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Police States and Private Markets

Mises Daily: Saturday, August 23, 2014 by

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The following is the transcript from a talk delivered at the 2014 Houston Mises Circle. Video of the talk is available here.

I’d like to speak with you today not about the NSA or any of the vast federal spying apparatus that has so eroded our personal and financial privacy; nor about the federal healthcare bureaucracy that undermines our medical privacy; nor about TSA demanding access to our physical bodies at the airport; nor about the countless drug laws, smoking laws, helmet laws, ID laws,and Big Gulp laws that come together to make up our soft police state, or nanny state if you prefer. Now I say “soft” police state because while we know America is heading down a very dangerous path, we should respect those who suffered in the very real, not-soft police states of the twentieth century. There is no comparison, and we shouldn’t use the term lightly. But if we don’t see the growing parallels between totalitarian societies in history and modern day America we have only ourselves to blame.

What I would like to discuss today is the business end of the police state, which is to say the police themselves. Not federal agents necessarily, but garden variety local cops and sheriffs. For many people, police represent their only real, tangible contact with the state. Sure, they pay their taxes and comply with a million petty government rules and regulations, but in their day-to-day lives — in their homes, at work, driving around, walking around — they don’t necessarily feel or see the heavy hand of government. So for the average, law-abiding American, who is not likely to come in contact with Mr. Obama, the local congressman, or even the local mayor, police officers serve as the most visible reminder of the state. And hopefully most of us don’t interact with police much at all, beyond maybe the occasional speeding ticket or fender bender. But for those Americans who do find themselves interacting with police today, the actions, attitudes, and mindset of those police officers is likely to have changed quite a bit from, say, thirty years ago, and changed dramatically for the worse.

The Peace Officer Archetype

So whatever happened to “peace officers”?

Today when we use the term peace officer, it sounds antiquated and outdated. I’m sure most people in the room under forty have never heard the term actually used by anyone; we might as well be talking about buggy whips or floppy disks. But in the 1800s, and really through the 1960s, the term was used widely in America to refer generally to lawmen, whether sheriffs, constables, troopers, or marshals. Today the old moniker of peace officer has been almost eliminated in popular usage, replaced by police officer or the more in vogue “law enforcement officer.”

The terminology has certain legal differences in different settings; in some places peace officers and police officers are indeed different individuals with different functions, jurisdictions, or powers to execute warrants. But nobody says peace officer anymore, and it’s not just a coincidence. The evolution of language, particularly when driven by the political class and media, can have powerful implications for all of us. And I submit that the morphing of peace officers into police officers is much more than just linguistic.

Now the archetype of a peace officer is mostly fictitious — sheriffs in westerns often come to mind, stern lawman carrying Colt revolvers called “peacemakers.” But the Wyatt Earps of western myth weren’t always so peaceful, and often — at least in movies — used their peacemakers to shoot up the place. And while Americans today can’t really relate to the Old West, we do have enough institutional memory — that’s a polite way of saying old people — to paint a pretty accurate picture of the trusted peace officer of Norman Rockwell’s America in the first half of the twentieth century. Fictitious or not, whole generations of Americans grew up with an apple pie view of the peace officer as a friend, not an agent of the state to be feared.

Sheriff Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show is perhaps the best and most facile example of what it once meant, at least in the American psyche, to be a peace officer. As a peace officer, Sheriff Taylor exhibits four key traits that profoundly distinguish him from most modern police officers.

  1. First, he is part of the community. He does not see himself — nor do others see him — as somehow apart from the residents of Mayberry. He does not exhibit an “us vs. them” mentality that seems so prevalent in many police officers today. He does not see himself first and foremost as a government employee or union member. He does not resent the people he protects, but instead considers himself a fellow citizen. In other words, Sheriff Taylor is a true civilian.

