PRIVATE POLICE
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Posted 8/10/09
A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be
more docile in its hands even for beneficial purposes–
will find that with small men no great thing can really be
accomplished; and that the perfection of the machinery to
which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail
it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order
that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred
to banish.

– John Stuart Mill

There are those to whom the question of whether to privatize
the nation’s police forces is mere academic whimsy—a question
of consequence only to the eggheads and cranks of the Academy,
not to those who so solidly inhabit the “real world.” Most of
these believe the enforcement of law to be the exclusive province
of the state. Such a belief is rooted in an obvious falsehood: the
notion that there is a unique and singular commodity called “enforcement
of law.” There is, in fact, no such singular commodity.

Enforcement of law is a phenomenon that admits of infinite
degrees and permutations. Take the case of a jewelry store. The
theft of its wares is a crime under the law. But the jewelry store
does not rely exclusively—or even primarily—on the majesty of
the state’s enforcement of that law for its own security. The jewelry
store engages the services of manifold private protection
outfits: it takes out an insurance policy on its gems, which are
kept under a locked glass display case, which can only be opened
by an employee, who is under the ever-vigilant eye of video
monitoring equipment, and who watches the customers with the
aid of convex mirrors, and keeps the store’s cash in a locked
vault, which is in a back room, which is in turn locked at closing
time, and the store’s alarm activated as the employees leave
and the armed night watchmen arrive. All of these are provided
by private companies in the business of providing “security,” and
all of which should give pause to those who consider the enforcement
of law uniquely the franchise of the government.

None of this is to deny that the enterprise of law enforcement
in America is largely the self-incurred responsibility of the
state. But with responsibility comes reckoning. The government
maintains police forces which collectively discharge a duty to
serve and protect the law-abiding citizenry. Have the government’s
police forces fulfilled this duty?

The evidence suggests unambiguously that they have not.
Crime rates per 100,000 people—whether measured by total
crime or violent crime or property crime—increased by not less
than 100% in the decade of the 1960s.2 Such evidence does little
to commend the service and protection afforded us by our public
police. That there has issued forth, against such unfriendly
evidence, an argument that calls upon us to blame for the surge
not the police, but rather the increasing tendency on the part of
the public to report crime, is testimony to the inexhaustible
malleability of the arguments of the American left.

Factual agreement, it seems, attaches to only the most incontrovertible
of data: the murder rates. It is generally conceded
that swollen murder rates reflect something other than a growing
tendency to report the deed—what with corpses presenting a
rather conspicuous presence and murdered persons a conspicuous
absence.3 And the murder rates in large American cities between
the years of 1963 and 1971—a period of less than a decade—escalated
at a show-stopping 100%. This leads an urbanite to the
clear conclusion that he is more likely to be murdered than was
an American soldier likely to be killed in World War II combat—
a datum in which the safety afforded to American citizens
by the public police fails to compare favorably with that afforded
American soldiers by the Nazis.

Such a dismal failure on the part of the public police lends a
terrible immediacy to the call for privatization. The following
will attempt to sketch out the workings of private protection agencies
while meeting the most significant objections.

PRIVATIZATION AND THE POOR
It will be roundly objected that private policing is undesirable
insofar as only the wealthy could afford to implement it,
leaving the poor without mechanism of legal protection. There
are several solutions to this contingency consistent with the operation
of a free market in law enforcement. First, however, it must
be made clear that a perfect system of law enforcement is not,
this side of paradise, an option. Therefore, in order to overcome
the argument for privatization, it does not suffice merely to expose
therein a flaw or potential flaw, e.g. that the poor could not
(sufficiently) afford police protection. It must be concurrently
demonstrated that the public enforcement of law is more effective
in these regards vis-à-vis the private. Given that America’s
poorest areas are among its most crime-ridden—so much that ad
hoc citizen-volunteer patrols are currently mobilized to augment
the disintegrating capacities of public police—one should expect
no such demonstration to materialize.

Now, onward to the issue of how the poor shall obtain protection
via the free market. The poor tend not to own their own
homes—the poor, it is safe to generalize, are a tenant lot. They
inhabit temporarily and voluntarily the property of a landlord
and they do so because he has offered housing and related amenities
that justify incurring the cost at which they are offered. In
order to attract tenants, then, a landlord will need to provide
police protection for his property and its inhabitants, or else he
will be quickly out of his property and even quicker out of his
tenants. The Bates Motel was never much of a hot spot.

