Welfare, Warfare, & Police: Dispelling the Mythology – Part 1
This essay was written by guest-author Will Porter.
It is discouragingly frequent that libertarians have to deal with the same old rehashed statist arguments time and time again. The proponents of government, big or small, have a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of absurd claims and baseless assertions which they hurl with confidence and certainty. Such arguments are so common, and yet so fallacious, that it begins to look as if some kind of religion is at work, a mythology of sorts. The same mantras are repeated over the generations until they attain the status of incontestable axioms, with which no argument is to be tolerated.
What I hope to do in the present essay is to offer a series of rebuttals and refutations of the statist faith using both basic logical reasoning and empirical illustration through historical examples. Primarily, I will focus on three of the most prominent aspects of state-power, the Welfare-State, the Warfare-State, and the Police-State. These manifestations of government are, in varying degrees, defended all over the political spectrum, and so the comments herein will not be directed toward any particular flavor of left-right statism.
Typically these issues are approached separately—and when done so it is easier for the statist to remain in denial—but when analyzed together the picture is painted with striking clarity. Each of these three facets of power play into each other and one often creates the problems that are used to justify the existence of the other two. As this state-power accrues, we will see how society is derailed from its natural course down a different path fraught with turmoil and peril. Every measure of intervention serves to set back civilization, and as these interferences accumulate it becomes more and more evident that the world would look radically different were it not for government action and the religious faith that justifies it in the minds of men.
As we approach each point, a basic lesson will emerge in regard to state-power: whenever a coercive institution extracts funds from their rightful owners and diverts them into alternative uses, this serves to impoverish society and shape it into something which nobody would have chosen, were they left to make the decision. Every multi-billion dollar government program must utilize resources, not legitimately created, but stolen. Instead of generating wealth as is the case for voluntary exchange, government activity can only rearrange wealth, and in almost every instance, destroy it.
I should start first by addressing the nature of the state-mythology and the significant role that fear plays within it. Fear is, and probably always has been, the single greatest motivator for people to seek refuge under the auspices of state-power.
Fear is itself not always irrational, as some fears are perfectly legitimate. However, the fears which so commonly shut down the minds of statists are almost always held without good reason. It is unclear whether such fear is a natural and ever-present mental-factor in approaching matters of social organization, or if it is something which must be inculcated into the masses by various institutions (media, education, etc.). Nonetheless, the fear of the unknown is the major driving-force behind the perceived legitimacy of government.
It does not at first seem unreasonable for people to want the toughest and baddest guy in society to be on their side. The desire for a big strong protector is probably at the very core of the government mythology. The statist, quite rationally, wishes there could be some kind of powerful institution to keep him safe, and it is natural, of course, to want that agency to be a “good guy” who always does the right thing, save the occasional “bad apples” and the rare mistakes.
In crude form, the fears which afflict most statists rest in matters of crime, poverty, and the potential for foreign invasion. If nothing else, the typical state-advocate will assert that these three contingencies give common-sense justification for the existence of government. Without the Welfare-State, who would help the needy and downtrodden? Without the Warfare-State, who would protect our nation from terrorists? Without the Police-State, who will prevent crime, ensuring the citizenry are secure in person and property?
On the surface, these objections seem perfectly legitimate. How could somebody possibly believe society could do without these government-provided services? How could anyone be such an extremistas to deny these essential functions to the state?
Such criticisms are commonplace, and often serve as sufficient for the statist to dismiss all arguments coming from a libertarian standpoint. But are their concerns really so well-founded? How often does anyone actually check to ensure these arguments are logically or empirically sound? From my own experience, it seems incredibly seldom that these assertions are backed with evidence, but are rather quoted like passages from a holy text, taken as ultimately-given facts. If one questions or argues against these facts, they are met almost universally with outrage, indignation, ridicule, and personal attack.
In the eyes of the statist, anyone who would dare to contest the necessity of government-provided welfare, warfare, and police must be some kind of criminal, nut job, or idiot, advocating chaos and destruction, whether wittingly or in their own childish naivety. They cry, without a centralized institution forcibly extracting funds from productive society to provide these “essential functions”, civilization would surely and inevitably fall apart!
