The London Libertarian

The London Libertarian

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Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >

The Police and the Rule of Law

HistoryPosted by Nico Metten Mon, April 06, 2015 12:40:36
Apparently, one of the major responsibilities of the state is to protect our rights against criminals. It is this responsibility that even a lot of libertarians think we cannot get rid of completely. To fulfill this responsibility, we are told, the state needs to have a monopoly on using violence. The institution of the executive, which carries out this violence domestically is the police. To make sure that this monopoly in and of itself does not become a problem, the advocates of this system have implemented democratic controls. That way, the police can function as an efficient security service provider for the people. That is at least the idea. But does it all work as the architects of this system imagine it?

On first sight, this system does not seem to be a bad idea. For a society to function, we certainly need to have a rule of law. That means we indeed need to make sure that if it comes to a stand off between a criminal who is violating the rights of someone and the enforcers of the law, the law will ideally always win. And if you want to win battles it seems very useful, if not inevitable to have the majority of force on your side. If this line of thought is correct, does this automatically mean that we need to have an institution that at all times has a monopoly on force? Is there even a possible alternative to this approach?

To answer these questions let us start by having a deeper look at the basic idea. It seems to me that there are several flaws in it that need to be addressed. The most obvious one is, who is controlling the monopoly? The major assumption behind having a monopoly is that not all humans are of good character. Some are more than willing to violate other people's rights for their own advantage. If that is true, how do we make sure that these people are not taking over the monopoly? For that is what these bad guys are most likely planning to do.

There are various ways with which criminals could do that. The most successful one would be to take over the control of the whole state. This could come in various shapes and forms. One example might be a very primitive military dictatorship, in which everyone is aware that a group of people are controlling the system in their own interest. However, it could also come in more subtle forms. The state could still have the appearance of a rule of law, while a group of powerful people pull the strings in the background. The latter approach is probably more successful in securing the control of power in the long run. In whatever form it might come, the process of criminals taking over the whole state seems to have been completed in most states that we observe around the world.

However, there seem to be a few states on the planet that still have some form of division of powers and a rule of law. Having said that, I do not know of any state that is completely free of criminal influence. Corruption comes in different forms. The most simple attempt to beat the monopoly is to try to have some influence on the people enforcing the law. In other words, criminals try to influence the police.

The UK is worldwide one of the most respected states for its rule of law. But how justified is this respect? Compared to the total corruption observed in most countries, the UK indeed appears in a positive light. But of course this island is no exception to the fact that some people are not nice guys. These bad boys, here too have long realized that it might be a good idea for their 'business' to try to get in control of the monopoly. And they have been far more successful than most people might realize. Last year The Independent reported a number of leaked documents, suggesting that the legal system in the UK is indeed infiltrated by criminals up to the highest levels.

The whole idea that a monopoly on force can be controlled to serve the rule of law, really is a contradiction in terms. Any such system relies on the assumption that humans can be trusted to not abuse this position. But if humans were all nice guys, why would we need such a system in the first place? In truth, this system logically cannot solve the problem of dealing with criminals. All it does is taking the problem to a different level.

One might object to this by saying that the system might not be 100% perfect, but at least it works most of the time. I certainly agree that we cannot come up with a perfect system. No matter which system we come up with to protect the rule of law, we will likely see cases in which it fails. So the best we can ask for is a system with a good track record. I do not believe that all police officers are crocks. In fact, the vast majority are probably decent human beings, just trying to do their jobs as good as possible. We might see police forces in certain places on the globe who are systematically trained to fight the people. But I do not see any evidence that this is what is going on in the UK. However, despite of that the idea that the current system works most of the time seems very questionable to me.

Even if we assume that we are dealing with a lot of good police men, we are still stuck with some other problems. The business model of running a monopoly service provider is the business model of a central planner. So we can expect to see the same problems from centrally planning the police that we see in any other centrally planned business.

In a centrally planned service organization, resources are not allocated by prices and therefore the needs of the people paying for the services. Instead they are allocated according to the needs of the people running the organization. The same is true for the rules put in place to run the organization. These rules will likely serve the needs of the people providing the services instead of the needs of the recipients of the services.

What does that mean for the policing services? On the one hand, we will likely see a prioritizing of activities that are easy to execute and bring in revenue for the organization. On the other hand, we are likely to see activities that are hard to execute and drain resources to get a low priority. To be more concrete, activities like fining law abiding citizens for overstepping minor laws are likely to see a relatively good enforcement. These activities bring in revenue through the fines and are easy to enforce. Law abiding citizens are likely to simply comply with demands from the police. On the other hand, chasing criminals like muggers, burglars, rapists and murders are dangerous activities that don't even bring in any revenue. These activities will likely get a low priority. They will likely be carried just as much necessary to keep people from actively rebelling.

