. We effectively have another form of deterrent punishment. The result? When you have deterrent punishments (vs simply consequential punishments), punishments are by definition overreaching and the concept of being a tattle-tale (snitching) emerges. The members are posed against the governing body, a tenuous circumstance. Better to lose a small punishment (take a beating) than impose a permanent one on another member of your group (suspension that goes on your college application).

If you are in prison, you will see Street Justice. In fact, it is quite similar to the high school scenario. Why? You are with a group of people who have shown to either not understand the rules or to demonstrate that they think breaking them might be worth it. Lots of small violations. System overload. Failure. But also… you have lost another key right. The option to leave. It is hard to prove you are being extorted, for example. Sometimes instead is fighting (via judicial process or Street Justice), you simply leave. Get out of there. Pick another ruler. (I would note that leaving during high school is also quite difficult, you see this in small doses where nerds sit together, far away from the bullies).

So what? Well, in some respect you need to have command of your physicality. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it as the gun folks say.  Our judicial system lets people who couldn’t otherwise (those of limited physical capability) participate freely in society. It is a key component that protects us all from the threat of individual violence. We trade subjugation to agreed-upon rules in exchange for our ability to exact personal retaliation. But when properly done it provides unparalleled freedom. But the following is needed:

  • Understood guidelines (rules)
  • A perceived fair mediation process (mediation)
  • Ability to keep up with system issues (or self-police) (values/religion)
  • Ability to enforce consequences (force)
  • Give people the option to influence the system (change)
  • Give people the option to exit (opt-out)



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