And when the poor are not on their (rented) property, they
are, as a matter of definition, on someone else’s. There, as participants
in the so-called free rider problem, the poor shall be the
beneficiaries of “free” police protection.6 Toward clarification,
here is an analogy. There are products for which the bother of
charging money outweighs the prospects for profit; these products
are thus offered free of charge to the individual user, more or
less in affiliation with the sale of coadunate goods. Examples of
this phenomenon abound: book matches are given away with and
without the sale of tobacco products; bathrooms, whether in restaurants
or department stores or gas stations, are often open to
customers and the general public alike. Police protection could
operate likewise.

Private property owners using their property for commercial
purposes would employ a protection agency to ensure that it is
commercial, and not criminal, activity that reigns.8 Those of the
poor—and the not-poor—would thereby enjoy police protection
while on private, commercial property. This arrangement is, to a
large extent, operative at present. One fears not that one’s purchases
will be swiped in a shopping mall—there are mall security
guards to prevent that; and one frets not at all, in a bank, that
one’s cash will be lifted—there are armed security guards to discourage
such things. It is when one is on public property, such as
Central Park, protected by a public police that halts the criminal
elements much as a sieve halts water, that one counts one’s
self lucky to escape with life, limb, and maidenhead preserved.
To illuminate the difference between the public and the private
enforcement of law, simply imagine the rate of criminal activity
at Central Park as prevailing at, say, Macy’s.

There is yet another manner in which the free market could
confer security services upon the poor. Victims of a crime—poor or
otherwise—could be awarded by the (private) courts a claim for
damages in an amount which corresponds to the gravity of the
crime. Such a claim would be transferable property.9 Victims,
then, would have the option of selling a claim for damages to a
collection agency, which would proceed to apprehend the responsible
party and exact the fee. (Just as many poor plaintiffs command
the services of a lawyer by agreeing to split any damages
forthcoming.) This action may be combined with a contractual
agreement between the victim and the agency to again collaborate
should a further crime be perpetrated against the former
party. Such a pact would cement the initial relationship between
the victim and the collection agency, with the agency’s
commitment to exact future incurred damages engendering the
protection of the victim via the power of deterrence. That is to
say, the collection agency that contracted to so serve a given individual
would not provide that individual with active law-enforcement,
e.g., cops on foot, or bicycle, or steed, or in cruisers; rather,
the contract itself would provide the individual with passive
law enforcement, would ward off the bad guys. This deterrence
effect could be amplified by arranging for the contract to be public
knowledge, much as the owner of a car places prominently notice
of an effective car alarm.

PRIVATIZATION AND CORRUPTION
It is widely held that private firms, organized for the enforcement
of law within the parameters implied by profit-making,
would be susceptible to bribery and corruption. The argument
is roughly as follows: private protection agencies are motivated
by the lure of profits; it would pay them, therefore, to engage in
thuggery, or to protect others who do so.

There is manifest in this argument a fundamental failure to
comprehend the workings of a free market. For one thing, private
protection agencies, as compared to the state, would be unable to
exercise coercion in the pursuit of clientele. A private protection
agency must convince potential clients that it is possessed of both
the wherewithal and the resolve to provide effective enforcement
of the law. Providing a guarantee to the customer is one
manner of doing so. Therefore, it is likely, or in any case possible,
that the protection agencies would woo clients by offering to insure
their lives and property. Manifestly, the protection agency
that underwrites its clients has a strong incentive to protect them
vigorously—and a strong disincentive to countenance bribery and
corruption. Crimes perpetrated against its clients then become
crimes paid for by the agency, and only an agency bent on masochism
would allow for its officers to indulge criminal conduct.

In fact, it is the public police force that stands to profit from
look-the-other-way law enforcement. After all, arriving at its
funding, as it does, from (coerced) tax revenues, the public police
will not endure economic hardship if and when it fails to arrest
the onslaught of crime. Therefore, it pays for its officers to accept
bribes from the perpetrators of crime, offering in exchange clemency.
This fact was given neon prominence in the Knapp Commission
Report on Police Corruption, published in 1972, which found
virtually every office in the entire NYPD to be corrupt. Moreover, if
indeed criminal activity grows while the public is being “protected”
by an unconcerned public police, it is very likely that the police
budget will increase as well. Crime, after all, can pay. Which is
not so much why the government runs the police as because the
government runs the police.

THE HUBRIS OF CENTRAL CONTROL
The officials of the state, possessed of but fragmented knowledge,
nevertheless presume to determine by fiat the necessary
degree of police protection for the entire citizenry. It is axiomatic
that such charlatanry will lead to the inefficient use of scarce
resources. The state cannot succeed because it squelches that vital
power—human freedom—but for want of which the machinery of
society might work more justly.
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