Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Libertarian Blind Spot on Policing

 

In my column this week for Defining Ideas from the Hoover Institution, I look at the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and the reaction they’ve inspired in the press. One of my conclusions: that many libertarians have gone overboard with otherwise legitimate concerns about policing. As I note:

It is not that I entirely part company with modern libertarians on all issues relating to the police. It is that I would like to see libertarians of all stripes slow down their denunciation of public authorities, without whom we cannot enjoy the ordered liberty that we all prize. The correct attitude on the police force is to see it as a regrettable necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. Without police intervention, many cities in this country would turn into Iraqi-style war zones. The point remains true even if it is the case, as it is in Iraq, that most people have a strong desire to live out their lives in peace. So long as some fringe groups are intent on using violence, they can force everyone else to follow suit, until by degrees entire nations can be plunged into chaos and sectarian violence unless there are some organized institutions to protect us.

But that is only half of the story:

The next step is to ask what should be done to make sure that the police, with their own monopoly over the use of force, don’t convert the traditional police power into a police state, with all the shuddering connotations that this term carries with it. And so it is back to the old story about the importance of institutions. Running the police is in part a big business, where we have to ask and understand how police are recruited, trained, equipped, deployed, supervised, promoted, punished, and paid. The basic deal is that we give the police extra powers, but we expect them to meet higher standards, which justifies their right to use of deadly force. And when they fall short, the sanctions on them are often the heaviest because they cannot plead the excuses available to ordinary people who have neither the training nor the temperament to engage successfully in the use of force.

You can read the article in its entirety for a fuller sense of the many issues at work in this case. 

Where do you draw the line on how much power police forces should have?

Image via Shutterstock.

There are 19 comments.

  1. Jackal Inactive

    Without police intervention, many cities in this country would turn into Iraqi-style war zones.

    Citation needed.

    • #1
    • August 26, 2014, at 6:12 AM PST
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  2. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Jackal:

    Without police intervention, many cities in this country would turn into Iraqi-style war zones.

    Citation needed.

     While perhaps the good Doc doesn’t mean ISIS-style, I think it’s evident from the current conditions in some cities despite policing that a widespread knowledge of no policing in some cities would yield disastrous consequences. It is a conjecture; I don’t know where you would find a citation for that with a better pedigree than this

    • #2
    • August 26, 2014, at 6:19 AM PST
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  3. Mike H Coolidge

    Richard Epstein: Without police intervention, many cities in this country would turn into Iraqi-style war zones.

    While this may be true (though I question it), they could be replaced with private police (the majority of the country’s security) who would be beholden to the free market as opposed to the (obvious) “necessary evil” of government and all that entails.

    Richard Epstein: Where do you draw the line on how much power police forces should have?

    The correct answer is you use the free market to regulate police power with competing firms. If one police force oversteps, people hire different security. The problem, of course, is that people can only rationalize the idea of one ultimate entity responsible for “justice.” Since they can’t see how it would work due to all the moving parts motivated by (gasp!) money, that it obviously follows that it would be chaos or the police forces would fight like mafia until there was only one. The fact that our intuition has always been really bad at this sort of thing, and people must be dragged kicking and screaming to trust the free market, doesn’t seem to give anyone pause.

    • #3
    • August 26, 2014, at 6:20 AM PST
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  4. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Professor: Having read the full article, I ask where (if) your stance on this issue differs from limited government, Sowellian conservatism. I of course have an axe to grind, and it is this: many “libertarians” find themselves parting with far Libertarians on issues which I say make them conservatives. Aren’t the “far” parts of libertarianism that are incompatible with conservatism the real defining hallmark of libertarianism? Simpler to view a libertarian wing of conservatism than a conservative wing of libertarianism, as libertarianism has always needed some internal hyphenated division between its own left and right varieties.

    • #4
    • August 26, 2014, at 6:49 AM PST
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  5. KC Mulville Inactive

    Mike H:

    The correct answer is you use the free market to regulate police power with competing firms. If one police force oversteps, people hire different security. The problem, of course, is that people can only rationalize the idea of one ultimate entity responsible for “justice.” […]

    With respect, I disagree. In other environments, the virtue of having competitors is that they can each bring a different approach. But when it comes to the administration of justice … we don’t want multiple approaches. The whole point of law is that it sets an equal and consistent boundary for everyone, one that everyone can see. It’s inherent in the notion of justice that it must be equal for all.