  2. Second, he truly seeks to maintain peace within Mayberry, and sees his job as keeping the town safe, quiet, happy — peaceful. He is a peacekeeper, not an enforcer. In fact, he seldom uses force. He does not want a crime wave in Mayberry to justify an increase in his pay or budget; on the contrary, he would view an increase in local crime as a personal failure. He is apt to downplay, rather than exaggerate, the importance of his job. His focus is on creating an environment that discourages crime in the first place.

  3. Third, in every instance Sheriff Taylor attempts to smooth over and defuse problems, rather than escalate them. He invariably looks for simple, common sense, polite answers to conflicts, rather than using his legal authority to threaten or arrest. He rarely concerns himself with technical application of the law; but rather uses his judgment to solve problems and make them go away with the least fuss possible. He never makes a bad situation worse.

    For example, in one memorable scene Andy and his deputy Barney Fife have been summoned to the dilapidated home of an angry man who is causing a disturbance. Upon seeing the two officers, the man promptly begins firing his old rifle at them from a second story window. Barney reacts as you might expect, pulling out his own rifle, calling in reinforcements, and barricading himself behind the squad car for a shootout. Andy, by contrast, knows the man to be somewhat cranky and believes he can be talked out of it. So he crouches over, zig-zags his way to the front door, enters the house, and then emerges in short order with the suspect, who is now much calmer. The sheriff has, as usual, talked him out of it. No arrest is made, if you can imagine that.

  4. Fourth, Andy genuinely cares about and tries to help the people of Mayberry, having their best interests at heart. See, for example, his gentle treatment of Otis, the town drunk. As a result, he has the trust, admiration, and respect of the townspeople.

Now of course as I mentioned, The Andy Griffith Show was fictional. And there’s no doubt that many, many small town sheriffs in America over the decades have been anything but peace officers. Yet it’s fascinating that just a few decades ago Americans could identify with the character of Sheriff Taylor as a recognizable ideal.

Contrast with Today

Fast forward to 2014, and clearly Norman Rockwell’s America is mostly gone. Obviously the situation today is very different, and we all know how far things have fallen. Police have suffered a very serious decline over the last several decades, both in terms of their public image and the degree to which average citizens now often fear police officers rather than trust them. As an aside, poor and minority communities have long been less trusting, or perhaps less naïve, about the real nature of police. But today that jaundiced view has found its way into middle class consciousness.

Now the subject of police misconduct and the growing militarization and lawlessness of police departments could fill many hours, so we won’t try to cover such a broad topic today. And several libertarian writers are doing a great job of documenting police malfeasance; in my opinion William Norman Grigg is the best out there on the subject.

But allow me to mention a few particularly egregious recent examples of police escalating and harming, rather than protecting and serving.

  1. The first case is truly heartbreaking, as a 90-pound, mentally ill young man very recently was killed by three so-called law enforcement officers from three different agencies in Southport, North Carolina. He was apparently having a schizophrenic episode and brandishing a screwdriver when police arrived in answer to his family’s 911 call asking for “help.” Some help. The first two officers managed to calm the young man down, but the third escalated the situation, demanding that the other officers use a taser to subdue him. Once his body hit the ground the young man was brutally shot at close range by the third officer, for reasons that remain unclear.

    So here we see modern police at work. Escalation. Aggression. A lack of common sense, making a bad situation worse. Overriding concern for the safety of police officers, regardless of the consequences for those being “protected.” These are the not the hallmarks of peace officers, to put it mildly.

  2. A second case you may have heard about happened in Fullerton, California in 2011. Will Grigg has written extensively about this horrific and brutal police crime, where a homeless man was sadistically suffocated and beaten to death by six police officers after a routine loitering stop. The victim was fairly slender, and though he did have a history of mental health issues, there was no trace of alcohol or drugs found in his postmortem toxicology report. The attack itself took place over nearly ten minutes, and the victim suffered numerous broken bones in addition to the constriction of his airway by the force of six men sitting and laying on him. During the beating he begged and pleaded for his life, but to no avail. Once he was adequately “subdued,” the police made sure to take their time summoning an ambulance. He died a few days later from his injuries. Of course the officers claimed they were merely using justifiable force, and criminal charges for second degree murder and manslaughter against two of the officers involved recently resulted in acquittal. Charges against a third officer were subsequently dropped.

