A Discussion Of Private Police

Note: The following discussion is pretty theoretical and very libertarian-oriented. You may want to skip this one if you usually read the blog for music, fitness, or running-related information.

Robert Murphy remarks that the ineptitude of the Cleveland Police Department is a good argument in favor of (the anarcho-capitalist concept of) private police forces (and I comment). If you're new to this idea, I will briefly explain.

Introducing Private, Competing Police Forces
The idea is that anarcho-capitalists believe society is made safer more effectively by private police forces that compete with each other to serve citizens. A specific business model has never (that I know of) been specified, not because it's inconceivable, but rather because things could be handled a variety of ways. For example, you might live in a gated community that offered its own, internal police force, paid for by homeowners' association fees. In that case, your private police force would be tied to your location of residence. (Note: There are a lot of good examples of private security like this out there in the real world today. It is more common in developing nations, but not at all uncommon in places such as universities in the United States, that form their own police forces paid for by tuition, grants, donations, and other funding streams.) Alternatively, you might live in an area served by multiple police forces among which you choose the one that offers the best protection/service at the lowest price. Here, you might subscribe to police services that can be invoked whenever you feel you need them, or perhaps you simply wait until you need to contact a police officer, and then choose a specific force's number to call. Or maybe you call a central dispatching agency that puts out a notice that someone is in trouble, and the police forces all compete to arrive first and gain your business.

As you can see, there are many possible ways that private police forces "could work," many of which presently exist in the world today, and are fully functional. So the first point I want to make is that it is not fair to merely dismiss the idea as wholly outlandish. Not only is it not outlandish, it presently exists and you have almost certainly availed yourself of its benefits at some point during your lifetime. (If not, give it a few years, it'll happen.)

The second point I want to make is that, since it is true that private, competing police forces already exist in the world today, as do public police forces, we cannot say that the two arrangements are mutually exclusive. The fact of the matter is that public and private police forces have learned to coexist peacefully with minimal occasional conflict. Therefore, the anarcho-capitalist position is not really "using private police forces," but more specifically, eliminating public police forces and letting the existing private police market expand in their absence.

Before I go on, let me summarize some of the rationale involved here. The problem anarcho-capitalists have with public police forces is many-fold. First of all, if the police fails you, you have no recourse. (More to the point, you only have legal recourse against the police "monopoly" if you survive whatever event we're talking about - which makes things worse.) Private, competing police forces theoretically address this problem by: (1) offering you more options, and therefore providing police with a profit motive to get the job done correctly; and (2) offering you a second police force to pit against the first.

Regarding your legal recourse, it is notoriously difficult to "win against the police" in court, because the criminal justice system is weighted in favor of itself. This brings us to the second objection to public police monopolies, which is the potential for (and reality of) the abuse of police power. We need not look very far to find examples of that. Anarcho-capitalist policing addresses this problem by (1) and (2) from the previous paragraph, as well as (3) the settling of legal disputes through mutually agreed-upon and mutually hired professional arbiters who do not hold bias toward one party or the other because they are paid to be objective.

Some Criticism Against Private, Competing Police Forces
This particular area of anarcho-capitalist theory is uniquely objectionable to me. This is not because I have a great love of public police forces, or that I find them far more objective than alternative scenarios. Most of my objections are steeped in realism and economics (let's take a leap and call it praxeology in this case).

The first objection is the simplest: Even if there is a good and valid market for private police forces, as I have already established above, that does not alone suffice to justify the elimination of the public police. For such a justification, we would need conclusive proof that, in all or most cases, and in particular the most important cases (think terrorist plots, violent crime investigations, the handling of present threats, etc.), private police forces yield the most superior outcomes. It is not sufficient to simply suggest that, theoretically, if we eliminated public police, then private police would have sufficient competition among themselves that it would result in superior service and lower costs. It must be shown. Absent any hard evidence in this regard (and note well that it is also insufficient to point out problems with public forces), there is simply no reason any normal person would be moved to abolish the public police.

The second objection is related to the first: How do we actually know that there is sufficient market demand for a sufficiently strong police force?

I will give you an example: the pharmaceutical industry has something called "orphan drugs." Orphan drugs are good products that offer excellent treatment for real health conditions. The patients definitely benefit from these drugs, and want to continue taking them. Unfortunately, orphan drugs are so costly to produce that they cannot be produced and sold for a profit. Because no one wants to lose money selling a drug that always earns the company a loss, the product is "orphaned," i.e. discontinued. It's not that it doesn't work or that it isn't needed, it is simply the case that there are not enough people who want to buy the drugs to make them economically feasible.

Now, I am not claiming with any level of certainty that police services have insufficient market demand to sustain them. What I am claiming is that it is a possibility, and because it is a possibility, the burden rests on advocates of anarcho-capitalists to demonstrate that demand for police services can and would be met (with certainty) in absence of the public forces. Until an-caps do this, the question remains open, since - as orphan drugs aptly demonstrate - just because there is a real demand doesn't mean there is a sufficient demand.

The third objection pertains to what constitutes "the successful provision of police services." Obviously a low incidence of easy-to-identify crimes, such as theft, murder, trespassing, etc. is a good starting point. But what about crimes that are more difficult to see? Think about drunk-driving or domestic abuse. One an-cap might respond that "drunk-driving shouldn't be a crime; only damage to another person or their property," but someone else might feel completely differently. If Police Force A enforces a zero-tolerance drunk-driving rule, while Police Force B does not, then how is this conflict to be resolved, other than a fight between the two police forces? (I guess we could always decide the issue democratically, but - oops - that would require government.) As for domestic abuse, there really is no solution here. All child protection laws are part-and-parcel to the state. If you suspect that your neighbor is abusing his child, you can call the public police and Child Protective Services to investigate the matter, on the authority of the State. Private police forces have no such authority, and calling them to investigate the matter amounts to hiring a posse to threaten your neighbor before an actual investigation has occurred. That's a pretty egregious human rights violation (due process), and also a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle (since merely suspecting someone of aggression against a 3rd party is not even remotely a sufficient justification for retaliation).

But even if we were able to suss all that out, we would still have the question of "success, at what cost?" There are places in the world in which private chieftains or government goons are contacted by the public to solve a problem, and they do so with jack-boots in the dead of night. People fear for their lives when these thugs are around, and therefore the citizens are well-behaved. But at what cost? Constant fear of falling victim to an armed posse is nobody's idea of liberty.

The Last Bastion of An-Cap Police Defense
In reply to all of these objections, the typical an-cap response is something along the lines of: "But this still happens today! Public police forces are guilty of all this stuff. At least under anarcho-capitalism, there would be competition!"

First of all, reconsider what I've said about the possibility of insufficient market demand (and do so seriously).

Second of all, reconsider what I've said about it's being incumbent on anarcho-capitalists to conclusively demonstrate that conditions would improve if public police forces were eliminated. I am open to the discussion. I am open to being convinced. But make no mistake, I must be convinced. We cannot simply conjecture that things would be better. The transaction costs of eliminating a necessary public service in hopes that the free market would fill the gap are extremely high. If we are seriously expected to take on those transaction costs, then the evidence must be solid. Preferably, it would be incontrovertible. I am all ears.