Since no police force has the numbers to be everywhere at once, it maintains order through the force of its name, the power of the uniform. This was once known as 'prestige'; today it is better known as 'legitimacy'. Although as insubstantial as air it is as vital as oxygen. Without it things become very difficult. Once the authorities begin lose their prestige they must rely ever more heavily on force, of which there is never, ever enough.
In one sense legitimacy is the fiction on which society is based. It is to government what confidence is to a bank. As long as everyone believes that the bank will pay the depositor no one will demand all his money back. As long as most believe that the King's justice is effectively invincible, no one will challenge it. But when a government behaves in a supine manner for an extended period -- or a bank refuses to pay out without a good reason -- then doubts begin to grow. Both legitimacy and confidence are more severely tested and once it is known that there isn't enough money in the bank to pay everyone nor enough cops in the station house to arrest everyone then the fiction is bust.
A deadly cycle begins to set in. Both the government -- or the bank -- have to make payouts in force or money more frequently than they otherwise would. There is a "run" on this key resource and they are bankrupted. Financially in the bank's case and politically in the case of government. When confidence finally dwindles to its last remaining levels the declining institution must either risk everything on the last throw to restore it or face collapse.
Belmont readers will recognize this situation as one the Three Conjectures sought to describe. It is same idea: you can deal with a crisis humanely and with procedural protection only if you act in a timely and decisive fashion; while you have confidence to supply what force cannot. But if you let things cascade then you will be left only with ever more draconian methods to reverse the decline.
Lee Smith talks about a similar, but not quite identical concept of the Strong Horse. Civil discourse in rough societies is never indulged in for its own sake, but only if it confers survival advantages. Middle Eastern societies will admire the beauty of a representative democracy; they may marvel at its freedoms and its creativity. But none of these will count for aught unless the beautiful horse is also the Strong Horse.
The Weak Horse always goes to the glue factory. Therefore be gentle, but never leave for the racetrack without the sub machine gun under your blanket if you would be the Strong Horse.
The commenters at the Belmont Club have coined still another similar idea termed the Design Margin. The Design Margin is a description of how much a system can be bent before it will break. A society in which there is a great deal of respect or authority and lots of money to square circles has a big Design Margin. A society in dire straits in which contempt for the authority is not only tolerated but encouraged by the cultural elite is a society with a small Design Margin.
But whether the preferred term for this quantity is 'legitimacy', 'confidence', the 'strong horse' or 'design margin', the presumption on the political Left since the War has been that Western Society has an infinite or nearly infinite supply of it. It seemed impossible to them that a society with a Big Design Margin might eventually become one with a Small Design Margin. And even if it did, why do Design Margins matter anyway?
There's always another dollar to distribute or tax; another regulation to be imposed; another rule of war; another apology that can be made. We can play whatever the handicap. Haven't we always won despite? Religion and national myth can be denigrated to any extent desired, while hostile ideologies can be simultaneously exalted. We're so rich we shouldn't care.
And even when societies are fresh out of all that, as evidenced by the disconcerting fact that the cupboard is bare, it can still be conjured by printing money or selling bonds. The stash is there because its always been there. The Man has it. As a last resort, as Jesse Jackson Jr reminds us, we can simply make it illegal not to have 'legitimacy', 'confidence' or a 'design margin' under the Constitution.
Or As Van Jones put it, if we don't have money its only because some prankster is hiding the goods from us. Someone dangerous like Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin. If you're short then "somebody has our money". It's a great theory whose only defect is that it isn't true. Resources are limited; that's the fundamental postulate of economics. Unfortunately for those would remake the world according to their druthers, there's only so much of this or so much of that. Only so many police officers. Only so many cell phone and electronics stores to loot before the whole neighborhood is reduced to ash. And then that's it. Once 'legitimacy', 'confidence' or the 'design margin' is spent, it's gone. Truly gone. And the run on the bank will have begun.
The Daily Mail reports that the rioters in London have grown so bold that they are literally stealing the clothes off people's backs. A run starts small but then progressively gathers momentum. By the end there's no telling where things will finish up.
It seems like a simple idea and you wonder why not everybody gets it. But you have to realize that the Left, in accomplishing the ruin of a society -- by debasing the coin of its culture if not its actual coin -- always starts and finishes by meaning well. That's the get out of jail card: idealism. They genuinely set out the improve the world and if you knew them you would have no reason to doubt the purity of their motives. In fact, they are genuinely just as surprised as anyone else when it doesn't work.
The catastrophe, when it comes, begins always for the children, the youths, the yoots, the utes. Then it fails. But don't worry. They'll try harder the next time and then they'll succeed. They're idealists after all.
THE SERPENT. The serpent never dies. Some day you shall see me come out of this beautiful skin, a new snake with a new and lovelier skin. That is birth.
EVE. I have seen that. It is wonderful.
THE SERPENT. If I can do that, what can I not do? I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say 'Why?' Always 'Why?' You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' I made the word dead to describe my old skin that I cast when I am renewed. I call that renewal being born.
EVE. Born is a beautiful word.
THE SERPENT. Why not be born again and again as I am, new and beautiful every time?
-- Back to Methuselah, GB Shaw