Written by John Hasnas, Associate Professor, Georgetown University, J.D., Ph.D, LL.M

Continued from The Obviousness of Anarchy: Courts

Regardless of whether a state is needed to supply law and courts, supporters of government are adamant that police must be supplied exclusively by government. It may be true that the market can adequately supply most goods and services, but police services are unique in that they inherently involve the use of coercion. Obviously, no civilized society can permit competition in the use of violence. Civil society is formed precisely to escape from that situation. Unless government brings the use of violence under its monopolistic control, peaceful coexistence is impossible, and life is indeed as “nasty, brutish, and short” [23] as Hobbes contended.

Before I respond to this by suggesting that you look around, reflect for a moment on the silliness of this argument. For if civil society cannot exist without a government monopoly over the use of coercion, then civil society does not exist. Societies do not spring into existence complete with government police forces. Once a group of people has figured out how to reduce the level of interpersonal violence sufficiently to allow them to live together, entities that are recognizable as governments often develop and take over the policing function. Even a marauding band that imposes government on others through conquest must have first reduced internal strife sufficiently to allow it to organize itself for effective military operations. Both historically and logically, it is always peaceful coexistence first, government services second. If civil society is impossible without government police, then there are no civil societies.

rules not rulers

In the 1960’s Broadway musical Oliver, there is a song called “Be Back Soon” in which Fagan’s boys sing the line “We know the Bow Street Runners.” The Bow Street Runners were famous because they were London’s first government sponsored police force, organized in the latter half of the 18th century by the magistrates of the Bow Street court, Henry and John Fielding. I think it is fair to say that the formation of the Bow Street Runners does not represent the moment that London was transformed from a Hobbesian state of nature to a civil society.

Note also the conflation of police services with coercion. Coercion may be employed aggressively for purposes of predation or defensively to repel attempts at predation. Police services involve the use of coercion for defensive purposes only. Competition among aggressors is, indeed, a bad thing that is antithetical to the existence of civil society. But it is not competition for the provision of police services. If competition among those offering the defensive use of coercion inevitably resulted in the equivalent of aggressive gang warfare, then we would want to eschew such competition. But whether this occurs is the very question under consideration. Identifying competition among providers of police services with competition among aggressors is entirely question-begging. It is avoiding, rather than making, an argument.

But I digress. The proper response to the claim that government must provide police services is: look around. I work at a University that supplies its own campus police force. On my drive in, I pass a privately operated armored car that transports currency and other valuable items for banks and businesses. When I go downtown, I enter buildings that are serviced by private security companies that require me to sign in before entering. I shop at malls and department stores patrolled by their own private guards. While in the mall, I occasionally browse in the Security Zone store that sells personal and home protection equipment. I converse with attorneys and, once in a while with a disgruntled spouse or worried parent, who employ private detective agencies to perform investigations for them. I write books about how the United States Federal government coerces private corporations into performing criminal investigations for it. [24] When I was younger, I frequented nightclubs and bars that employed “bouncers.”

Although it has never happened to me personally, I know people who have been contacted by private debt collection agencies or have been visited by repo men. Once in a while, I meet people who are almost as important as rock stars and travel with their own bodyguards. At the end of the day, I return home to my community that has its own neighborhood watch. I may be missing something, but I haven’t noticed any of these agencies engaging in acts of violent aggression to eliminate their competitors.

Ah, but that is because the government police force is in the background making sure that none of these private agencies step out of line, the supporters of government contend. Really? How does that explain London before the Bow Street Runners? The New York City police force was not created until 1845. The Boston Police Department, which describes itself as “the first paid, professional public safety department in the country” [25] traces its history back only to 1838. What kept the non-political police services in line before these dates?

Regardless of Hobbes’ and Locke’s philosophical musings, for most of English history, there was little government provision of police services. [26] It is true that as the kings of England learned how to collect revenue by declaring all violence and sinful activity a breach of the King’s peace for which they were owed payment, they began to develop an administrative machinery to facilitate the collection of fines for “criminal” activity.

