There is a society with a similar level of technological and cultural advancements as what we have. But there are no police officers. No government entities dedicated to investigating and punishing violations of the law. No prisons. No notion of a criminal court system. Law enforcement as we know it does not exist.

What kind of governments and social norms would give rise to such a society? What forms would crime take, if it even exists?

This is not a post-apocalyptic scenario, unless the catastrophe happened so long ago that society has essentially been rebuilt. Law enforcement simply doesn't exist as a distinct function of the government. You can ignore the question of whether a military exists.

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this the plot of Demolition Man? $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @charginghawk - Sounds more like The Purge if it wasn't just a one-day-a-year thing. Demolition Man had police, they were just all wimps who had no idea how to deal with the first violent criminal they'd ever seen, who only existed in their time period due to having been frozen for years. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ If there's no law enforcement, are there any laws? And if there are laws, does it matter? $\endgroup$
    – Ajedi32
    Mar 23, 2016 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_Commonwealth $\endgroup$
    – bic
    Mar 23, 2016 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ChefCyanide anarchy doesn't mean no law enforcement. It means no government. To be more specific - no government monopoly on law enforcement tasks. $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Mar 24, 2016 at 8:17

10 Answers 10


Law Enforcement is — generally speaking — fulfilling the following needs:

  • Protection. Hindering people from acting unlawfully.
  • Prevention. Making people not want to or need to act unlawfully.
  • Retribution. Exacting revenge on people that have acted unlawfully.
  • Rehabilitation. Giving treatment to people so that they will not act unlawfully again.
  • Reparation. Making sure that people that have been acted unlawfully upon are compensated for their pain and/or loss.

Dive into the science and philosophy of justice and these are the founding principles you will find.

In order to have such a society you will need to eliminate the need for all of these. The simple way would be to have no laws. It is impossible to act unlawfully if there are no laws to break. This is unlikely to happen though since pretty soon someone will tell someone else "I don't want you to do that". And as soon as there is consensus that "No-one should do that", you have a law. When you have a law, you have enabled people to act unlawfully.

You could have a society that simply does not deal with unlawfulness at all, and that would eliminate the need for Law Enforcement too. However assuming that you do have laws, and that the people would want to deal with unlawfulness, then you need to have other conditions in place.

You could have a society where it is not possible to break the law. I do not know how this could happen but that would eliminate the need for Law Enforcement.

You could have a society where people do not care if a law is broken. "So what if someone steals a million from me, I've got a thousand of them, I cannot be bothered". "So what if someone kills me, I'll just get my backup copy and go back to living; it's an inconvenience but I just cannot be arsed with making a fuss about it.

You could have a society where no-one needs to break the law. Every one of their needs is handled elsewhere so they are content and do not have any kind of need to break the law.

You could have a society where no-one wants to break the law; perfect empathy or perfect obedience. If the law is in place, no-one breaks it... plain and simple.

You could have a society where the people themselves deals with all of these needs, that is to say you do not have organized and especially appointed Law Enforcement, but the people deal with it on their own.

I could go on but my lunch break is ending. In any case: everything falls back on the five principles I mentioned above. Those are the needs that Law Enforcement fulfills. Remove the needs, or fulfill them by other means, and you remove the need for Law Enforcement.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 22:31

I think the key part is the reference to government entities.

There are many forms of law/rules/norms enforcement that have existed in history. Many of them are not linked to any government.

There's a libertarian academic who's written a lot about the different ways that rules of various kinds were enforced by different kinds of societies.


A fairly common system is communities enforcing rules through ostracism.

You can also have systems that look very similar to modern police which are separate from the state. Effectively you outsource the entire criminal justice system to private entities. This can either look a lot like our current criminal justice system or it can look like mobsters demanding "protection money".

You can also look at embedded societies. Groups like the Roma and the Amish whose societies exist within a larger one but who often have their rules that they enforce without the help of the government.

One possibility for how law enforcement might fade away in a developed society would be a large embedded society gradually growing to dwarf the external society and, once they have the majority in the country gradually dismantling the government legal system in favor of their own community's systems.

Your society still has rules, they're just enforced by non-government entities.

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    $\begingroup$ "or it can look like mobsters demanding "protection money"" This can just as easily be a problem for government funded protection as well. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ At some point, these non-government entities gain sufficient regulatory power to be considered de-facto governments, their edicts are laws, and their punishments law-enforcement. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 19:43

Ok, I can see this working in several ways.

  1. Via technology where law enforcement is an inherent part of humanity such as some sort of implant which prevents people from violating laws. While it seems far fetched by today's readily available technology, it's not a significant leap from some technologies that we do have.

  2. Via religion or philosophy. Some societies are inherently less likely to have a criminal element. A society of Tibetan monks would probably have very little need (possibly no need) for law enforcement.

  3. Via enlightenment. This is taking existing fictional worlds to a new level. Look at something like Star Trek - they certainly have law enforcement, but it's not ever a major part of the story as people just act according to the laws more often than not (more often than contemporary Western societies, at least). This could be taken to the next level where humans have simply transcended a point where doing bad things occurs to them.