It is of course always ignored that the libertarian argument against government-funded services does not equate to not wanting the services in question provided at all. So for example, my desire to not have a government police force does not mean that I don’t want police of any kind. It is a fallacy to assume otherwise, as many, if not most, statists do.
My purpose here is to demonstrate the sheer lunacy, wickedness, and confusion found in the statist position. The social problems that necessitate government welfare, police, and military, I will maintain, are problems directly created by government itself. Everything the government claims to fix, it actually breaks in the first place. It’s as if somebody were to smash your leg with a hammer and then assure you that without them, you would never have been able to walk.
The basic structure of this process lies in what is called Problem-Reaction-Solution. A problem is created by government and identified in the media, a public reaction is elicited, and a solution is then implemented to quell the outcry. At almost every turn, from socio-economic maladies like crime and poverty, to geo-political issues like threats of foreign aggression, this process is at work persuading the public to surrender ever-more freedom and tax-funds to help the state wage battle against these societal ailments. And indeed, it is highly common to hear references to war being made; the “War on Drugs”, the “War on Terror”, the “War on Poverty”.
These campaigns are waged not on real, tangible things, but on catch-all concepts which may be ascribed to any target the government decides is politically expedient. As will be shown, not only do these “wars” never reach their proclaimed goals, but they also create precisely the problems they seek to solve. The War on Drugs, instead of reducing crime and drug use, makes worse these problems, giving further justification to the Police-State. The War on Terror, while it attempts to bomb and shoot every terrorist on Earth, instead actually incites radicalism, hatred, and terrorism all around the globe. This serves to sway public opinion to favor foreign military intervention and creates the appearance of a major threat, which must be neutralized.
The War on Poverty, while touted as the golden child of government programs, has not even come close to eliminating or reducing poverty, has created vast amounts of government-dependency, squanders billions of dollars to maintain bloated bureaucracies, and discourages charitable acts in the private sector. Welfare programs exacerbate the problem of poverty and provoke public demand for government to “do more” of the wrong thing. The wars on vice, poverty and terrorism are nothing more than a politically-correct way to declare wars on people.
In all of these government initiatives, trillions of dollars and unfathomable resources are extracted from the private economy. This is a major source of poverty as it wastes society’s wealth in completely futile efforts which always backfire. It cannot be stressed enough the cumulative effect this has in shaping the destiny of nations, effectively diverting society away from prosperity and toward increasing amounts of destruction and poverty.
Let us begin our inquiry into power with the Police-State, the system of a government-funded police force. The first objection from the statist is that only government can provide the service of domestic police protection. A more sophisticated critic will allege that police protection is a “public good”, and that “market failures” will prevent it from ever arising in absence of government and taxation. It is said that “free riders” will discourage anyone from actually paying for the service, because if someone knows their neighbor has protection they might feel less obliged to pay for it themselves. If only a few people pay for the whole neighborhood’s protection, eventually they’ll get sick of this and nobody will want to pay for police. While this is a somewhat basic formulation of the “public goods” problem in regard to police protection, it conveys the general claim.
The public goods argument is a fallacious one. First of all, police services do not exhaustively account for the good of “protection”. Protection from aggression can come in the form of security lights, alarms, locks, fences, guard dogs, guns, safes for valuables, even a bodyguard, as well as signs warning criminals of any of the above. Police are only a small part of how someone might go about protecting themselves. The good of protection is not one homogenous blob called “police”.
Second, the public goods argument misconstrues the meaning of terms like “efficiency” and “optimality”. The public goods economist ascribes these terms to some arbitrarily selected amount of the good and anything at variance with this number is called “sub-optimum”, or “inefficient”. But the meaning of efficiency is found in the satisfaction of consumer’s demand, not the arbitrary number selected by the economist out of a socio-ethical consideration. When the public goods economist says “efficient”, he means in regard to how much he has determined that society needs of the good in question, as opposed to the real demand of consumers.
