Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force

The monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force is a political concept formalized by the sociologist Max Weber, in his 1918 speech Politik als Beruf (Politics as a Vocation).

Weber argued that the state cannot be characterized by its ends, since there are very few goals which no state would ever seek to achieve, and no particular task which is both exclusive to the state, and also unique to the state.

He concluded therefore that the state must be characterized by the means which it, and only it, has at its disposal: "a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory".

There are several caveats which apply to this basic principle:

Table of contents
1 Support for the monopoly on the use of force
2 Objections to the monopoly on the use of force
3 Is violence necessary for a legal system?
4 References

Support for the monopoly on the use of force

Generally speaking, those who support the existence of the state will support the belief that the state, and in particular the government, must be responsible both for defining the conditions for the legitimate use of force, and also for ensuring that illegitimate violence is prevented or punished.

In a constitutional democracy, where the government does not have absolute authority, it may also not have an absolute monopoly on the use of force. For example in the United States of America, the Second Amendment to the constitution is frequently taken to authorize the existence of armed civilian militias, which in theory could challenge the government. In practice no such challenge is permitted, and the government alone is responsible for maintaining civil order. Thus Weber's comments on the state can be applied almost without reservation to the government, and it is the government which holds a practical monopoly on the use of force except in limited extenuating circumstances. This is true in most nations.

Supporters point to areas and periods where there has been close to a free market in violence and security, such as modern Somalia and the Dark Ages and point out that the attainment by any government of a monoploy on force will tend to better the lives of the inhabitants.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes strongly supported the state monopoly on force as he believes that in the state of nature humans are essentially maleavolent and only the threat and use of force by the state maintains an orderly society.

Objections to the monopoly on the use of force

Anarchist political theory objects in general to the existence of the state, and in particular to its use of coercion through physical force. Thus, examples of the use and abuse of the monopoly on physical force are common in anarchist discussion. For example, it has been seen that in many cases bodies delegated to use force have broken the law or violated human rights. Amnesty International (which is not an anarchist group) estimates that torture is used by state officials in two thirds of the countries of the world. Even where such extreme violence does not occur, cases occur of officials being disciplined or prosecuted for using disproportionate or unjustified force.

Such abuse can be carried out either by isolated individuals or systematically. Many anarchists, and others concerned by the authority of the state, believe it to be an inevitable result of the state's monopoly on violence. On the whole, however, only anarchists propose as a solution that the monopoly be removed - others typically prefer controls on the actions of state institutions and their officials.

Especially in the case of human rights, this then becomes an issue of the appropriate limits to the state's authority to use force. A common example of such a limit is habeas corpus, the right in many legal systems given to individuals not to be imprisoned without due cause and due process. Various governments have made what amount to exceptions from habeas corpus, for example the Prevention of Terrorism act in the United Kingdom, and the holding by the USA of those termed "enemy combatants" from Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay. Such cases give rise to opposition to the government's authority to use force.

It is also worth noting that Weber stated violence not to be the predominant tool at the state's disposal. Anarchists often argue that since the state's authority relies on its monopoly on violence, the state is therefore essentially violent in all its use of authority.

Is violence necessary for a legal system?

In practice, all functioning legal systems have relied to a greater or lesser extent on coercion rather than acting purely by consensus. However, see anarchist law for theoretical discussion on the subject of non-coercive systems of rules.