  4. Via fictional but plausible societal means. Similar to the above, but people are just not wired to do bad things to one another. This is actually not entirely fictional if you look at small tribal groups even in the world today. Aboriginal peoples often have no laws, no enforcement, just a sense of right and wrong which is strongly ingrained in their day-to-day way of living.

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    $\begingroup$ Alternatively, it could be a function of innocence. Think Neverland... $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 16:26

Ursula K Le Guin's novel "The Disposessed" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dispossessed features a society which is anarchic in that there are no laws. Of course the society needs structure to function, since mining, trucking, agriculture and other expected industries exist and function, so while no coercive government exists, other forms of authority do. She considers the same questions as above throughout the book, and it really is worth a read.

I will give some spoilers that touch on key points:

Since there are no laws, social pressure and violence are used to settle disputes:

The man named Shevet came up to Shevek one night after supper. He was a stocky, handsome fellow of thirty. “I’m tired of getting mixed up with you,” he said. “Call yourself something else.”
The surly aggressiveness would have puzzled Shevek earlier. Now he simply responded in kind. “Change your own name if you dont like it,” he said.
“You’re one of those little profiteers who goes to school to keep his hands clean,” the man said. “I’ve always wanted to knock the shit out of one of you.”
“Don’t call me profiteer!” Shevek said, but this wasn’t a verbal battle. Shevet knocked him double. He got in several return blows, having long arms and more temper than his opponent expected: but he was outmatched. Several people paused to watch, saw that it was a fair fight but not an interesting one, and went on. They were neither offended nor attracted by simple violence. Shevek did not call for help, so it was nobody’s business but his own. When he came to he was lying on his back on the dark ground between two tents.
He had a ringing in his right ear for a couple of days, and a split lip that took long to heal because of the dust, which irritated all sores. He and Shevet never spoke again.

Industrial technology is maintained:

PDC, the principal users of radio, telephone, and mails, coordinated the means of long-distance communication, just as they did the means of long-distance travel and shipping. There being no “business” on Anarres, in the sense of promoting, advertising, investing, speculating, and so forth, the mail consisted mostly of correspondence among industrial and professional syndicates, their directives and newsletters plus those of the PDC, and a small volume of personal letters. Living in a society where anyone could move whenever and wherever he wanted, an Anarresti tended to look for his friends where he was, not where he had been. Telephones were seldom used within a community; communities weren’t all that big.

Children are usually abandoned to dormitories to avoid instilling propertarian values:

“You know, I don’t agree,” he said to long-faced Vokep, an agricultural chemist traveling to Abbenay. “I think men mostly have to learn to be anarchists. Women don’t have to learn.”
Vokep shook his head grimly. “It’s the kids,” he said. “Having babies. Makes ‘em propertarians. They won’t let go.” He sighed. “Touch and go, brother, that’s the rule. Don’t ever let yourself be owned.”


There was silence again, and Rulag said in her controlled, pleasant voice, “Well, yes; it mattered, and it still matters. But Palat was the one to stay with you and see you through your integrative years. He was supportive, he was parental, as I am not.
It is yours, isn’t it? Why else would Sabul be co-publishing with a twenty-year-old student? The subject’s beyond me, I’m only an engineer. I confess to being proud of you. That’s strange, isn’t it? Unreasonable. Propertarian, even. As if you were something that belonged to me! But as one gets older one needs certain reassurances that aren’t, always, entirely reasonable. In order to go on at all.”

A loose marriage like arrangement exists, but is considered slightly propertarian.

“Talk? It’s not talk. It’s not reason. It’s hand’s touch. I touch the wholeness, I hold it. Which is moonlight, which is Takver? How shall I fear death? When I hold it, when I hold in my hands the light —”
“Don’t be propertarian,” Takver muttered.
“Dear heart, don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying. You are. Those are your tears.”

Sexual norms are much looser (not quoted :-)

Religion is known but formal practice is discouraged:

“Why, because you’re an Odonian from Anarres — there’s no religion on Anarres.” -
“No religion? Are we stones, on Anarres?”
“I mean established religion — churches, creeds —” Kimoe flustered easily.

But not having laws doesn't mean that people don't have very strong prejudices that have the force of law:

“You’re not worthy to say the name of Odo!” the young man shouted. “You’re traitors, you and the whole Syndicate! There are people all over Anarres watching you. You think we dont know that Shevek’s been asked to go to Urras, to go sell Anarresti science to the profiteers? You think we don’t know that all you snivelers would love to go there and live rich and let the propertarians pat you on the back? You can got Good riddance! But if you try coming back here, you’ll meet with Justice!”
He was on his feet and leaning across the table, shouting straight into Bedap’s face. Bedap looked up at him and said, “You dont mean justice, you mean punishment. Do you think they’re the same thing?”
“He means violence,” Rulag said. “And if there is violence, you will have caused it. You and your Syndicate. And you will have deserved it.”


