Compared to the general population, advocates of a minimal state and those of a stateless society overwhelmingly agree on a vast majority of political issues. I wish to argue here that there should be at least one more agreement between them than there traditionally has been: policing services need not be monopolized by the state and would be more efficiently provided by the private sector.
Almost every individual who has argued for the desirability of having policing services provided in a free market does not stop there, but applies the same reasoning to other services monopolized by the traditional minimal state and thus conclude that a stateless society is optimal. Unconvinced minarchist libertarians, given the choice between their ideal minimal state — one that provides policing, courts, and the military — and a stateless society, will tend to stick with the former.1
An alternative that is seldom considered, however, is one in which private enterprise competes to meet consumer preferences for policing within a state system. Such a framework is immune to criticisms of the stability of a stateless society, such as that by Tyler Cowen, who argues that arbitration networks in a stateless society would eventually collude and resemble a state.2
In this alternative framework, where the state still possesses a monopoly on the legitimized initiation of force within a geographical territory, concerns such as protection agencies enforcing very disparate legal rules are moot. These agencies would only enforce generally recognized property rights (that is, rogue agencies violating property rights would be opposed by both other agencies and the state).
A non sequitur frequently made by those advocating a minimal state — including Robert Nozick, who argued that there is a natural monopoly in the field of providing police protection — is that a monopoly on the use of force necessarily implies a monopoly on policing. After all, the marketplace already provides numerous policing services and amenities including burglar alarms, locks, rent-a-cops, and bodyguards, not to mention services such as Neighborhood Watch and emergency services substitutes such as the PeaceKeeper App. When we consider “policing” to include the things many want government police to do as well as the goods and services purchased in the market for security, we notice that having a comparative advantage in the use of physical violence does not necessarily cause one to be the most successful service provider. People want police to be courteous, conscientious, and reasonable; they do not simply want them to be the best martial artists or sharpshooters.
We also notice that the quantity and quality of security demanded far outstrips the quantity supplied by government police. No great imagination is needed to describe a world where policing services are provided by private enterprise within a state: this is the world in which we currently live. As I have written previously:
[T]here are an estimated 3 persons employed in private security for every public cop. … Private policing isn’t some fantasy, and it isn’t just a luxury enjoyed by the rich: every time you enter a shopping mall, go to a department store, visit an amusement park, enjoy a live professional sporting event, or use PayPal, you are being protected by people trying to maximize profit.
All we need imagine are these services being provided on a larger scale. Precisely how these services would be provided would be determined by entrepreneurs and the competitive process. Compared to the centralized, bureaucratic policing with which we are familiar, we would likely see far greater emphasis on prevention (rather than responding to crimes after they have occurred), de-escalation tactics with violence being used as a last resort (since entrepreneurs, rather than taxpayers, would be on the hook for civil damages), and much more accountability (because customers could take their business elsewhere).
Furthermore, such an institutional change could have wide appeal beyond only people who desire a small state. Those who are concerned about the police’s respect for civil liberties and their treatment of minorities and the poor, but who are not necessarily in favor of smaller government, should appreciate the empowerment that competition and choice bring to the consumer. Individuals and communities being able to fire the police and replace them would do far more to ensure high quality policing than protests, civilian oversight boards, or federal consent decrees ever will.
Ultimately, the government need not be in the business of the provision of policing any more than it need be in the provision of shoes. For those who believe a state is necessary to define “the rules of the game,” be a final decision-maker in legal disputes, and ensure individual rights are protected, a government monopoly on policing is not only unnecessary but may even be counterproductive.
- 1.The only exception of which I am aware is John Hasnas, who has made a similar argument about how a truly minimal state would be smaller than is traditionally conceived.
- 2.Cowen, T. (1992). “Law as a public good: the economics of anarchy.” Economics and Philosophy, 8(02): 249-267.