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The American State and the Postal Service's Arsenal

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The political scientist and sociologist Max Weber defined the state as  any "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." There are variations on this definition, with historian of the state Charles Tilly preferring the word "coercion"  to "legitimate use of physical force."

In any case, historians such as Tilly, Murray Rothbard, Weber, and Martin van Creveld can all probably agree that a central function of the state is to obtain and maintain a monopoly on the use of violence/coercion/physical force within its territory. Naturally, there is a long spectrum along which the fullness of this monopoly can exist. The Chinese state, for example, enjoys a near total  monopoly, and is thus a textbook example of the state while the current Iraqi state is barely a state at all (using this definition) since its monopoly is constantly (and often successfully) challenged from both inside and outside the country.

States know that any sustained challenge to its monopoly spells immense trouble for the state since such challenges invariably lead at the very least to declines in revenues, and perhaps to successful secession or even to revolution.

In the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, guardians of the state believe that you can never be too careful and you can never have too many tools of coercion. A state that cannot easily crush any and all dissent, as Hobbes contended, is not a functional state.

So, we should of course not be surprised at all when we see every US government agency from the Postal Service to the Consumer Product Safety Commission buying ammunition by the truckload and staffing themselves with a vast array of well-armed agents who can detain and force compliance from average citizens. The monopoly on force must be maintained and strengthened.

The well-entrenched American tradition of private gun ownership, mixed with easy access to ever-growing and seemingly limitless government budget increases is employed by government agencies to justify larger and larger arsenals as the agencies themselves have adopted a paranoid persecution complex of sorts and imagine themselves besieged on all sides by barbarians known as the "American public." This is the natural progression of the "thin blue line" doctrine in which the state is the only thing that stands between order and chaos. The American public is largely accepting of this idea, (although not to the same extent that Europeans unquestioningly accept it) so any reversal in this trend is unlikely in the near term.

Nonetheless, John Whitehead at the Tenth Amendment Center asks a few questions. To answer the questions, we need only remember that the reason behind it all is to ensure the state's monopoly can never be successfully challenged. In such a mindset, if 10,000 heavily armed government agents is good, then 100,000 agents must be even better.

Whitehead writes:

To get the ball rolling, here are just a few dozen of the questions that require honest answers by those individuals and agencies that are supposed to be answering to us. For my part, I’m going to send this exact list of questions to my government representatives and see how responsive they are. I’d suggest you do the same.
To start with, what’s the rationale behind turning government agencies into military outposts? There has been a notable buildup in recent years of SWAT teams within non-security-related federal agencies such as Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Office of Personnel Management, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Education Department. As of 2008, “73 federal law enforcement agencies… [employ] approximately 120,000 armed full-time on-duty officers with arrest authority.” Four-fifths of those officers are under the command of either the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Department of Justice.
What’s with all of the government agencies stockpiling hollow point bullets? For example, why does the Department of Agriculture need .40 caliber semiautomatic submachine guns and 320,000 rounds of hollow point bullets? For that matter, why do its agents need ballistic vests and body armor?
Why does the Postal Service need “assorted small arms ammunition”? Why did the DHS purchase “1.6 billion rounds of hollow-point ammunition, along with 7,000 fully-automatic 5.56x45mm NATO ‘personal defense weapons’ plus a huge stash of 30-round high-capacity magazines”? That’s in addition to the FBI’s request for 100 million hollow-point rounds. The Department of Education, IRS, the Social Security Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, are also among the federal agencies which have taken to purchasing ammunition and weaponry in bulk.  

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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