Conan on the Beat

Going through a box of old papers, I found this letter I wrote to the Chapel Hill News back in my North Carolina days; I don’t recall whether it was published.

18 May 1994
To the Editor:

The current debate over gun control is the latest, and perhaps the last, skirmish in a centuries-old conflict between two radically different visions of social order: the Celtic-Germanic system and the Imperial Roman system.


Under the Celtic-Germanic system, which dominated much of Northern Europe (especially the British Isles) during the Middle Ages, there was no distinct governmental agency known as the “police.” Instead, the responsibility for keeping the peace, enforcing the laws, and maintaining social order lay with the armed citizenry as a whole. In a sense, everybody (or at least, every free adult male) was the police, and all arrests were citizens’ arrests. Like the age-old right to judge the accused in a jury setting, the right to defend the innocent by force was a right of the people, not of government officials. (To be sure, there was some division of labor in provision of security; but this occurred within, rather than as an alteratve to, the context of an egalitarian distribution of police authority.)

More familiar to modern eyes is the Imperial Roman system. When the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, one of Emperor Augustus’s most significant acts was to establish Rome’s first police system – the Urban Cohorts and the Vigiles. From then on, keeping the peace in Rome was the prerogative of government agents, as in modern states. Where Celtic-Germanic system police authority was bottom-up, Imperial Roman police authority was top-down.

Growing up as we have under a system like the Roman one, we tend to assume that the Roman-style system is the only one that could possibly work. But highly civilised and sophisticated peoples (e.g., medieval Ireland) lived happily and prosperously under the Celtic-Germanic system for centuries. And although the Imperial Roman system has been on the ascendancy in the west ever since the centralisation of state power during the Renaissance, the rival Celtic-Germanic system has yielded only gradually. For example, as incredible as it may seem to many today, there were no police in England before the nineteenth century; the government exercised legislative and judicial functions, but left the actual apprehsion of criminals to the armed citizenry, in the form of the “posse comitatus” or, later, “Associations for the Prosecution of Felons.”

Jonah Hex

Similar arrangements may be found in American history in the colonial “minutemen,” and later in the so-called “Wild West” – “wild” and violent according to Hollywood depictions, but surprisingly peaceful and crime-free according to current historical research. (I am not speaking of vigilantes or lynch mobs, but [2010 note: apologies for the scrambled grammar; I should have written “I am speaking not of vigilantes or lynch mobs, but of”] responsible citizens’ associations that respected the rights of the accused.) Our country’s founders still recognised the right of self-defense as the foundation and presupposition of all other rights.

On a recent ABC documentary on guns, a gun rights advocate unwittingly echoed the Celtic-Germanic paradigm when he suggested that recent tragedies like the Long Island train shooting could have been averted if the other passengers on the train had also been armed and able to take defensive action. In response, a gun prohibition advocate expressed incredulity, and exclaimed that a society in which everyone “packs heat” would collapse into “anarchy” – a viewpoint unwittingly expressive of the Roman perspective.

Indeed today’s advocates of gun prohibition are so deeply in the grip of the Imperial Roman paradigm that they literally cannot grasp or conceive of the Celtic-Germanic alternative – and thus, for example, are unable to see the Second Amendment’s “militia” as anything but a government agency, despite clear historical evidence that in the eighteenth century “militia” meant the armed citizenry.

In this country today the Imperial Roman system is poised on the brink of its final victory: the complete disarmament of the citizenry. Before we take that final step, we should ask ourselves whether our long journey away from the Celtic-Germanic system has really been a move in the right direction. Are we really safer or more secure today as a result of this transformation? The evidence suggests otherwise.

A restoration of, or at least a move back in the direction of, the Celtic-Germanic system would have at least five advantages over our current Roman-style system.

  • First, it would provide greater discouragement to criminal behaviour by in effect raisig the numbers, presence, and reaction time of the “police” to a maximum.
  • Second, it would more flexible, efficient, and inexpensive than a tax-funded bureaucracy.
  • Third, it would reestablish neighbourhood control over law enforcement, a desperately needed measure in the light of police harassment of minorities.
  • Fourth, it would more faithfully embody our democratic egalitarian heritage by making the use of defensive force a universal right rather than the privilege of an elite.
  • And fifth, by diminishing the power differential between citizens and their government, it would seriously block the evident tendency of contemporary western democracies to evolve toward a police state.

Roderick T. Long

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8 Responses to Conan on the Beat

  1. Sag May 20, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    This is spectacular! You must re-publish in some other mainstream outlet.

  2. Matt Flipago May 21, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    Great, I love it. All that’s needed is to follow up on how we got from there to what we have now, and debunk them as illegitimate.

  3. Miko May 21, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    I would think that a mainstream newspaper publishing an op-ed containing the phrase “Celtic-Germanic system” would be noteworthy enough to be memorable.

  4. Hippo May 21, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    This article would be the target of ridicule by most people. Few even realize that aristocrats and most nobility were warrior-rulers, or the descendents of such people. One mention of an elite warrior class subjugating the people will elicit snide remarks about space aliens and pyramids.

    Common sense (it must be true, because it’s common and it’s sense) says only strange, barbarian places like Japan or China could have such a thing, deary me. Everybody knows that in the western world, people voluntarily formed governments and put themselves into positions of involuntary servitude towards their social superiors – for the common good, of course. And that’s why we need the government, without it we’d all be violent pricks waging war with each other every day!

  5. martin May 21, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    Excellent. Maybe only this part may need a little more explanation:

    But highly civilised and sophisticated peoples (e.g., medieval Ireland) lived happily and prosperously under the Celtic-Germanic system for centuries.

    I don’t think the average reader has a very rosy view of medieval Ireland. (Or medieval anything, for that matter. When Marcellus Wallace says he’s gonna get medieval on your ass, he probably doesn’t mean you will prosper…)

  6. Darian May 21, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Excellent work! I’d love to see this lightly edited and posted at Center for a Stateless Society.

    And in the spirit of lightly editing:

    “First, it would provide greater discouragement to criminal behaviour by in effect raisig the numbers, presence, and reaction time of the “police” to a maximum. ”

    I suppose “reaction speed” would be raised, not “reaction time”.

    • Roderick May 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

      Ah, but I didn’t say anything about raising reaction time. I talked about raisig reaction time. I don’t know what that is, but it’s surely different.

  7. Vichy Fournier May 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    Good stuff. I have always been interested in alternative conceptions of legal order and social customs. Especially Germanic tribal law and its descendants.

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