"Nature gave a right to every man to secure himself by his own strength...but the civil law takes away that liberty, in all cases where the protection of the law may be safely stayed for." Hobbes
Hobbes' Leviathan. Did you study it in school? It is his book on government and social contract which was of considerable influence to the nation's founders, written well over 100 years before then. For myself it was part of a philosophy study in college, and I had skim-read it in high school. Skim-read it because I disagreed with so much that it was hard to read. But then the founders had the same impression; they liked his idea of a social contract, but not his idea that it should be enforced by a king, a leviathan.
I was reminded of it recently when listening to a video with Steven Pinker. Part of what Hobbes explained is that there is an important difference in how justice is administered where there is a legal system versus where there isn't. Where there is no good system of police and courts and laws, then when one person harms another the victim is likely to seek revenge directly. That's often done aggressively because if you are seen as easy prey you'll get preyed upon all the more. On the other hand where there is a good system, then people find it better to turn to the police and courts to settle problems; they turn to the leviathan. In this case "leviathan" does not mean a king, rather whatever system of government and law enforcement is in place. Not only is it better in some ways, and safer, but it's enforced. If the police catch you inflicting revenge yourself, then it will be you standing before a judge.
That's what the quote at the top is saying. We have the right to protect ourselves, but when we are in a society with a justice system, in any situation where it is safe to wait for the police, that's what the social contract says should happen. You give up seeking revenge yourself, and in exchange the leviathan will deal with these issues for you.
Pinker was making the connection to urban gangs. His specific point was about why such groups are so quick to feel 'dissed, and so quick to violence in response. In neighborhoods where the experience of people is that the police are there as much to suppress them as to protect them, where, far from ensuring justice, it is too often the authorities who inflict the injustice, where, when help is needed -- something is stolen, someone assaulted, a person is missing -- it seems it isn't taken seriously, where there is no leviathan, then people are forced to resort to their own justice. They take revenge themselves, and they need to do it quickly so as not to look weak.
Note again that Hobbes qualified this with safety, "...where the protection of the law may be safely stayed [waited] for." If there is no good system, no safety in waiting for it, then people have to act to protect themselves. While there is a normal amount of human violence everywhere, in those places where there is no leviathan ensuring a peaceful order, with justice, then violence escalates, feeds on itself, becomes the norm. In places where the leviathan doesn't bother to maintain real order, where problems the people have are not taken seriously and, compounding it, the leviathan is actually part of the problem and to be avoided, then people start doing whatever they need to do to survive and to get by.
People are partly rational but they also respond to circumstances. If someone annoys you enough, you'll snap at them. Even the best of people, when life throws too many knocks at once, will find some relief in too much drink, or go back to the cigarettes, or get irritable with loved ones. When some groups of people are acting in ways that are hard to understand, it's not enough to just think, "Boy, are they stupid!" If we look for a reason, odds are pretty certain a reason will be found. Hobbes spelled this one out for us long ago.
Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at Comments@TomCantlon.com.