On the rules side of things, we will likely see rules being made that serve predominantly the well being of the police officers and less so the needs of the receivers of their services. Everything that might put officers in danger or even just cause inconvenience are bad rules and everything that gives 'costumers' the power of complaining or creating alternatives to the provided police services are good rules.

Is this what we are seeing? From the data I know and my personal experience, I find this to be exactly true. I myself have been on the receiving side of fines a number of times. And this seems to be true for most people I know. These were fines for overstepping rules that are minor or outright silly. Some of them are so counter intuitive that I might not even have been aware off them. For example I recently got a fine of £130 for standing too long (more than 10s) with my car on one of those yellow striped areas you find at busy crossroads. The purpose of these areas is to stop people from driving into the middle of the crossroads on a green light and get stuck there, blocking cars from other directions during their green light interval. The problem is that it is often hard to see when exactly the cars in front of you will stop. It was Friday night at about midnight, I thought I would make it to the other side but ended up getting stuck at the very end of the yellow area. I was not blocking anyone, there was still plenty of space. But, since London is completely surveyed with cameras, someone watched the CCTV footage, actually counted the seconds I was stopping on the yellow lines and issued a fine.

You may say great, these CCTV cameras see everything. If they caught you breaking such a minor rule, they must have a great track record finding real criminals as well. Unfortunately, that is not really the case. For example, an ex flatmate of mine got mugged in the middle of the day on a London bus in Chelsea. They stole her smart phone. Every bus in London has 16 CCTV cameras on it. She went to the police demanding they would analyze the footage and look for the criminals. However, she found herself a little bit surprised to get the answer that “it is not worth our time to look into this”. In this case, nothing was to gain for the monopolists. They were dealing with real criminals, so looking into this case would have been potentially dangerous and drained their resources. So why do it? Why not analyze CCTV footage for how long cars are stopping on yellow lines? Much safer and much more lucrative.

Another friend of mine got jumped by a few thugs on his way home in the evening. He was less lucky. They not only robbed him but also beat him up so heavily that he almost lost an eye. So he went to the police to report it. To his surprise the police at first refused to even write the incident down. After a while of arguing with them, they finally agreed to make a note of the incident, but they were very blunt about the fact that they had no intention looking into this case any further.

In December last year and February this year, my flat got burgled twice within two month by the same guy. The burglar was after cash and computers. The first time he stole some cash from me and two computers, including a MacBook Pro that I was using for work. Knowing the bad experiences that almost everyone I ever asked had made with police in London, I was not very keen in calling the police. I did it anyway for two reasons. First, I remembered that the MacBook was covered by my business content insurance. Second, I am a skeptical person. I always like to test whether my theories work. So I was curious to see what I could get for my tax money.

Within an hour two police officers showed up, together with a Lady to secure the evidence. They were reasonably friendly and documented the case. After that they closed the case without solving it within a few days. So no success, but at least an appearance of caring. I looked into how many cases of burglary are actually being solved by the state. I didn't expect much, but was still negatively surprised to find out that the success rate was in the low single percentage digits. That is a remarkable incompetence. So protecting citizens from burglars is definitely not something that appears to work most of the time.

The burglar seemed to have been aware of this incompetence too. He did not hesitate to come back two months later. This time a desktop computer from my flatmate was stolen, and the burglar caused some severe damages to doors and some windows. My flatmate called the police, but this time only a police officer showed up. No one wanted to come along and secure the evidence that evening. They postponed that till the next day. Not very good, given that we could not leave the broken windows as they were throughout the whole cold winter night. But my flatmate, not a libertarian, still was full of respect. “They are probably very busy”.

The next day a man showed up to secure the evidence that was left. I had a very interesting conversation with him. First, I asked him whether he was indeed very busy. His answer “no, not at all. Very quite”. He did not seem to realize that the reason I might ask that was, because he showed up a day late. Then he said something very interesting. “Crime in general seems to go down. But we have no idea why that is.” Whether it is true that crime is going down or not, I don't know. But his statement that he did not know why it was going down really surprised me. Here is someone working for an organization aiming at fighting crime. He observes crime to go down, but it does not cross his mind to take the credit for it.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, being an insider at the police, the pure thought that the work of the police is reducing crime was a non-starter for him. Having put some thought into this phenomenon, the explanation he came up with was “London is probably getting too expensive to live for these criminals and they all have to move out”. Fair enough, to me too, that certainly sounded like a much more plausible explanation than 'the Met Police is doing a good job'.

Second, his answer told me that I was probably dealing with an honest man. He did not seem to be part of a conspiracy against the rest of society. He was probably really just trying to do his job as good as he can. However, he was operating within a system that just could not produce good results even if it wanted to. It is the organization that is flawed, not necessarily the people working within it.