  3. Now depending on one’s point of view, these officers may be seen as nothing more than vicious gang members guilty of murder, or they may be seen (by an exceedingly charitable supporter of “law and order”) simply as overzealous cops involved in an unfortunate situation that got out of hand. But in no universe can they be seen as peace officers.

    Another troubling development that demonstrates how far we’ve strayed from the peace officer ideal can be seen in the increasing militarization of local police departments. The Florida city of Ft. Pierce (population 42,000) recently acquired an MRAP vehicle, which stands for “mine response ambush protection” for the bargain price of $2,000. The US military is unloading hundreds of armored tank-like vehicles as Operation Enduring Freedom winds down — and it’s also unloading thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq combat vets into the ranks of local police and sheriffs. The Ft. Pierce police chief states, “The military was pretty much handing them out. ... You know, it is overkill, until we need it.”

    A similar type of vehicle known as a BATT, or “ballistic armored tactical transport,” has found a home just down the road in Lake Jackson, Texas, hometown to Dr. Paul. This BATT employs thermal imaging cameras and holds up to a dozen officers, which is puzzling since Lake Jackson has a population of only 27,000 and a crime rate, both for violent and property crimes, of less than half the national average. Now Ron and Carol undoubtedly think of their town as a bucolic place where they raised their five children, but apparently it is ripe for a full-scale riot necessitating an armored response.

    Of course these are merely anecdotes, but we should not be surprised when military hardware, former military personnel, and a military mindset find their way into our local police departments. And increased federal funding of otherwise cash-strapped local police departments only weakens the connection between police officers and the citizens they ostensibly serve.

    The Austrian Perspective

    So how did we go from “peace” officers to “police” officers to “law enforcement” officers anyway? How did we go from “protect and serve” to “escalate and harm”? And what is behind the militarization of police departments and the rise of the warrior cop, as one writer terms it?

    Well, as Austrians and libertarians we should hardly be surprised, and we certainly don’t need a sociological study to understand what’s happening. The deterioration in police conduct, and the militarization of local police forces, quite simply and quite predictably mirrors the rise of the total state itself.

    We know that state monopolies invariably provide worse and worse services for more and more money. Police services are no exception. When it comes to your local police, there is no shopping around, there is no customer service, and there is no choice. Without market competition, market price signals, and market discipline, government has no ability or incentive to provide what people really want, which is peaceful and effective security for themselves, their families, their homes, and their property. As with everything government purports to provide, the public wants Andy Griffith but ends up with the Terminator.

    There is no lack of Austrian scholarship in this area, the intersection between security services, state monopolies, public goods, and private alternatives. But if you’re interested in the topic, I would initially direct you toward two excellent primary sources to learn more about how markets could provide security services that not only produce less crime at a lower cost, but also provide those services in a peaceful manner.

    My first recommendation is Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, which opens with a chapter entitled “Defense Services on the Free Market.” Right off the bat Rothbard points out the inherent contradiction between property rights and the argument that state-provided police services are a necessary precondition to securing such property rights:

    Economists have almost invariably and paradoxically assumed that the market must be kept free by the use of invasive and unfree actions — in short, by governmental institutions outside the market nexus.

    In other words, we’re told that state provided police serves a necessary precondition to market activity. But Rothbard points out that many goods and services are indispensable to functioning markets, such as land, food, clothing, and shelter for market participants. Rothbard asks, “must all these goods and services therefore be supplied by the State and the State only?”

    No, he answers:

    A supply of defense services on the free market would mean maintaining the axiom of a free society, namely, that there be no use of physical force except in defense against those using force to invade person or property. This would imply the complete absence of a State apparatus or government. ... Defense in the free society (including police protection) would therefore have to be supplied by people or firms who (a) gained their revenue voluntarily rather than by coercion and (b) did not — as the State does — arrogate to themselves a compulsory monopoly of police or judicial protection.