If, in absence of government, police were provided privately and the “free rider” problem occurred where only a relatively “low” amount of police services were in demand, how could anyone say this was anything but optimum? The only way one could argue this would be to select some arbitrary number which they decided was the “right” amount, ignoring what people actually would have chosen.
The proposed way out of this is to have the government intervene to provide the service. But why should anyone think that government would do any better a job in providing the optimum amount? Indeed, public police today are notorious for providing severely deficient amounts of protection to the areas which need it most. The incentive structure of government, as well as its alienation from market forces (profit and loss, competition, supply and demand) leads it to constant squandering and misallocations of services. The inability to efficiently allocate resources is precisely why all forms of socialism must always fail.
Socializing any industry, including police, will necessarily lead to exactly the same failures, giving no basis whatsoever to the public goods argument. Even conceding that the market would provide “too little” police, the government does not escape the problem of figuring out what is optimum, as well as actually providing that amount of services.
But this would all be to assume the free rider problem is a legitimate concern. Does anyone actually believe that if someone’s neighborhood was being devastated by street crime, they would forego buying protection simply because they didn’t want their neighbors to enjoy it without paying for it? People would rather face frequent violence and danger than allow their neighbors to have something for free? This seems to take an absurd stance on human behavior, where people act based purely in monetary motivations (incidentally, this was a common error of the Classical economists).
One could easily imagine a situation where a financially better-off neighbor pays for protection which benefits his whole neighborhood, even if only to selfishly protect himself. Either way, even assuming private police provision will universally discourage customer’s patronage, this still ignores the fact that protection can come in many forms beyond police.
Finally, a fairly easy solution to the free rider problem is to simply fund police through community organizations. It certainly could be the case that people could buy this service on an individual basis, but there is no reason to think that mutual aid societies and homeowners associations couldn’t collectively purchase such a thing as well. Private-funding of police would also be much easier, considering the nature of government funding always moves toward higher costs for lower-quality services.
To briefly return to government resource-allocation, prices in government industries are typically much higher than they would be in their private counterparts. The cost to fund and maintain a government police force is blown wildly out of proportion compared to the actual services they provide. Instead of focusing purely on stopping violent criminals, police devote a massive amount of their resources toward things like “vice” crimes.
A tax-funded police force, as with any government program, will also seek as much funding as it can possibly get. To do so it must also spend a lot to prove it actually needs the funding. For the statist, everything is perpetually “underfunded”, ignoring the constant exponential increase in funding over the decades for every popular agency of the state (as well as the hundreds of less-popular ones!). Just how big does government have to be before it starts solving problems? The state has grown in size 4-5 times over since it initially declared, say, the Drug War, and yet still it can accomplish no real strides in the ill-intended direction it proclaims to be heading toward.
One might add that it is precisely because of overfunding that government police so often overstep their constitutional and moral boundaries. When they are allowed militarized weapons and the legal ability/funding to arrest masses of peaceful people, their effectiveness in fighting real crime severely diminishes.
A private police force could not possibly survive in this way; it is only government that creates the perverse incentives to spend as much as possible. Private firms have to be competitive and efficient, cutting their costs as low as possible while still providing a service that people will voluntarily pay for. A system of private police would necessarily cost much less, therefore making its private-funding less of a daunting task. And instead of pursuing trivial injunctions and victimless crimes, its efforts would be put toward keeping people and their property safe, further reducing the costs.
Moreover, and more importantly, a government-funded monopoly police force has no actual contracts with the people it’s supposed to protect. In the 1981 court case Warren v. District of Columbia[i] “The court stated that official police personnel and the government employing them owe no duty to victims of criminal acts and thus are not liable for a failure to provide adequate police protection…”
It is hard to imagine a private firm which, in their contract, said they didn’t actually have to do the exact thing you’re paying them to do. In almost every way, it seems a voluntarily-funded private police force is more attractive than a corrupt, inefficient, and abusive one provided through the state.
Continue to Part Two
Note: Many of the references provided are simply to help illustrate the various points made in the essay and to direct the reader toward additional relevant information. It is always encouraged that the reader does their own research. Do not take these citations as themselves authoritative.
[i] Warren v. District of Columbia: