Sunday, September 30, 2007

Police and the Public Sector (Part I)

I want develop a strong libertarian stance towards the structure of police forces. That is, in a completely free society, what would a private police force look like?

After watching a series of police brutality videos on the net, a friend of mine, working from the idea that private property is itself an illegitimate institution, told me that the police are basically only protecting the property and the property owners themselves. The second half of that idea is largely true, and I believe property is one of the underlying reasons, actually, why anyone should have an incentive to hire a security service. It provides a legitimate basis for jurisdiction and protection. The idea the property is inherently wrong is something I am very skeptical about, but here I want to talk only about private versus government police. However, to push this point further, I don't think there is a legitimate reason why any of the security services (police, military, etc.) should be in the hands government operations. I believe they should all be community-based and landowner-based.

But to point something out very quickly, police do not only protect private property. Police protect communities, streets and land-areas as well. My University, for example, has its own community protection service which is perceived to be more courteous and trusted than the governmental police, Tacoma PD. There are many other areas, besides private universities, that are government-owned and publicly-owned and patrolled by governmental police. Parks, for example. And there is always an issue of ownership and jurisdiction involved. These jurisdictions are based on the governmental grid-mapped boundaries and streets (whether federal, state, or local.) Legitimate protection in a free society requires that all these areas be privately or jointly owned by citizenry, not tied to governmental boundaries.

To understand my position, then, what needs to happen is a complete reorientation about our thinking. This is a world in which all land areas are in the hands of private citizenry, where all land areas are dis-owned by governments, (except places like courthouses, etc.)

Consider the entire city of New York, for example. Some areas of the city are extraordinarily crime-ridden areas where there is little police protection provided by the city authorities. There are some places in every city where citizens walk the street in a state of anarchy, dependent solely on the peace and goodwill of other citizens. And suppose that one area, the Times Square area, including the surrounding streets, was completely privately or jointly-owned. The streets are jointly owned by, say, the Times Square Merchants Association. The merchants would know that if crime was rampant in their area, for example with muggings and holdups, then their customers would fade away and would go to competing areas and neighborhoods. Hence it would be to the economic interest to supply efficient and plentiful police protection so that customers would be attracted to their neighborhood.

It would also be in their interest to supply pleasant and courteous protection. Governmental police have no incentive to be efficient or worry about their customers' needs, but they also have the temptation to wield their power in a brutal and coercive manner. Police brutality is a well-known feature of the police system. As my friend pointed out, we could spend our entire lives watching an endless stream of police brutality videos on YouTube our entire lives -- "if we don't kill ourselves before then." Governmental police are held in check only by remote complaints from the harassed citizenry and media. Yet if the Merchants Association's police yield to the temptation to brutalize their customers, the customer's will quickly disappear to cleaner, more courteous areas of the city. Hence the Merchant's Association will see to it that their police are courteous as well as efficient.

This provides the foundation for a network of private quarters to work with each other so supply adequate security services, giving rise to joint-ownerships or joint-jurisdictions. Merchants and landlords would buy into these protection services, and it would quickly become an expected condition for customers and tenants to do business. Just as heat and running water is expected of merchants and landlords, so would security services come to be expected. One can imagine the security services associations pooling together security-insurances and back-up services to deal with quick re-allocations in times of crisis, much like how lending companies will rely on the security of a "lender of last resort" (i.e. a Central Bank.) In general the services would supply all and only the necessary conditions for adequate and efficient police protection.

There should be nothing surprising or startling about the principle of this libertarian society. We are familiar with the effects of inter-location and inter-transportation competition. We are familiar with the competitive spread of new services like broadband, or airports, or railways. When the private railways were being built throughout the nation in the 19th Century, for example, despite 19th Century labor conditions, the early competition provided an energizing force to develop their locations. Each railway tried its best to induce immigration and development in the areas in order to increase profits, land values, and capital values. (Unless they wanted markets and tenants to move to other ports, other cities, and other lands served by competing railroads.) The same principle would be at work if streets and roads were private as well.

We are already familiar with some of the private police protections. Within their property, stores and banks provide courteous guards and watchmen; factories employ watchmen; shopping centers provide security guards; neighborhoods with high crime rates often have their own security services; cities historically provided guards and towers for watchmen to protect from outsiders.

In fact, the title of this blog, The Nightwatchman, is based on the idea that the only purpose to setup a state is for this very purpose: preserving those most basic Lockean and human rights. The "nightwatchman" is a figure borrowed from a medieval merchant's town where guardsmen were paid to protect the city from alien colonizers and raiders. In comparison, other medieval towns relied on Caesar's protection, and had to suffer from the foreign occupation of Roman soldiers who often yielded to brutal and gluttonous temptations like raping women and consuming inventories. Communities, neighborhoods, jointly-owned districts, centers, and lands ought to work on the nightwatchman principle of providing adequate community protection from invaders, and keeping the peace within the walls of the city.

The libertarian society would simply extend this service to streets and roads, as well as entire cities and trade routes. It is not accidental that there are far more assaults and muggings on the streets than inside the walls of stores and banks themselves. This is because the stores are supplied with watchful, private guards, while on the streets we must always rely on the chaos of inefficient and brutal government police protection. Various blocks in New York City, in response to the galloping crime problem on the streets, the practice of hiring of private watchmen to patrol the blocks became common. And soon this became practiced elsewhere. Due to the very nature of the nightwatchman duty, the benefits extended beyond the specific property boundaries into adjacent streets and stores, etc. The voluntary contributions of landowners and landlords effected the tenants and homeowners on the same blocks. This is called a positive externality.

The problem presently is that the streets and roads themselves are not owned by the residents or the landowners. The governments still own these, and hence there is no effective mechanism for gathering the capital to provide the protection on a permanent basis. Further, the street guards cannot legally be armed since they are not on their owner's property, and they cannot, as store and property-owners can, challenge anyone acting acting under suspicion in these areas. Streets and roads need to be owned by communities and landowners, not governments, and the privatization of security services would simultaneously find a healthy niche.

Restructuring society this way does not simply benefit wealthy capitalists, as skeptics assert. Private mechanisms would end the current spectacle of police being considered by many communities as alien imperial colonizers. The empowerment of governmental police does not give rise to "service" toward the people. It invariably leads to the oppression of their communities. Especially communities of color. We have many areas of cities with tenants and people of color which are patrolled by governmental police. The American Indian Movement in the 60s and 70s fought bitterly against a brutal FBI agents and for-hire vigilantes. This year, black communities in St. Louis are tyrannized by the St. Louis Police Department. Governmental forces are alien to the communities, just like the imperial Roman forces who oppressed and tyrannized townsfolk in the Dark Ages. Police supplied, paid for, and controlled by the residents and landowners of the communities themselves would be a completely different story. Much like a well-developed and empowered neighbor-hood watch regime, they would be supplying (and perceived to be supplying) legitimate services to their customers, rather than coercing them on behalf of an alien authority.

A private police force is only one part of the libertarian society, but it is a crucial part. The society works from the principle that individual and jointly voluntary operations are legitimate; foreign and non-voluntary operations are illegitimate actors. Many people have a hard time believing that community and private operations can provide adequate services like this. They would rather rely on governments and Caesars even when it is clearly apparent that these forces do more harm to their societies and other societies than we should accept. The libertarian alternative provides solutions, and these are empirically and historically positive. It is also infinitely more satisfying to see that we can protect ourselves without relying on paternal forces elsewhere.

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