    Further, the problem with a police force is that it’s also (necessarily) the chief investigator of its own crimes. I can’t imagine anyone trusting a private firm to zealously investigate itself for abuses, especially when its contract is up for review. At least the public police force knows that investigating itself won’t jeopardize the work contract. 

    There are good reasons to keep public institutions public. 

    • #5
    • August 26, 2014, at 7:02 AM PST
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  6. Mike H Coolidge

    KC Mulville:

    Mike H:

    With respect, I disagree. In other environments, the virtue of having competitors is that they can each bring a different approach. But when it comes to the administration of justice … we don’t want multiple approaches.

    Speak for yourself.

    The whole point of law is that it sets an equal and consistent boundary for everyone, one that everyone can see. It’s inherent in the notion of justice that it must be equal for all.

    At least the unfairness is fair? The free market would put pressure in the direction of finding the optimal set of laws, rather than some set of politically motivated ones.

    Further, the problem with a police force is that it’s also (necessarily) the chief investigator of its own crimes.

    Under the current system, sure.

    I can’t imagine anyone trusting a private firm to zealously investigate itself for abuses, especially when its contract is up for review.

    This proves my point. You can’t see how it would work, so it can’t work, QED.

    • #6
    • August 26, 2014, at 8:03 AM PST
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  7. KC Mulville Inactive

    Mike H:

    I can’t imagine anyone trusting a private firm to zealously investigate itself for abuses, especially when its contract is up for review.

    This proves my point. You can’t see how it would work, so it can’t work, QED.

    Hardly. It isn’t a failure of the imagination. It’s a recognition based on real world experience that mixed motives cause predictable results. It isn’t that your proposed solution hasn’t been thought of … it has been thought of, and rejected.

    • #7
    • August 26, 2014, at 8:12 AM PST
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  8. Mike H Coolidge

    KC Mulville:

    Mike H:

    I can’t imagine

    This proves my point. You can’t see how it would work, so it can’t work, QED.

    Hardly. It isn’t a failure of the imagination. It’s a recognition based on real world experience that mixed motives cause predictable results. It isn’t that your proposed solution hasn’t been thought of … it has been thought of, and rejected.

    Under current expectations that may be true, but expectations change over time. I only try to nudge people into conditionally changing their expectations until there’s a critical mass. It’s the reason democracy works here but not in Egypt. People expect out leaders to give up power when their time is up; they would be crazy not to. In Egypt, no one is surprised that the elected government is overthrown after they take too much power, no one really expected it to work out.

    • #8
    • August 26, 2014, at 8:20 AM PST
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  9. liberal jim Inactive

    I think of myself more as a classic liberal than a libertarian, but decided long ago spending time trying to find the correct label for myself is a wasted effort. That said I find your characterization of the correct attitude toward the police force as a regrettable necessity misguided. Human nature, man’s innate desire for liberty, is the basis for the argument for a system that allows the maximum amount legitimate liberty. Human nature, man’s capacity for evil, also is the basis for the argument for a police force. Unless you want to say human nature is regrettable, or deny man’s capacity for evil, it is a mistake to label a police force as regrettable.

    • #9
    • August 26, 2014, at 8:21 AM PST
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  10. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Mike H: While this may be true (though I question it), they could be replaced with private police (the majority of the country’s security) who would be beholden to the free market as opposed to the (obvious) “necessary evil” of government and all that entails.

     I am as libertarian as they come but even I can recognize private police forces as a bad idea. There are legitimate areas of public goods that warrant state involvement and policing is one of them. This does not mean, however, that there should not be strict limits on the scope of said policing. I see the current libertarian overreaction to our police forces as a very understandable consequence of post 9/11 explosion in militarization of local law enforcement.

    • #10
    • August 26, 2014, at 9:12 AM PST
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  11. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Mike H: If one police force oversteps, people hire different security.

     And force those that lack the funds or ability to hire sufficient or competing firms?

    • #11
    • August 26, 2014, at 9:12 AM PST
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  12. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Ball Diamond Ball: Aren’t the “far” parts of libertarianism that are incompatible with conservatism the real defining hallmark of libertarianism?

     Just like how the far far right is the defining hallmark of Conservativism? 

