Privatize the Police?

A piece from Murray Rothbard’s book – For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto – written in 1973.

I am not saying we should privatise the police. There mere thought is shocking for someone who has been brought up with the idea that it is govt’s role t provide us with security and it appoints police to d the job.

But why not discuss and think through the issues? Why should one be discovering all these supposed libertarian and market  supporting works outside of economic teaching? These are the kind of debates which widen the scope of economic thinking:

Abolition of the public sector means, of course, that all pieces of land, all land areas, including streets and roads, would be owned privately, by individuals, corporations, cooperatives, or any other voluntary groupings of individuals and capital. The fact that all streets and land areas would be private would by itself solve many of the seemingly insoluble problems of private operation. What we need to do is to reorient our thinking to consider a world in which all land areas are privately owned.

Let us take, for example, police protection. How would police protection be furnished in a totally private economy?

Part of the answer becomes evident if we consider a world of totally private land and street ownership. Consider the Times Square area of New York City, a notoriously crime-ridden area where there is little police protection furnished by the city authorities. Every New Yorker knows, in fact, that he lives and walks the streets, and not only Times Square, virtually in a state of “anarchy,” dependent solely on the normal peacefulness and good will of his fellow citizens. Police protection in New York is minimal, a fact dramatically revealed in a recent week-long police strike when, lo and behold!, crime in no way increased from its normal state when the police are supposedly alert and on the job.

At any rate, suppose that the Times Square area, including the streets, was privately owned, say by the “Times Square Merchants Association.” The merchants would know full well, of course, that if crime was rampant in their area, if muggings and holdups abounded, then their customers would fade away and would patronize competing areas and neighborhoods. Hence, it would be to the economic interest of the merchants’ association to supply efficient and plentiful police protection, so that customers would be attracted to, rather than repelled from, their neighborhood. Private business, after all, is always trying to attract and keep its customers.

But what good would be served by attractive store displays and packaging, pleasant lighting and courteous service, if the customers may be robbed or assaulted if they walk through the area?

The merchants’ association, furthermore, would be induced, by their drive for profits and for avoiding losses, to supply not only sufficient police protection but also courteous and pleasant protection. Governmental police have not only no incentive to be efficient or worry about their “customers'” needs; they also live with the ever-present temptation to wield their power of force in a brutal and coercive manner.

“Police brutality” is a well-known feature of the police system, and it is held in check only by remote complaints of the harassed citizenry. But if the private merchants’ police should yield to the temptation of brutalizing the merchants’ customers, those customers will quickly disappear and go elsewhere. Hence, the merchants’ association will see to it that its police are courteous as well as plentiful. Such efficient and high-quality police protection would prevail throughout the land, throughout all the private streets and land areas.

Factories would guard their street areas, merchants their streets, and road companies would provide safe and efficient police protection for their toll roads and other privately owned roads. The same would be true for residential neighborhoods.

Consumer choices will determine the police services and not the government:

How could private enterprise and the free market possibly provide such service? How could police, legal systems, judicial services, law enforcement, prisons — how could these be provided in a free market?

We have already seen how a great deal of police protection, at the least, could be supplied by the various owners of streets and land areas. But we now need to examine this entire area systematically. In the first place, there is a common fallacy, held even by most advocates of laissez-faire, that the government must supply “police protection,” as if police protection were a single, absolute entity, a fixed quantity of something which the government supplies to all. But in actual fact there is no absolute commodity called “police protection” any more than there is an absolute single commodity called “food” or “shelter.”

It is true that everyone pays taxes for a seemingly fixed quantity of protection, but this is a myth. In actual fact, there are almost infinite degrees of all sorts of protection. For any given person or business, the police can provide everything from a policeman on the beat who patrols once a night, to two policemen patrolling constantly on each block, to cruising patrol cars, to one or even several round-the-clock personal bodyguards.

Furthermore, there are many other decisions the police must make, the complexity of which becomes evident as soon as we look beneath the veil of the myth of absolute “protection.” How shall the police allocate their funds which are, of course, always limited as are the funds of all other individuals, organizations, and agencies? How much shall the police invest in electronic equipment? fingerprinting equipment? detectives as against uniformed police? patrol cars as against foot police, etc.?

The point is that the government has no rational way to make these allocations. The government only knows that it has a limited budget. Its allocations of funds are then subject to the full play of politics, boondoggling, and bureaucratic inefficiency, with no indication at all as to whether the police department is serving the consumers in a way responsive to their desires or whether it is doing so efficiently. The situation would be different if police services were supplied on a free, competitive market. In that case, consumers would pay for whatever degree of protection they wish to purchase.

Hmmm..

There is more to the discussion here in favor of privatising and difficulty of the same.

 

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