Once you abolish a social structure which does not accord status to the accumulation of material, a major incentive for crime disappears. Then there are issues of personal control and power (eg. domestic violence) which can be achieved with personal attitude adustments within a society.

All it essentially requires is a change in values and a personal adherence to standards of conduct. All this can be achieved with effective education.


Groups of people will enforce their own local rules and punish offenders. Members of one group can learn the rules of another and interact in a stable and predictable way with members of that group.

Those are the basic requirements for a society to exist in any way approaching "normal" to us. Without that basic social contract, the optimal strategy for any group will be to eliminate or enslave any other group they come into contact with (if they can) or suffer the same fate if they are weak at any point in the future.

What you'll get is very much like the ancient tribal times:

  • A strict code of honor and harsh punishments, most often death.
  • These punishments often lead to revenge killings by the offender's group/family, leading to long feuds.
  • Guests of a group enjoy protected status. This allows groups to interact safely and enables trade and cooperation.
  • Travelers without a host to vouch for them are completely unprotected from any harm and groups will not tolerate unknown individuals on their territory.
  • Unprovoked aggression between groups is considered dishonorable.
  • Conflicts over resources will simmer until the aggressor can claim the other party violated some part of the code, giving them the right to exact revenge, at which point things escalate to outright warfare.

The more interaction between groups, the more the local rules will converge, until a fairly stable society could arise. However, relations between groups will still be all-important and any traveler needs to have a host when far away from his group or risk being murdered when nobody of his own group can witness and accuse the offender. This limits the size and cohesiveness of any society without institutional law enforcement.

  • $\begingroup$ This is pretty much it - assuming that something hasn't completely flipped somewhere in the entire human condition - then society will ultimately develop along the same lines as it always does. If no one officially enforces the law, then people will take matters into their own hands and enforce their moral code. It's entirely probable that you'll eventually end up with vigilante groups fulfilling the same role as the police. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2016 at 17:28

Privatization of Government Services

I think you'd see the privatization of services provided by our government. People who own big companies want their property and employees to be protected so they can continue making money. To do this, they need some kind of security force, so they'd just hire one.

Similar things would happen with the other services you mention. For example, what if someone you don't want to kill breaks the law? It makes sense to have a prison to put them in for a while, so you make one. You could even rent out cells to other companies or people.

Also, it sucks for poor people. They don't have any way to protect themselves, and will get taken advantage of.

There's actually some precedence for this in India. A city there, called Gurgaon has no municipal government, so services are provided (or not provided) by private entities (usually corporations).


Such a situation is similar to what exists in parts of Afghanistan. Due to history, terrain, and the questionable legitimacy of government, many do not acknowledge the government and live by tribal laws. Pashtun Warlords and other tribes fight to gain power. The Taliban were the last tribe to win and bring order to lawlessness with a somewhat strict Sunni interpretation of Islam. But the people would rather have law and order so they can go on with their farming lives. They don't have the power to fight and rise against them anyway.

So I guess we would amount to living in packs again, creating our own laws, defending against and fighting with rival factions for resources land, or joining with others.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding SE! On the whole, we'd prefer somewhat cleaner grammar, capitalization, and so forth; I have edited your answer to reflect this. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Mar 24, 2016 at 7:59

A culture without law enforcement can and will not exist.

Even small, remote villages two millenia ago had rules, and members of the group would get punished for breaking them.

Plus, with modern-day tech such a setup would be a hand-written gilt invitation to any criminal to simply take over and enforce their own rules.

People are greedy and creative and have a very strong tendency to achieve advantage over their fellows. This does not even need to be true for everybody, it is enough to have very few individuals who are so enclined to result in the above scenario.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, the purpose of world building is to, you know... build new worlds. Just because real human beings in modern times suck doesn't mean that would be the case in a fictional world. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed, @JesseWilliams . But the way i understand the question suggests that the people in this society should be very similar to us. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Mar 23, 2016 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ On some level I agree - but the OP did specify similar technologically. Otherwise the only clue is lack of policing, which would make them vastly different from us :) $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ // , This does not address the question. Please consider editing this post accordingly, or deleting it. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 19:22

It comes down to a matter of what causes it. the various financial, political and social institutions that comprise life in America, are beginning to eat themselves.

I'd hypothesize that things will become far worse long before they ever get better. As the economic disparity gap continues to widen and laws or pressure or other unrest that drives wages up there will be a rapid decline in order. Depending on what energy supply and demand does, and how much longer we can out tech our way out of what is eventually going to be the inevitability of peak oil, the economy will contract significantly. For what we consider modern civilization, this is a chaotic feedback loop amplified exponentially.

What happens after? Well, most agree that the US doesn't have the ability to implement full martial law nationwide. At that point things could go a couple ways. If people demand true change, become aware of the insanity that is cyclical consumption, and intelligently managed their resources à la RBE or NLRBE, the social fabric of society could be rebuilt, or rather established for the first time.

The alternative?

What "The Road" with Viggo Mortensen. No law enforcement there either.

  • $\begingroup$ I can not see how a large part of your post answers the question. $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2016 at 8:40

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