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Costs of the Surveillance State

August 27, 2003

Police departments around the nation have begun utilizing high-tech video surveillance in their fight against crime, as the private sector has for many years. Officials in New Orleans recently announced that by October the city plans to have installed 100 of these surveillance cameras within its limits. The plan, which will eventually see the installation of 1,000 cameras throughout the city, is part of an effort to further combat crime in certain "hot spots."[1] 

New Orleans Police Department spokesman Sgt. Paul Accardo said that in July alone suspects in two separate slayings were captured thanks to the footage caught on surveillance. The city is now one of more than a dozen cities around the nation that are using surveillance to deter crime and identify criminals.

The implementation of public video surveillance is a direct result of the inefficiencies of state law enforcement. As a result, instead of loosening regulations and allowing individuals to purchase protection for themselves from private agencies, the state is attempting to account for its own incompetence. (This issue has followed the same path as the evolution of the housing crisis of past decades, whereby state imposed rent control and standards created a shortage of affordable housing, which the state attempted to account for with the creation of subsidized housing.[2])   Of the many absurd features of the adoption of public video surveillance, there are three notable injustices that will arise.

First, how will government decide where the cameras will be placed?  Obviously the purpose of the tactic is to aid the ineffectual law enforcement in high crime areas, but whose property will be in the eye of the lens?  Clearly, this is just another instance of subsidization, some benefit at the expense of others.

Secondly, which of the state's personnel will view the footage and judge how such footage can be used?  Further, who is to determine the legitimacy or conclusiveness of evidence caught on tape?  Could someone smoking a cigarette be accused of smoking dope, or could someone sipping a milkshake in their car be accused of drinking and driving? 

Finally, who or what will set limits on the usage of the cameras?  When will usage go too far?  What ludicrous, illegitimate new laws condemning victimless crimes will be passed for individuals to uphold once personal activities on private property have been publicized?  These chief issues surrounding the implementation of public surveillance merely scratch the surface into what such measures would certainly bring about.

Although it is difficult for many to admit, public law enforcement is characterized by the same traits that are exhibited in all government provided goods and services. Likewise, the recent trend within the sector provides a perfect example of the injustices and inefficiencies of such programs. Analysis of the current crime situation plaguing cities around the nation reveals the irony of state-run defense. By monopolizing law enforcement, the state has taken up the responsibility of protecting everyone within its borders, and the certain failures guaranteed by such measures have manifested themselves.

A primary reason for these shortcomings is the shortage of law enforcement services. In providing a "free" service[3] such as police and courts, the state has essentially fixed the price of protection below the market price thus setting the demand for such services far beyond supply. Additionally, in regulating private police and security agencies to the point where an array of justified measures have been simply outlawed, the state is the only source of legal defense. Being that individuals seeking defense have no other legal means of protection than the state, what incentive does the state have to operate efficiently? Since the service is already funded by the taxes, and individuals cannot patronize another defender, the state can thoughtlessly surf its monopoly wave.

What, then, is the most efficient, just solution?  As is the case with every good and service that constitute the economy, freedom. Unregulated markets are characterized by the tendency of resources to move toward their most efficient, most demanded uses; hence defense services would naturally shift to traditionally high-crime areas, creating competition and overall lower prices. Free market law enforcement would operate as insurance does, save for the current regulations on that industry. Individuals would purchase defense services, if they so desired, on a subscription basis paying premiums as stipulated in contract.

Different levels of coverage would exist so as to best satisfy the demands of the consumer. Through competition, inefficient and corrupt bandit agencies, like some current police forces around the nation, would undoubtedly find themselves bankrupt as the proficient, just agencies best satisfy individuals' needs. It would be likely that group services would become widespread whereby individuals living in the same community would pool their funds to purchase defense for the group as a whole. Likewise, if individuals felt as though they could defend themselves, without aid, the option is theirs.

No one can deny the fact that public law enforcement falls short of being a success. However, many believe that the solution is giving more entitlement to the state to allocate funds for improvements, such as the installation of surveillance cameras. Society has come to allow government too much clout, entrusting it with too many responsibilities, granting it an abundance of control. When individuals face tribulations or the status of the economy is in shambles, people see the state as the source of salvation instead of the source of the problem.

Erich Mattei is an economics major at Loyola University of New Orleans. ehmattei@loyno.eduSee his archive.

[1] The Times-Picayune. Saturday, August 9, 2003. A–1, A–7.

[2] See Block, Walter, & Edgar Olsen. Rent Control: Myths and Realities. The Fraser Institute. Vancouver, British Columbia: 1981.

[3] Obviously these services are not free being that they are funded by plunder, i.e. taxes. See Rothbard, Murray. Power and Market. 2nd Edition. Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc. Kansas City: 1977. 173–4.

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