    • #12
    • August 26, 2014, at 9:14 AM PST
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  13. Mike H Coolidge

    Jamie Lockett:

    Mike H: If one police force oversteps, people hire different security.

    And force those that lack the funds or ability to hire sufficient or competing firms?

    I’m not sure I follow. There would be incentive to offer low cost options, perhaps coupled with a rental agreement or insurance. It only has to be better than current law enforcement, which already isn’t the best in poor neighborhoods, and they currently have little recourse.

    • #13
    • August 26, 2014, at 9:21 AM PST
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  14. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Mike H: I’m not sure I follow. There would be incentive to offer low cost options, perhaps coupled with a rental agreement or insurance. It only has to be better than current law enforcement, which already isn’t the best in poor neighborhoods, and they currently have little recourse.

     I understand your thinking here and in most areas I agree, but policing is an area where the moral authority of government is necessary. How is your system any different than competing shop owners who hire different mafia syndicates to protect their stores? 

    • #14
    • August 26, 2014, at 9:27 AM PST
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  15. Profile Photo Member

    I suspect the pendulum swing against militarizing the police force will swing too far and cut into legitimate police functions. The police should have the resources to deal with the criminals without becoming a threat to everyone else. It’s about having the resources to deal with a something like the North Hollywood Shootout while keeping in mind these circumstances are rare and we shouldn’t be looking for excuses to use them when they are not required.

    The bipartisan stampede doesn’t give me much confidence that they’ll find the right balance.

    • #15
    • August 26, 2014, at 10:02 AM PST
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  16. Mike H Coolidge

    Jamie Lockett:

    Mike H: I’m not sure I follow. There would be incentive to offer low cost options, perhaps coupled with a rental agreement or insurance. It only has to be better than current law enforcement, which already isn’t the best in poor neighborhoods, and they currently have little recourse.

    I understand your thinking here and in most areas I agree, but policing is an area where the moral authority of government is necessary. How is your system any different than competing shop owners who hire different mafia syndicates to protect their stores?

     I don’t know enough about functional mafia syndicates, but my guess is that they are doing criminal activity in order to keep income high and thus are better able to fund expensive violence outside of the free market. If everyone expected protection firms to act like mafias, they problem would, which is why I am working to change these perceptions.

    • #16
    • August 26, 2014, at 10:11 AM PST
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  17. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Mike H: I don’t know enough about functional mafia syndicates, but my guess is that they are doing criminal activity in order to keep income high and thus are better able to fund expensive violence outside of the free market. If everyone expected protection firms to act like mafias, they problem would, which is why I am working to change these perceptions.

     What would the mechanism be for two neighbors in a violent altercation who hire two competing policing firms? Or for that matter two spouses? 

    • #17
    • August 26, 2014, at 10:51 AM PST
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  18. Jackal Inactive

    My point is not that a police force isn’t a good idea in cities, it’s just to point out that the good professor seems to have very little faith in the ability of communities to self-regulate in that regard (hence ‘intervention’ rather than ‘option’ or even ‘presence’). This manifests itself both in talking about the local police, like here, or in the many discussions about Edward Snowden / NSA problems where Professor Epstein comes down pretty clearly on the side of security rather than liberty (though he might say it is security to ensure liberty).

    But he does regret the necessity, at least. I’d like to see more data on what the optimal size and scope of a police force is, since combating “fringe groups . . . intent on using violence” is a much narrower scope than the average cop’s day. See, e.g., domestic disputes, drug busts, traffic violations, jaywalk enforcement…

    • #18
    • August 26, 2014, at 11:06 AM PST
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  19. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Mike H: I don’t know enough about functional mafia syndicates

     My, limited, knowledge of many mafia syndicates history (especially those based around ethnic lines) is that they arose out of a need for certain communities to have access to protection and certain services. e.g. Turn of the century Italian immigrants in NY didn’t go to an Irish dominated police force and turned to members of their own ethnicity for assistance. They are as pure an expression of the free market as I can think of. I fail to see how a system of private police wouldn’t devolve into competing gangs fighting for turf. 

    I understand the theory behind your plan, its just that theories require humans to implement them. We are notoriously bad at that. See: Constitution, U.S. 

    • #19
    • August 26, 2014, at 11:06 AM PST
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