    Another excellent starting point is Hans Hoppe’s essay The Private Production of Defense. Here Dr. Hoppe makes the case that our long-held belief in collective security is nothing more than a myth, and that in fact state protection of private property — our system of police, courts, and jails — is incompatible with property rights and economic reality.

    Speaking at the Mises Institute Brazil in 2011, Dr. Hoppe summarized the fundamental problem with state police services:

    The state is ... a monopolist of taxation, i.e., it can unilaterally, without the consent of everyone affected, determine the price that its subjects must pay for the state’s provision of (perverted) law. However, a tax-funded life-and-property protection agency is a contradiction in terms: an expropriating property protector. (emphasis added) Motivated, as everyone is, by self-interest and the disutility of labor, but equipped with the unique power to tax, state agents will invariably strive to maximize expenditures on protection — and almost all of a nation’s wealth can conceivably be consumed by the cost of protection — and at the same time to minimize the actual production of protection. The more money one can spend and the less one must work for it, the better off one will be.

    Both Rothbard and Hoppe discuss an “insurance” model for preventing crime and aggression, which makes sense from a market perspective. Rothbard posits that private police services likely would be provided by insurance companies which already insure lives and property, for the commonsense reason that “... it would be to their direct advantage to reduce the amount of crime as much as possible.”

    Hoppe takes the insurance concept further, arguing that:

    The better the protection of insured property, the lower are the damage claims and hence an insurer’s loss. Thus, to provide efficient protection appears to be in every insurer’s own financial interest. ... Obviously, anyone offering protection services must appear able to deliver on his promises in order to find clients. That is, he must possess the economic means — the manpower as well as the physical resources — necessary to accomplish the task of dealing with the dangers, actual or imagined, of the real world. On this count insurance agencies appear to be perfect candidates.

    Compare this to the “growth” model of most local police departments, which continuously lobby their city councils for more money and more officers!

    Now admittedly the private provision of police and security services is a complex and controversial subject, and we’re only touching on it today. But rest assured that if you read further, both Rothbard and Hoppe address the many common objections raised when discussing private police: attendant issues like political borders; differing legal systems; physical jurisdiction and violence among competing firms; the actuarial problems behind insuring against physical aggression; free riders; and so forth.

    Certainly Rothbard and Hoppe’s prescription is radical, and perhaps hard to embrace for the average person who has always conflated security with government.

    But, increasingly society is moving in the direction of private security regardless: consider for example, complex insurance networks and indemnification arrangements across borders; private arbitration of disputes; the rise of gated communities and neighborhoods utilizing private security agencies; and fraud prevention mechanisms provided by private businesses like eBay and PayPal.

    These trends can only intensify as governments, whether federal, state, or local, increasingly must spend more and more of their budgets to service entitlement, pension, and debt promises.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, I’ll simply say that market activity is peaceful activity, while state action always implicitly or expressly involves force. If we want our police to act more like Sheriff Andy Taylor and less like militarized aggressors, we must look to private models — models where our interests are aligned with security providers. Only then can we bring back true“peace” officers, private security providers focused on preventing crime and defusing conflicts in cost effective and peaceful ways.

    If we don’t, we may find the line between cops and criminals blurring more and more every day — like the scene with Harvey Keitel in the forgettable 1997 movie City of Industry (which, incidentally, borrows this line from a much better 1942 movie entitled This Gun for Hire, with Alan Ladd playing the Harvey Keitel character).

    Looking for a man who killed his brother, Keitel breaks into the house of the man’s girlfriend and holds her at gunpoint, demanding the whereabouts of the killer. She claims ignorance, and asks Keitel why he doesn’t go to the police. After a dramatic pause, where Keitel almost leers at the camera, he responds like Bogart: “I’m my own police.”

    It’s a brave new world out there folks, and Sheriff Andy Taylor is starting to resemble Harvey Keitel. For now, we are all our own police.