Saturday, January 31, 2009

Against Monopoly Police Power

Dear reader,

Today I was inspired to write about one of my pet peeves, the growing militarization and fascist nature of government police in the USA, by an article blogged by Dylan Hales and published in the Lew Rockwell website. The article is called "Elect the Cops", a proposal to make all law enforcement positions elected offices. The idea is to bring police work back in harmony with the population by having them elected by their peers; this is hoped to reduce the alarming amount of police brutality and the resulting fear and resentment incurred by the citizens.

Apart from the logistics problem of having hundreds more names on the ballot, I would venture that few would go into a career in police work if their employment was not guaranteed beyond the next election cycle. But even if those impracticalities were surmounted, we here at the Anarchy School have stronger reasons to oppose the idea.

Here is my email reply to Mr. Hales.


Dear Mr. Hales,

While your idea is interesting, I would invite you to consider an even better solution: free-market police services. The problem with bad policing is essentially the same problem seen with all government-supplied services, i.e. monopolies never serve anyone but the monopoly-holder very well. While you may argue that elections would instill an element of competition into police work, you only need to look at the near-identicality of the major political parties to see that this is a chimera.

Most people immediately object to the idea of competing private police agencies on the grounds that government should have a monopoly on police power, that it should have the power to trump any private criminal gang, for example. But competing private police agencies do, in fact, exist, e.g. mall cops and gated community guards; and malls and gated communities suffer far less crime than business districts and neighborhoods that share the government roads. Since the private police agencies have a vested interest in keeping their customers happy, they virtually never employ insult and intimidation, let alone brutality, against anyone. Instead, their presence ensures the peace and security of their customers, exactly what the concept of "peace officer" was originally intended to do.

So, in a free market, instead of the citizens having taxes forcibly taken from them for a "service" that they often fear and resent, each citizen could decide exactly how much protection is needed for him/herself and family, and shop for that level of protection among numerous competing firms, very much like you and I shop for insurance now. Many younger people might decide they need no special protection (especially if the right to carry firearms was universally honored). They would then be free to spend their hard-earned money on something they need or want more.

Another common objection is the belief that competition in law enforcement would inevitably devolve into mini-wars, much like the Mafia and ghetto gang-banger wars, with the strongest eventially winning out and setting up a monopoly anyway. But that argument falls apart when we remember that illicit gangs exist primarily to supply goods and services that the biggest gang - the government - has forbidden to the people who want them. Prohibitionism creates the black markets which draw in the most ruthless of the private criminal class, an unlikely event without government interference in the market.

Thus, I contend that fully privatizing police services would be far superior to electing police officers, which does nothing to address the root cause of the problem, which is monopoly government itself. It might even make matters worse; wouldn't it be possible, if not probable, that the majority of citizens would vote for the most ruthless cops in some neighborhoods, or the most corrupt cops in others? In those cases, the minority would be unable to opt out, short of moving, an option that is often unavailable to our poorest citizens.


Glen Litsinger


Now, that was the short version of an argument that has been fully articulated by Murray Rothbard and many others in the anarcho-capitalist literature. I think we can safely say the following:

Free market anarchism answers one of the hardest questions in political philosophy: Who polices the police? The answer is: The Market does.

We'll be developing more on this line of thinking as time goes on. In the meantime, I invite my readers to comment, question, and debate the issue.

Glen Litsinger


  1. When will common sense rule? Can we wake up from the Matrix?

  2. Good questions, Producer. Can you give us your own answers... or guesses?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Government prohibition gives rise to black markets.
    If marijuana was legalized in Baltimore, I think that deaths due to gangs would drastically decrease. People would not have to resort to violent force to solve disputes, and a real "green" market would prosper.

    But, black markets are policed by force precisely because they have no rule of law. In the absence of law, power/force rules. So what if you have a private police force, there is no rule of law. Whoever is richest will get what they want. Soon enough, the contracted police will be sending goons to extract payment for their "protection" like any totalitarian government.

    It's in human nature to want power. Unless anarchy will (as Marxists believe communism will) change human nature for the better, there is no utopia. Base politics and power struggles will prevail.

  5. Glen,

    Great post. Very thought provoking. Yet, it seems that the implementation of this idea may lead to very powerful corporations whose interest would be to maintain large customer bases. To do this, a corporation must maintain the highest level of public opinion possible to survive the wonderful game of capitalism until they are the dominant entity.

    My question is how do we preserve the freedom of the press and the distribution of knowledge to the consumers when these large powers have an extremely highly vested interest in quelling this free speech, and obviously the physical force to do it? If I were in charge of one of these companies, and I knew that my self-preservation depended on the silencing of a reporter or even a customer, I wouldn't hesitate to destroy that possibility, the only risk being the repercussions from his/her self-defense contractor, which could likely be smaller than mine.

