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Crime and Government

Mises Daily: Wednesday, May 12, 1999 by

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The Littleton massacre showed the local police and SWAT team to be bumbling fools who were far more concerned about their own safety than that of the students or citizens.

Actually, this is not just a single case but a systemic problem in all government law enforcement. In his new book, To Serve and Protect, Bruce Benson demonstrates that the government's criminal justice system systematically stimulates crime across America.

The fundamental reason government bureaucrats will never get it right: because they are employed by the state, and not those whom they are supposed to serve, they lack the incentives of private security guards, and, moreover, they lack accountability because face no legal or economic liability for their actions.

Benson relates a case study in government negligence where three female roommates were attacked in their apartment. Two girls upstairs made repeated calls to police while the third roommate was beaten and raped by several men. When her screams stopped the two roommates thought the police must have arrived. They went downstairs where for the next fourteen hours they too were raped, robbed, and beaten. Government courts absolved the police of any liability.

A new study by David Anderson of Centre College estimates the aggregate economic burden of crime in America now exceeds one trillion dollars. A person would have to win every lottery, every week for nearly 400 years to pay this annual cost.

Anderson calculates the cost of the legal system, victim losses, crime-prevention agencies, the cost of private deterrence, the opportunity cost of victims, criminals, prisoners, and even the cost of fear from violent crime.

We all bear this cost whether we have been a victim or not. Our taxes our higher, we are less safe, and respect for law and order in society has fallen. The real crime is that it is our very own criminal justice system that has generated this crime and forced this burden on the American people.

Prohibition laws are a good case in point. Prohibition causes crime and violence to increase. In a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron has demonstrated that there was a very strong statistical relationship between alcohol prohibition and violence.

Further, David Rasmussen and Bruce Benson's 1994 book, The Economic Anatomy of a Drug War shows that the modern drug war and all of its draconian policies actually increased property and violent crimes committed on the American public and made us less safe.

It is now well-established in the literature that police and drug law enforcement bureaucracies are the biggest proponents of prohibitions and are willing to use all legitimate and illegitimate means to expand their power and budgets. Scientific review of the actions of police bureaucrats and unions clearly demonstrates that they have little interest to serve and protect.

Government control of criminal justice has caused numerous "unintended consequences," like the exclusionary rule, which resulted from the slip-shot and unethical practices of government police.

Paul Rubin, in his extensive review of the data, has shown that the exclusionary rule caused a statistically significant increase in crime, ranging from a 3% increase in larceny to a 30% increase in assault. He found that other "protections" like Miranda was also found to cause an increase in crime.

Benson's To Serve and Protect is a crucial contribution because he shows convincingly that a private system would work much better than government. His research demonstrates that completely private criminal justice systems have existed and work effectively, only to be crowded out by the criminal public sector. Furthermore, he shows that every aspect of the current criminal justice system has been successfully privatized somewhere in America, opening up the possibility for its return.

You might be surprised to know, for example, that more disputes are resolved in private courts than in government courts, that there are more private security guards than police, and that private companies have built their own prisons without a government contract.

The evidence indicates to me that in the absence of government's criminal justice system that crime as we now know it would virtually disappear under a completely private criminal justice system. Simply put, crime is big business for government, but crime would not pay on the free market.

* * * * *

Mark Thornton is O.P. Alford III resident scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.


Papers by Bruce Benson (in PDF):

"An Evolutionary Contractarian View of Primitive Law: The Institutions and Incentives Arising Under Customary Indian Law"

"The Impetus for Recognizing Private Property and Adopting Ethical Behavior in a Market Economy: Natural Law, Government Law, or Evolving Self-Interest"

Hans-Hermann Hoppe has written a rigorous defense of market production of security services. See his "The Private Production of Defense".

See also Murray Rothbard's wide-ranging application of market principles to areas usually reserved for the state: Power and Market.