The killing of George Floyd sparked another debate about the power of the police in the United States. Although the focus was quickly turned to race, with accompanying rioting and looting, the fact is that police violence continues to be inflicted on Americans regardless of skin color. While racial disparities due to racism and other factors certainly are a component of the problem, it’s not the root of it. The root is in the imbalance of power between the police and the people.
The police have what’s called “qualified immunity,” meaning that you can’t sue them when they violate your rights. They’re subject to internal police discipline—the discipline of other cops who have every incentive to go easy on the offender. In essence, police form a class that is protected by the government from direct consequences of their wrongdoing, being allowed to get away with crimes that anyone else would be arrested for.
Not only do government police enjoy protection from direct consequences of their actions, but their method of funding completely dissociates them from indirect consequences of their actions: police are paid with tax money. You do not have a choice about paying the police, no matter how poorly they protect you, and no matter how many times they mistreat and kill people. The police are paid with funds that are forcibly taken from you—and if you try to withhold your money, the police come to take it, or to put you in prison. There are currently no voluntarily funded police agencies. What this means is that the government police have a virtual monopoly on the provision of police service.
It’s a fact of economics that when an organization has a monopoly the quality of the good or service decreases and the price increases. This is no less true in the area of defense and law enforcement. With no competition, there is no incentive to provide better service. It’s true that there are alternatives to police—there are private security agencies. However, due to the nature of government police, this is not true competition because you have no choice but to pay the government’s police.
When you hire someone to perform a service and they do not perform the service as expected, or they’re too expensive, or any other reason, you can hire someone else. In the last instance, you can attempt to either perform the service for yourself or do without. But no matter how bad the government police are, you cannot truly choose another service—or even choose to stop paying them.
Together, the virtual monopoly, the immunity from prosecution, and the forced funding mean that the police are almost totally insulated from the natural consequences of their decisions. It also enables activities that benefit the police but do not protect the citizens, like civil asset forfeiture (theft), detainment (kidnapping), “reasonable use of force” (assault), and as we see over and over, killing.
The question should now be asked: what are the natural consequences on the market of the actions the government police engage in? Ask yourself: would you want to voluntarily pay an agency whose employees could pull you out of your car and beat you without any repercussions? Would you want to support an organization that, when you ask them to check if your neighbor is alright, they shoot and kill her?
Would you want to finance the people who killed George Floyd? Because you do. Without your consent, your money is taken from you and given to them, enabling more of the same behavior.
If the Minneapolis Police Department had been one of several voluntarily funded police agencies competing for business, the officer responsible for Floyd’s death would have been immediately arrested. If the (private) MPD had any business sense, they would have arrested him themselves to demonstrate their trustworthiness and try to salvage their reputation with their customers. But the most likely scenario is that with private police agencies George Floyd would not have died, because police officers would see people as customers and potential customers instead of as criminals and potential criminals.
While racism certainly exists in the government police force, it’s not the core problem. The ultimate issue is that police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. No amount of government action will make them accountable. No new government oversight committees or investigative powers will reform the police, because those bodies will have the same problems of immunity and involuntary funding. The only way to reform the police is to break the government monopoly: remove their immunity, remove their involuntary funding, and allow private agencies to freely compete for the honor of keeping Americans safe.
It’s time for voluntarily funded police agencies.