On The Impossibility of Mechanical Justice

Justice is at the very heart of our ideas about government and governance. It is the primary, if not the only reason why we believe that we need a government to rule us. Whether it be police forces and law courts fighting injustices against the innocent by other members of society, welfare mechanisms to help the poor and destitute, or military organisations protecting the citizens of a country from unjust attacks from other nations - it all boils down to a the same thing - an attempt to establish justice.

But it is my opinion that there is a grave mistake at the heart of our attempts to establish justice through government, and the perpetual growth in the size of government which has been the result of this in most countries. In fact, I believe that in many cases the use of such a blunt tool as government to establish justice causes more harm than it does good.

The Opposite of Responsibility is Irresponsibility

The opposite of being responsible is being irresponsible. When we outsource responsibility for justice to an external agency such as government (as people are forced to do in most countries, as 'taking the law into your own hands' is often punished at least as harshly as the original act) we cease to be responsible for it ourselves. As a result of this, we cease to feel the weight of that responsibility, and its burden ceases to weigh so heavily on our thoughts and actions. In a very real sense, the more we foist this responsibility onto government the more people are freed from its burden to think and act in a less responsible, and hence more irresponsible manner - even to the extent that many people think that it is “not my problem”, “none of my business”, or “not my place” to act even when they could do so within the law.

The net result of this may well be an increase in the proportion of harmful or immoral acts which result in some kind of corrective action aimed at restoring justice, due to the fact that a guaranteed willingness to act and natural economies of scale increase the power of governments to enforce their perception of justice more than their distance from the actual event decreases their ability to do so compared to the individual. But there are other consequences as well. In addition to the reinforcement of irresponsibility mentioned above, the outsourcing of justice to government serves to make justice a primarily retributive affair. Rather than individual people being prepared to enforce justice, and to make sure that justice exists within the moment itself, we simply allow injustice to happen and then wait for government agencies to punish the perpetrators after the fact.

Another result is a drastic increase in the likelihood of inappropriate actions in the name of justice, as discussed in the next section.

The Impossibility of Mechanical Justice

The wealth of diversity which the world provides for us is truly astounding. Each and every one of us is completely unique; you are not one in a million, you are one in 7 billion. But that is nothing. Not only are we each unique in ourselves, but each and every moment in each and every part of the world is completely and entirely unique. Nothing quite like it has ever happened before.

But yet our justice system is obsessed with simple and universal rules, which serve to lump a huge variety of different circumstances, situations and people together into a single category with a single result. Our justice system wants to say - if x then y: but each moment that is, has never happened before. 'X' will never happen as it was imagined by the writers of our laws. Simple universal laws were created to give the appearance of justice, to make sure that nobody could claim to have been done an injustice by the system because another person with a similar (but not identical) case was treated differently. But by creating the appearance of justice they create real injustices, because they do not take into account the unique nature of every person and every event which happens.

No matter how carefully you construct a law, there will always be times when its application is inappropriate. And no matter how many laws you create, there will always be people who do horrific harm to others and perpetrate serious injustices without breaking any law. In fact, such a system serves to reward those who can walk right up to the line without crossing it - because they can conduct their immoral business without fear of anyone stopping them because they are protected by the government which enforces its monopoly on justice. Those with the resources to study the letter of the law, hire the best barristers, and craft the sneakiest small print are the real winners of such as system.

In much the same way that the delegation of responsibility causes irresponsibility, the removal of trust from our business dealings and its replacement by legally crafted contracts serves to remove the powerful pressure on people to be trustworthy.

The Monopoly on Violence and Abuses of Power

They say that power corrupts. I firmly believe that this is true, and it this is one of the reasons why I believe that giving the government a monopoly on violence does more harm than good. Please do not misunderstand me here - by saying I don't like the government having a monopoly on violence I'm not saying I want to be violent, or I want more people to be violent - I just don't want the government to be able to use violence with impunity.

Police forces always abuse the powers you give them. Police powers brought in to tackle terrorism will be used against protesters, police officers will use their powers against people just because they don't like the look of them, individual police officers will use their power to conspire to pervert the course of justice in order to protect their peers or to further their careers. They, like the government itself, are not better than us and do not deserve greater rights than we do.

Politics | Law

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