THE CONFLICT PERSPECTIVE

In marked contrast to the consensus perspective, the conflict view considers law as a “weapon in social conflict” (Turk, 1978) and an instrument of oppression “employed by the ruling classes for their own benefit” (Chambliss and Seidman, 1982:36). According to Richard Quinney (1970:35),

Society is characterized by diversity, conflict, coercion, and change, rather than by consensus and stability... . [L]aw is a result of the operation of interests, rather than an instrument that functions outside of particular interests. Though law may control interests, it is in the first place created by interests of specific persons and groups; it is seldom the product of the whole society. Law is made by men, representing special interests, who have the power to translate their interests into public policy. Unlike the pluralistic conception of politics, law does not represent a compromise of the diverse interests in society, but supports some interests at the expense of others.

Proponents of the conflict perspective believe that law is a tool by which the ruling class exercises its control. Law both protects the property of those in power and serves to repress political threats to the position of the elite. Quinney (1975:285) writes that, whereas the state, contrary to conventional wisdom, is the instrument of the ruling class, “law is the state’s coercive weapon, which maintains the social and economic order,” and supports some interests at the expense of others, even when those interests are that of the majority

Advocates of this position overstate their case. Not all laws are created and operated for the benefit of the powerful ruling groups in society Laws prohibiting murder, robbery, arson, incest, and assault benefit all members of society, regardless of their economic position. It is too broad an assumption that powerful groups dictate the content of law and its enforcement for the protection of their own interests. As we shall see in Chapter 4, all kinds of groups are involved in lawmaking, although the powerful groups do have a substantial voice in the lawmaking process.

This critique notwithstanding, much evidence supports aspects of the conflict perspective. For example, the power of economic and commercial interests to influence legislation is illustrated by William J. Chambliss in his study of vagrancy statutes. He notes that the development of vagrancy laws paralleled the need of landowners for cheap labor during the period in England when the system of serfdom was collapsing. The first of these statutes, which came into existence in 1349, threatened criminal punishment for those who were able-bodied and yet unemployed—a condition that existed when peasants were in the process of moving from the land into the cities. The vagrancy law served “to force laborers (whether personally free or unfree) to accept employment at a low wage in order to insure the landowner an adequate supply of labor at a price he could afford to pay” (Chambliss, 1964:69). Subsequently, vagrancy statutes were modified to protect the commercial and industrial interests and to ensure safe commercial transportation.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, vagrancy laws were used again to serve the interests of the wealthy. Agricultural states during harvest time enforced vagrancy laws to push the poor into farm work. In periods of economic depression, similar laws were used to keep the unemployed from entering the state (Chambliss and Seidman, 1982:182). This is just one illustration to show how law came to reflect the particular interests of those who have power and influence in society. Chapter 4 returns to the role of interest groups dealing with decision-making processes in the context of lawmaking.

 
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