    It seems to me that tyranny could still eventually exist even if we eliminate the monopoly of the government, since the distribution of the power of policing may eventually degrade into one or a few dominant corporations. This happens currently in our society (see ClearChannel, Walmart), the consumer selecting the best value for his/herself, since we all ultimately serve our own self-interests, be they social or physical.

    There will almost certainly emerge a superior police contractor which will eventually eliminate, buy out, or intimidate competition, taking control of the industry. The only possible recourse for the people would be an uprising against them, involving loads of bloodshed on both sides, which is very undesirable.

    Now, one could argue against that point by saying that the customers could simply deprive this evil monopolistic corporation of their funds, stopping their abuse dead in its tracks. I propose that this would not be a good solution unless it was done en masse simultaneously, and with complete lack of revenge from the large number of employees said company has. Alternatives to the company would be defamed in the press by coercion, and the customers of the bad company would live in fear of breaking ties since the protection would be weaker under a different contractor, and would probably cost more due to the danger involved with even competing with the dominant force. Customers leaving the bad company might even be attacked physically by misguided employees of the bad company, who would believe the propaganda that would no doubt be distributed amongst the ranks.

    There is also the problem of jurisdiction. If there is a lot of competition between contractors, how do we prevent Company A from helping the customers of Company B? Do we even allow this to happen? Does Company A then charge Company A for these services? How is this case pursued? How do we allow for the assistance of those who cannot afford to employ one of these contractors?

    Or, do the companies have exclusive rights to their customers to prevent all these jurisdictional problems (and there would be many of them, I'm sure)? If so, how do we guarantee the protection of the poor who cannot afford to employ these companies?

    What appears to be missing are checks and balances, which the government currently provides through elected office. If the police force becomes corrupt in a city, the mayor may be blamed, and it is in his own self-interest to fix the situation, since he will come up for re-election.

    I'm looking forward to your response, and any discussion otherwise.

    P.S. This site is awesome.

  6. "Does Company A then charge Company A for these services?"

    That's supposed to say Company B. I apologize.

  7. trpik said:

    "But, black markets are policed by force precisely because they have no rule of law."

    Exactly the opposite is true. Black markets only exist because the rule of law has been improperly applied to a market. Minus the bad law, there is no reason for force. Peaceful trade is assured. Now, there may be law that appropriately applies to market that does not give rise to a black market, but I don't think that's what you had in mind.

  8. ralree,

    The first answer to your concerns is that corporations as we know them are government inventions and would not exist in an anarchic society. The reason that they do exist now, and have the power that you fear would lead to tyranny, is precisely because they've been protected and selectively favored by government. Without the government's guns and backing, here are a few of the coercive and destructive activities of businesses that will go away:

    1. Walmart, Costco, and many others seizing land for their stores through eminent domain.

    2. Oil, coal and timber companies leasing huge swatches of wilderness from the government to clearcut, stripmine, and otherwise foul and leave to the "public" to clean up; they would have to buy it at very expensive fair market prices and would have every incentive to carefully maintain their property, just as a homeowner does.

    3. Company-sponsored violence on any level, for any reason. The only examples of companies using physical force for any reason, that I know of, was during the rise of powerful unions that were inspired by Marxist philosophy, and could only exist with government protection. In a free market, workers negotiate individual contracts with employers, not collective ones.

    Now, give me an example, in the relative "Wild West" business climate of the entire 19th Century, before there were any significant government regulations and controls, when competing businesses used violence to eliminate competitors and enforce monopolies. You can't do it, because in reality legitimate businessmen are NOT vicious criminals. They work and play hard, and are extremely competitive, but they are the ESSENTIAL BENIGN AND PRODUCTIVE FORCE of civilization. They are in fact the OPPOSITE of the government thugs so many people mistakenly believe are needed to keep businessmen in line. This fact is the great insight of libertarian heroes like Ayn Rand, Mises, and Rothbard.

    So, did I answer your questions? Until you can show me the historical basis of your fear that businessmen will naturally seek tyrannical power, I think your entire proposition is incorrect.

    All the best,

  9. ralree, in response to your further questions:

    "There is also the problem of jurisdiction. If there is a lot of competition between contractors, how do we prevent Company A from helping the customers of Company B? Do we even allow this to happen? Does Company A then charge Company A for these services? How is this case pursued? How do we allow for the assistance of those who cannot afford to employ one of these contractors?"

    Who, exactly, is "we"? You seem to be assuming a collective role (i.e. government) in a free society, which is oxymoronic. The short answer is that each customer and each company should be free to make contracts that address as many contingencies as they care to address, and have escape clauses, insurance contracts, and in extremis, lawyers to handle circumstances when things fall through the cracks.

    The anarchist literature is replete with praise and advocacy of arbitration agencies, rather than courts and winner-take-all restrictive laws, to handle the most difficult disputes. Can anyone not see how, over time, such a tradition would work to the benefit of liberty?

    Thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking questions!