By Chris Calton
I have a general distrust of police, but while distrust may be healthy, I try to keep my antipathy aimed at the institution of the police, rather than the individuals themselves. After all, not all police officers are guilty of accidentally killing six-year-olds, playing sadistic games with unarmed civilians prior to executing them, or killing family pets. Even if they may be misguided, there are actually people who join the police with the noble goal of protecting their communities, and they do their jobs without brutalizing and executing innocent civilians.
But the institution of the police – being the government-run monopoly on the law enforcement industry – means that even these well-intentioned police officers have to face the dilemma of carrying out morally-questionable aspects of their job. What constitutes “morally questionable” varies from person to person, but as government grows, it seems that more people are identifying certain law enforcement obligations as, to them, morally questionable, if not outright immoral.
The most prominent example of such a reaction has grown out of law enforcement officers themselves. I’m referring to the group Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which was originally Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The name change reflects the growing awareness of morally questionable laws police officers are expected to enforce. LEAP was originally founded in 2002 by five police officers who had come to realize that the War on Drugs was not only a failure, but waging it was immoral and harmful.
In January of 2017, LEAP changed the last two letters of the acronym to stand for “Action Partnership” as an indication that drug laws were no longer the only unjust laws that police were obligated to enforce. The problems of the criminal justice system, such as mass incarceration, are not solely the product of drug prohibition. These officers recognize that at least some of what they are expected to do is the opposite of what we are told police do; they were not “protecting and serving,” they were destroying innocent lives. Many police officers who have come to such realizations have quit the force.
But the institution of the police remains, and the result of conscionable officers quitting is that cops who are less likely to be violent and abusive leave, while those who are attracted to a job that allows them to commit violence with near impunity replace them. The result is that while there may still be good cops – which I’m generously defining here as cops who sincerely want to protect their communities, even if they mistakenly believe that includes enforcing bad laws –the natural tendency of this system is for “bad cops” to stay and “good cops” to scram.
Recognition of this is hardly a “war on cops,” as some conservative commentators argue. If anything, it’s a war on bad cops, but it should be a war on a bad institution – an institution that has built-in incentives to attract dangerous personalities and weed out the level-headed and responsible. Narratives repeating the “war on cops” mantra only serve to support a system that fails to hold guilty cops accountable, maintaining this negative incentive. “Law and order” conservatives should be the greatest opponent to such a system, but few seem to have come to this conclusion.
But the institution isn’t the only reason people are increasingly realizing that cops can’t be trusted. The other reason is the laws. Local laws, state laws, and federal laws. As government grows, so do statutes and criminal codes. The police don’t have to agree with the law, they just have to enforce it. At least, this is what we are reminded any time cops are criticized for “just doing their job.”
But there is truth in that statement. Many cops are “just doing their jobs” when they make an arrest that seems difficult to justify. Most police officers have no desire to shut down a child’s illegal lemonade stand. It’s just their job. Likewise, I would at least hope most police officers don’t want to arrest the elderly for illegally smuggling flowers (though the cops in this story did seem to enjoy it). But whether they enjoy it or not, it’s their job.
When I see people criticizing stories such as these, it often seems like they are criticizing the cops, rather than the laws. I understand the criticism of the police officers – nobody forces them to put on a badge – but the laws are the real problem, and the police are often just the symptom.
The problems we find in the institution of the police, then, stem from two different areas. The first is the one that typically gets acknowledged, and that’s the government policies in running the police. The negative incentives that attract dangerous people, the lack of consequences for mistakes and abuses of authority, and the low criteria for earning a badge. Many libertarians argue for the privatization of the police as a way of reversing these incentives so that they have a positive effect. The recent string of sexual harassment allegations demonstrates the different levels of accountability between private individuals and those in government positions.
But when libertarians advocate privatizing the police – a position I’ll admit that I share – they are usually advocating the privatization of security. The motto of the police is “To Protect and Serve.” This is the motto of a security industry. But despite continuing to fly this banner, the police today hardly constitute a “security” service. In fact, the security industry is already privatized, and there are more private security guards employed in the United States and other countries than there are police officers.
The synonymous term for “police” is “law enforcement,” and this is a distinction worth remembering. The role of police is not, and has never been, to keep people safe; it has always only been to enforce the law.
When a public police force was first created, the idea of “law enforcement” and “public safety” almost went hand-in-hand. Most laws were actually designed to protect the person and property of private citizens (with exceptions, of course). So even if a public police force was less efficient than a private alternative, its job was still, for the most part, to keep people safe by enforcing the laws designed to protect them from violent criminals.
But as government has grown into the leviathan we know today, the law has expanded well beyond a small criminal code designed to protect life, liberty, and property. But the police, true to their role as law enforcement officers, are just as obligated to enforce these laws – the ones prohibiting marijuana use, lemonade stands, and collecting rainwater, to name only a few oft-cited legal absurdities – as they are to enforce laws protecting people from violent criminals. In fact, if we factor in the negative incentives police departments have guiding the allocation of their resources, it’s reasonable to conclude that an officer is more obligated to enforce the laws against non-violent criminals than the laws against violent ones.
If we really want to solve the problems that people are increasingly associating with police, privatizing the police is certainly a good start. But the real solution is to privatize the law.
Chris Calton is a Mises University alumnus and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.
See also his YouTube channel here.
This article was sourced from Mises.org