Justice – A Basic Function of Government – Why the State Owes It to You

In a state without a system of justice you either seek your own justice or pay homage to a local warlord, who is actually a substitute for a functioning state. Citizens of Afghanistan, especially in its remote parts, often side with the Taliban because the central government is so weak and corrupt that the inhabitants have learned not to rely on it. It is a sort of renegade justice. They overlook the barbarity of the militants, because the militants at least bring some sense of normalcy to life, some predictability, some semblance of order. The militant are also very big on revenge.

The mafia performed a similar function in Sicily and also in America during and after the great wave of Italian immigration in the last century. Immigrants who could not find justice through normal institutions found it through the local mafia boss, the Don. Recall the famous scene at the beginning of the movie The Godfather, where an undertaker asked Don Corleone to punish some thugs for raping his daughter. Justice had failed him: the thugs had beaten the criminal charge, and even grinned at the man after their acquittal. Crying for revenge, he called the Don Godfather and kissed his ring. In so doing, he pid a fealty, and signed up for an alternative system of justice. The only other options for him would be vigilantism, or a legal system that let him down.

In a modern state with a system of justice in place, you don’t feel that you need to seek revenge because the state has an elaborate system of laws, which in some cases are even a means of revenge. Primitive as it may sound, the government does seek revenge through the punishment apparatus of the criminal law, albeit in an orderly and civilized way. even in the civil law, a form of punishment may be meted out with punitive or exemplary damages, and even if punitive damages are not available, the law attempts to right the wrong, or to make you whole, by allowing for compensatory damages. Imagine some jerk runs a red light and smashes into your car, seriously injuring you. you don’t seek revenge: you sue.

Justice is one thing that we are entitled to receive from our government. It is one entitlement that makes sense, because without it the state has no reason for existence, other than its own perpetuation. Imagine a country where the government basically said to you: It’s your problem – the state isn’t going to help you. such a country would be a barbaric and scary place, a place where justice is left for individuals to right their own wrongs. It would be a place of vendettas and constant violence, where the Hatfields and the McCoys are in a constant war of retribution. such places, of course, do exist. Somalia, for example, has been without a functioning government for almost two decades.

In a modern democracy we take a lot of things for granted, because when government functions well, you don’t notice that it’s there. a functioning system of justice, even one that has occasional fits and starts, is something that we should never take for granted. It’s owed to us.

Justice – A Basic Function of Government – Why the State Owes It to You


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