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Control By Force

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Ideal of Force in Government. — The authority of government is so well recognized and so ever present that it is common to accept it as the ideal of social order, or at least as a force from which there is no escape and no appeal. Occasionally, it is true, the voice of the anarchist cries out against it and offers to substitute a new system of social order. To the average citizen, however, it is but natural that force should seem to be the essence of government and the cause of social order; for every law has its penalty, every government has its standing army, and every community its police. Even in our best forms of democracy, the final appeal of government is to force. And in the organization of campaigns and the control of government, indeed, the leaders of political parties rely upon coercion rather more than on cooperation — a coercion not much better at times than brigandage.

But while force is an essential element of government, it is not the ideal of social control. The authority and power to enforce order must rest somewhere, or government is a failure ; but the state cannot long exist when based upon force alone. The highest type of government brings the military and police into requisition as little as possible ; for government is, after all, but a temporary restraint upon the actions of individuals until the real elements of social order can assert themselves. Hence it is that the law comes in direct contact with only a few, and the police force apprehends but a small number of the offenders of justice.

Origin of Control by Force. — The idea of control by force has an historic origin ; for, in primitive society, where natural justice prevailed, the battle was always to the strong. Might made right ; and that individual survived and succeeded who could adjust his own affairs, defend himself and property, or, indeed, take the offensive to enlarge his personal power or his property rights. Naturally, he who could not, perished or became subordinate to him who possessed the greater force. And what was true of individuals was also true of tribes. Then, as social life became more complex, this power to survive passed into the power to rule. People became divided into those who governed and those who submitted to their domination, those who had obtained the superior position continuing to control by force those whom they had subdued in war, by strategy, or through necessity.

Ancient Leadership. — Through physical vigor, unusual will power, or extraordinary resourcefulness, the individual became a leader. Tradition, prestige, and superstition increased his influence ; religion and war were his servants. Gradually adding to his power, and assuming, in war, in the council, or in religious ceremony, to represent the interests of the tribe or clan, he became king in fact before he was made so by custom or law. But while leading the people in the interests of the tribe, he was really creating a community of subjects. Not able to keep up a display of force and manage all the affairs of the tribal state himself, he associated with him, by making it to their interest to assist him, a large number of people who were interested in government and who worked together with him for the control of the tribe or nation. Thus, although theoretically the people assumed the right to choose their leader and king, the king practically arranged to have himself chosen.

The Rise of the Governing Class. — The step from feudal rule, founded on leadership and service, to aristocratic rule, founded on class distinction, was taken when conquerors imposed their will upon a conquered people. From the conquerors arose a governing class, known as an aristocracy, a class distinctly separate from the great mass of the people. As the ruling class, they were supposed to be better and nobler than others ; and their claim to this supposed superiority and nobility they based on force. Having its origin in feudalism, where superior ability and native shrewdness counted for everything, this governing class established its authority by conquest, usually in some other region; and in every succeeding form of monarchy, either absolute or constitutional, such a governing class has continued to exist. Wherever nations have continued to grow, however, there has been a development of other independent means of social order, such as religion, justice, intelligence, industrial organization, altruism, freedom of speech, and freedom of meeting ; thus control by force has become less essential, and the governing class more useless. But out of all the surviving nations, a few were at an early period so impregnated with imperialism and so dominated by the governing class as to be unable, even now, to rid themselves of the ancient ideals. It is true enough that dukes and grand dukes were once necessary to the king and of service to the people ; but in the natural process of evolution a highly socialized and closely integrated society, with the true national spirit, will eliminate archaic forms. For people do not exist for the sake of a governing class, nor yet for the government.

The Idea of Control in a Democracy. — Even in a pure democracy this element of force appears, at certain times, to control the public. It is known as the telic force, or that by which society moves itself forward to a certain end. In fact, the control by democracy, in which every one is supposed to be a sovereign, is, in some respects, a fiction ; in reality there are, in every community, ruling ideas, ruling thoughts, and, indeed, ruling individuals. And in the nature of things, there must be ; for, because of a diversity of opinions and prejudices, our democracy would not always be able to carry out successfully the general will of the people. Indeed, so far as governmental mechanism is concerned, enlightened absolutism is the surest and most economical form of government; its plans to govern for the public it carries out with a will and authority which render justice to all. Most democratic governments are, in contrast, wasteful governments. There is, in the first place, an immeasurable loss of power in the attempt to give every man a hearing or a part in the government. And, too, if we but turn our attention to the dilatory methods, the short-sighted business policies, of the common council of a city government, we are forced to admit that the democratic form of government has its drawbacks. Not only city councils, however, but even legislatures, only too frequently fall short of doing what is for the advancement of the community. Above all, the people themselves are frequently so short-sighted that they do not know what is best for them ; hence they are as liable to take the advice of a demagogue as of a statesman.

But most of the difficulties of self-government arise from imperfect socialization or incomplete social machinery. Government is a great art which but few have learned well. Since successive groups of individuals take their turn at being law-makers, our legislative bodies are but schools for the practice of the untutored ; and because any one may aspire to office and take his place as an administrative official, if he can but get the votes or receive the appointment, it frequently occurs that many are elected who are ill prepared for civil service. Yet, after all, the safeguard of self-government is the perpetual opportunity of the people to choose their own rulers and officers. The judgment of the people is said, in the main, to be correct. And if through lack of care they have an imperfect and expensive government, they have, since the control rests ultimately with them, only themselves to censure for the burdens which they heap upon themselves. To make social control what it should be, therefore, universal intelligence and a developed capacity for self-government should obtain.

The Social Will of Democracy. — When once aroused and in full action, the will of democracy is as intolerant and absolute as the power of the monarch. Its redeeming quality is that, although it acts intermittently and represents a series of mistakes, these are followed by corrections which point toward a steady, if slow, progress. Its real success, therefore, depends upon educating the great majority of the people into an independent moral integrity which will enable them to live above the law. And when people have attained to this attitude, there is a species of social control which cannot be destroyed by the defects of governmental machinery and the machinations of all of the demagogues, nor yet by the " hungry incapacity " of office seekers.


GIDDINGS, F. H. Descriptive and Historical Sociology, pp. 357—366. Ross, E. A. Social Control, pp. 376-432.

SPENCER, HERBERT. Principles of Sociology, Part V, Chaps. V—IX.

WARD, LESTER F. Dynamic Sociology, "Introduction"; Pure Sociology, pp. 184-216, 544-572.


1. Read Giddings, Descriptive and Historical Sociology, pp. 357–359, and point out the difference between the power to compel obedience and the power to command obedience.

2. What survivals of control by force exist to-day in our government?

3. What proportion of men conform to a course of conduct conducive to the social welfare, from a fear of the force of the state?

4. In the origin of social control, what part does the use of force play?

5. Read Green's Short History of the English People, Chap. II, Sec. V,

and note what part force played in the origin of Norman control in England.

6. Show how, following William's conquest, a governing dass grew up in England.

7. Give illustrations, from the history of the United States, of control by force.

8. Why is there need for forceful control in a democracy?

9. Is there any social justification for the employment of troops in an industrial dispute, like that in Chicago in 1893, or in Colorado in 1913–19t4?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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