Lastly, his honesty was a clear indication that he was under no illusion that I was something like a customer of his services. Any business man would have taken the opportunity to take credit for the lower crime rates. But he was not trying to sell me anything. At the end of the day, it was of no importance to him whether I was satisfied with his services or not. He gets paid anyway and his job is secure no matter how bad the outcome.

Wouldn't it be great if there was more than one security service provider? In that case I could have told him that I was unsatisfied with his services and was going to change to be protected by XY Policing in the future. But as far as catching criminals is concerned, there is no real legal alternative to the state police at the moment. If you were to hire a private investigator, there would be no chance of rolling over the costs for that to the criminal once he is caught. Given the rules in place, this alternative is not economical. Therefore, this business model does not really exist in this country. It is not allowed to exist, competition not wanted.

Catching criminals once they have committed a crime is one thing. A real solution to the crime problem would of course involve the prevention of crimes in the first place. I wanted to hear the police officers opinion on what I could do to not being burgled again. He said “the trick is to make your house secure enough so that the burglar looks for an easier target”. Again, I was surprised how open he was to reveal how bad the system is. That is your solution? Push the problem down the road? I should not have been surprised. Pushing problems down the road seems to be the governments 'solution' for a lot of problems. This really is a remarkably bad solution. It is essentially survival of the fittest in its most brutal form. The problems are being pushed onto the weakest elements of society at the end of the road. So this is what the praised state solution for the rule of law really comes down to. It is the law of the jungle.

When it comes to preventing crime the most important thing is of course the ability of people to defend themselves. Unless you are rich enough to afford professional security services, you will always be the first who has to act when becoming a victim. The state has a couple of reasons to dislike self defense. First, it makes the police look bad, if the citizens are doing a major component in the security production. It is much better when people feel helpless. That way the state can present itself as absolutely necessary for their security. Second, if people can defend themselves, they might use that ability one day against the state itself. This makes the work of everyone within the monopoly much more difficult. Especially police work gets much more difficult and dangerous when people can fight back. Therefore, states around the world are keen to make citizens as helpless as they can get away with.

The UK is one of the most advanced states when it comes to making people helpless. One of the tips the police officer was giving me, was to put some small nails on the top of the wooden gate the burglar had to climb over to gain access. That way he would cut his hands the next time he would try to burgle me. “But pssst” he said. “You did not get this from me. The council does not like it for health and safety reasons. Technically the burglar can sue you for damage if he gets hurt.” What? The burglar can sue me for hurting himself during his criminal activities? This statement seems so bizarre it is almost hard to believe. Unfortunately, it seems true.

This it is typical for the UK. Self defense is more and more seen as a naughty thing. How dare you actually try to hurt a burglar going after his day job. Citizens in this country have been stripped of almost any tools that could help them to defend themselves. Since it is a European country, it goes without saying that it has long fallen for the totally perverse philosophy of gun control. If you publicly suggest that gun control might not be such a good thing, you are immediately categorized as either evil or stupid and probably both. But even purely defensive, and therefore harmless weapons like pepper spray are unavailable in this country. The most weird story I have heart was, when a friend from Scotland reported to have been stopped by the police in always sunny Glasgow for carrying an umbrella. He was carrying it in a way that looked like he could use it to beat someone. Therefore, they argued it could be seen as a weapon. You cannot make this stuff up.

In the UK, we are back to the stone ages where physical body strength to a great deal determines how safe you are. The only reason that it might still be a pleasant place to live in is that it still has a relatively rich and civil society. Most people have simply little interest to hurt you.

The idea that we need a monopoly of force to have a rule of law, to me looks more like a self fulfilling prophecy than a necessity. Since alternative solutions are being outlawed, it starts to look like there is no alternative to a monopoly. But we see this monopoly produce the same poor results that we would expect from any other centrally planned service provider. It is about time that we start to rethink this solution. However, most people think that allowing competition will only lead to criminals taking over. This is really a strange idea, given that this is exactly what we are seeing in the current system.

A free market solution to secure the rule of law will unlikely lead to criminals having free range and terrorize society. That is because the vast majority of people are not criminals. They have an interest in the rule of law. If the rule of law were to be left to market forces, the combined economic power of law abiding citizens would be greater than anything a crime family could come up with by orders of magnitude. To the contrary, the current solution of having a monopoly already in place is a dream for criminals. Taking over, or at least influencing this monopoly is by far cheaper than having to establish a monopoly themselves. This is amplified by the fact that this monopoly is currently helping criminals gaining revenue by enforcing victimless crimes like drug prohibitions. The police is not the last thing to go, before we abolish the state. Instead we should make it a priority to expose the police to market competition as soon as possible.

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