Thus, the local representative of the Crown, the shire reeve (later sheriff), became tasked with reporting and eventually apprehending offenders. But since the sheriffs were only interested in pursuing offenders with the means to pay the amercement, this never represented a significant portion of the police activity within the realm. The customary, non-political methods of policing provided security for most of the population of England until quite recently.

My father’s oldest brother, who was born in 1902, often told me about the tontine insurance arrangement my grandfather participated in through his fraternal organization that provided both term life insurance and an old age annuity. Since the advent of the federal social security program, you don’t hear much about tontine insurance. Most residents of New York, who assume that only the government can provide and maintain the city’s subway system, are puzzled as to why part of the system is named the BMT and part the IRT. They have no idea that in 1940, the City of New York purchased the privately built and operated Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company to create the city-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority. When government begins providing services formerly provided non-politically, people soon forget that the services were ever provided non-politically and assume that only government can provide them. But just as this is not true for old age annuities and subway service, it is not true for police services. Traditionally, police services were not provided by government and, to a large extent, they still are not. Therefore, government is not necessary to provide police services.

Advocates of government can still argue that because of the special nature of police services, a government monopoly can provide such services more efficiently than non-political entities can. I must concede that there is nothing a priori wrong with this argument. It is certainly possible that when it comes to police services, a miracle occurs and investing a single politically-directed agency with the power to supply the desired services by exacting involuntary payment from all members of society actually produces a better result than allowing the services to be supplied by non-political means. I can, however, find no evidence for this in the real world. To all outward appearances, when police services are supplied by a politically-controlled monopoly, the public receives police services driven by political, rather than efficiency, considerations. Thus, disfavored, politically powerless groups are typically underserved, police resources are frequently directed toward politically favored ends (e.g., suppression of victimless crimes) rather than their most productive use (e.g., suppression of violence), and the nature of the service is determined by political budgetary concerns rather than actual need (e.g., SWAT teams in Wisconsin). Further, because government police are not dependant on voluntary contributions for their revenue, they are less likely to be responsive to the concerns of the public (e.g., police brutality) and more susceptible to corruption (see e.g., the Knapp Commission Report27 or just watch the movie Serpico).

Supporters of government often point to the high inner-city crime rate, the profusion of violent gangs, and the persistence of organized crime and drug cartels to argue that we dare not abandon the government monopoly on police services. I confess to being perplexed by this argument. How can highlighting the utter failure of the government system of policing possibly be an argument for its necessity?

It is worth noting that the contemporary crime problem is most severe where non-political methods of policing have been most completely displaced by government. The inner cities are the areas most dependant on government policing. Arguing that the high rate of inner-city crime and the presence of gangs implies that we must maintain a government monopoly on police services is a bit like arguing that the abysmal quality of inner-city public schools implies that we should not permit parents to use their tax money to send their children to private schools. And it can hardly be surprising that it is difficult to suppress the violent organizations that exist to exploit the black markets created by government prohibitions on the legal marketing of drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other “vices.” But how any of this demonstrates the necessity of government provision of police is beyond me.

If a visitor from Mars were asked to identify the least effective method for securing individuals’ persons and property, he might well respond that it would be to select one group of people, give them guns, require all members of society to pay them regardless of the quality of service they render, and invest them with the discretion to employ resources and determine law enforcement priorities however they see fit subject only to the whims of their political paymasters. If asked why he thought that, he might simply point to the Los Angeles or New Orleans or any other big city police department. Are government police really necessary for a peaceful, secure society? Look around. Could a non-political, non-monopolistic system of supplying police services really do worse than its government-supplied counterpart?

Continued in The Obviousness of Anarchy: Internalizing Externalities


[23] T. HOBBES, LEVIATHAN 107 (H. Schneider ed., 1958) (1651).
[25] See Boston Police Department web site at: http://www.cityofboston.gov/police/glance.asp.