Privatise the Police

Is it time for the ultimate privatisation?

Privatise the Police

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 05 December 2000

Critics of the growing number of gated communities worry that richer people will be insulated from crime and no longer reliant on public police services. This, critics believe, will make them less likely to vote for the high taxes needed to fund public policing and thus encourage more people to move into gated communities.

Could this cycle lead to the ultimate privatisation of the police service? Supporters of gated communities usually deny this, but it is a very real possibility. Perhaps it is time that this possibility was seriously examined.

The history of privatisation all over the world has taught a clear lesson. We have yet to find a service that cannot be improved by taking it out of government hands and into the control of a competitive market. One possible concern is, however, that police services, when too efficient, risk impinging on the freedoms of the citizen. Might privatised police services do this?

It seems massively unlikely. The anarcho-capitalist economist, David Friedman, has suggested that no private police force would waste time and money persecuting minorities. This makes clear sense. If any private police service offered its clients the optional extra of minority persecution, who would take it up? There may be many people who tolerate, or even actively support the persecution of minorities, but if offered the chance to pay an extra 10% on their police bill in exchange for a specified number of random beatings would anybody really do it? The market power of minorities may not be great, but it is far greater than that of the tiny number of bigots who would fork out good money for such persecution. It could never be a profitable service, as the retaliation by the police services protecting the minorities would be too severe. To be profitable, police services would need to have in place established agreements with each other to settle disputes in impartial courts. These would plainly find for the abused minorities.

But if we accept that the active persecution of minorities by the police would disappear under privatisation, might not a private service turn a blind eye to freelance persecution by its employees? It might be a potent market offering for companies to employ very large and scary police officers, willing, and even eager, to start a fight. If such people decided to randomly pick on innocent citizens, being sure to target people in ghettos who are unlikely to have much protection, wouldn’t a private company tolerate such behaviour? I think not. A private company is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees and can be sued. Public police services can also be sued, but who is more likely to impose rigorous disciplinary procedures: a public authority cushioned by taxpayers’ money or shareholders with their own money at risk? While it is impossible – under private or public ownership - to eliminate risk entirely, we have the assurance that private police employees are more likely to be controlled than are public employees.

A more serious risk is that, under pressure from customers to apprehend criminals, a private police force might find it easier to arrest a person with little or no police protection of his own, and manufacture evidence against him, than to track down the real offender. A cynic might accept that this is a real risk, but then ask how it differs from the current situation. It differs in three important respects. If the police are accountable to individual customers and not to voters they will be under a different type of pressure. Victims of burglary will take some satisfaction in seeing the burglar jailed, but will be more concerned to have their goods returned. This can only be achieved by arresting the right person. While it might be possible to extort compensation from an innocent victim, choosing a victim rich enough to fund the compensation but not rich enough to have protection of his own is too delicate a task to be relied upon.

Secondly, a private police service will have its reputation to consider. While public police forces can be exposed in the media for miscarriages of justice, it does not cost them business, in a competitive market it would.

Thirdly, private police services have another reputation to consider: their reputation with criminals. Any police service that has a reputation for catching the right person, expensive as that reputation might be to acquire, is sure to find that its clients are not as heavily targeted as others. A reputation for treating suspects brutally may cheer voters but it doesn’t frighten criminals, not unless it is accompanied by a reputation for finding the right person.

In choosing a police service customers may, at first, be attracted to those that promise a high arrest rate and long periods of incarceration. But further investigation will reveal that some companies offer a much higher chance of recovering stolen goods and a much lower chance of being robbed in the first place. These will be the firms with a good record in tracking down the actual criminal, and these are the firms most people will choose.

Some people will, for moral reasons, actively avoid police services which unfairly target minorities, an option they do not currently have. But, as ever with the market, we do not have to rely on this to achieve our goal. Simply by choosing the police provider which offers the best service, even bigots will find themselves shunning bigoted police services, under the guidance of our old friend the invisible hand.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 05 December 2000

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