Mises Daily

Police Forces

[This article is excerpted from Society Without Coercion.]

Today there is the commonly accepted, but completely fallacious idea that somehow police protection, access to courts, and even legal counsel is a “right” of citizenship in the United States. However, there is no more justification for such services being provided “free” (i.e., through taxation) than there is for color TV sets to be provided for each and every person in America at “public expense.” Either a person has a right to his own life, liberty, and property, or he does not. If he does, nothing can justify forcing him to subsidize another person for any purpose, including for the purpose of police protection.

Either a person has the responsibility of maintaining his own life, or he does not. If he does, then he must earn the necessary funds himself to pay for the necessities and luxuries of his own existence.

In a free society, police protection, like every other service, would be available on a contractual basis, only to those who were willing and able to pay for it. There are four main ways in which an anarchocapitalist police force could be financed:

  1. through service contracts (similar to insurance);
  2. through specific investigatory fees;
  3. through special contracts; and
  4. through fines.

We will now discuss each in turn.

Service contracts would be the major source of revenue for a laissez-faire police department. A service contract would simply consist of a contractual agreement between a police department and an individual, whereby the police department would agree to provide the individual with certain services (e.g., investigation, physical defense of his property, etc.), should he need them, in exchange for a yearly premium.

These policies would work essentially like insurance. Virtually everyone in a given society would subscribe and pay the yearly premium in order to be assured that, should the need arise, police protection would be available. Nonetheless, during any given year, only a small fraction of the total number of policyholders would actually need major police services. Therefore, the cost of police protection would be effectively spread over a large number of subscribers.

Let us take a concrete example. Suppose the cost of an average police investigation in Brandenberg was $5,000. If an individual needing police protection had to pay this cost all at once, he probably could not afford it. However, instead of paying such a large “specific investigatory fee,” the individual will almost certainly be a subscriber to police protection, as will millions of others. Say there are one thousand subscribers in Brandenberg paying $100 a year each, making the total income for this small, local police department $100,000 per year.

During the course of any given year, it is unlikely that more than four or five persons out of this thousand will need police protection. If their investigations cost $5,000 each, this makes a total investigatory cost of $25,000 per year, leaving $75,000 for other police functions. Since the individual only pays $100 a year, he has in fact received $5,000 worth of benefits (so to speak) for his comparatively nominal fee. This is exactly how insurance works: on the principle that only a fraction of policy holders will ever collect at a given time, while many more are paying premiums.

The second form of police income is even simpler to explain. In the rare case that an individual needed police protection, but had not entered into, and did not now want to enter into, a long-term contract, or in the case of an individual requesting special services (such as, perhaps hunting for a missing person), there would be specific investigatory fees. Again, these fees would be rather high, compared to the normal contractual agreement, but in some cases persons would find them worth paying.

The third form of police income would be special contracts. Thus, for example, a company owning a major turnpike would probably contract with a private police force to patrol their highway, since it is to their rational self-interest to prevent reckless driving and other acts that would discourage use of their road and thus decrease their profits.1 Or similarly, a private factory might hire police to guard their facilities.

Finally, police forces in a free society could be financed through receipts from fines. As a contractual condition of procuring police protection, individuals could empower police departments to collect fines for misdemeanors committed. This would also save costly court expenses for both the justice company and for the private individual.

Let us now consider how anarchocapitalist police forces might operate. There are two basic operational types of crimes: those reported (or discovered by police) after the fact, and those reported (or discovered by police) during the fact.

In the former case, police procedure would be quite clear. A family, upon returning from an outing, who discovered that their house had been robbed, would call the police and report the fact, as they would today.

Then (unlike today) the police would first check to see if the family was signed up with them and entitled to this form of assistance by their contract. This could be done virtually instantaneously through electronic information-retrieval systems. If the family was signed up and entitled to this type of assistance, a policeman would be dispatched and would proceed with his investigation. If the family was not signed up, or not entitled to this type of protection by their contract, a police-force salesman would probably be sent out along with an investigator.

The salesman would explain to the family, which has now become a high risk, how they could extend their contract to cover this situation if they were already signed up, or he could explain to them the forms of contract now available to them if they were not signed up, or he could simply tell them the cost of the specific investigation that they were requesting if that is all they wished to pay for. Naturally, if they had not already contracted for the type of police service they were now requesting, they would have to pay more for it at this time than they would have had to pay if they had been covered by a service contract; just as a person must pay more for auto insurance after he has had an accident than before. However, the important point is that in after the fact cases it is clearly possible to verify whether or not a family had signed up with the police, and if not, to assess the appropriate fees.

Crimes discovered during the fact by police present a somewhat different situation. If a policeman comes upon a person being assaulted by a mugger, he does not, of course, have time to verify whether or not the person attacked is signed up for police protection, even if this would only take a few minutes. If the person were signed up, he would probably be somewhat annoyed that the policeman stood around checking his identity while he was sustaining mortal injuries. If he were not signed up, the police force might be losing a good prospect. For these reasons, among others, a policeman encountering such a situation would as a matter of course immediately come to the apparent victim’s aid.

“The fact that a person may be an innocent victim does not alter his obligation of providing for his own life.”

Of course, the person being attacked does not have any “right” to demand that he be protected, any more than he has a right to demand that he be fed when he is hungry. Both police protection and food are commodities one has to purchase in a free market. The fact that a person may be an innocent victim does not alter his obligation of providing for his own life.

There are, however, a number of reasons why a policeman would automatically come to a person’s aid in such a situation. First, as mentioned above, the victim might be a present client. Second, the victim would be a good potential client. Third, it is to the policeman’s self-interest to see that criminals are countered, since this increases the profits of the police department, or more directly might increase his own salary. (Conceivably raises and promotions would be based on how well a policeman performed his function of protecting men from criminals.)

Now what happens if the victim is not in fact a client of this or of any other police department? Again, there are two possibilities. First, the person might have called “Help, police!” If he did so, he has then in fact made a verbal contract for police assistance, just as you make an implicit contract to pay the check when you walk into a restaurant and order a meal. In this case, the policeman would send the victim a bill and expect him to pay.

In the second case, the person does not call “Help, police!” but is simply lying there, bleeding while the mugger is beating on him. In this case no verbal contract exists. However, for the reasons mentioned above, the policeman would come to the person’s aid.

Being rational, the police force would also send this person a bill, which he would be requested but not obligated to pay. Since the police have just saved his life, there is a good chance that he would pay. Or, if the police force was smart, they would send out a salesman and attempt to sign him up. Since he had just benefited from their services, it would seem quite likely that he would at least take the “special budget protection package.” If he did not, the small expense of saving his life could be easily financed out of general police receipts, and surely no one in Brandenberg would complain about the policeman spending a few minutes of his time to save an innocent victim’s life.

There is, finally, at least one other way in which police protection might be financed. Since the investigation of crimes, the protection of property, and other such activities are actions necessitated by criminals, it would seem logical to make them pay at least part of the cost of such operations. Thus, one of the debts of the criminal to “society” in a free community might be to pay back the cost of the investigation he necessitated.

In this manner, police protection for the poor might be financed.2 It will be interesting to see, if we ever create a free society, just which method of financing — service fees or criminal payment — would work out best.

I will consider one more issue connected with police departments: arrests. Some libertarians assert that arrest is inherently immoral because it is in fact the initiation of force against persons whose guilt has not been proven “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” There is, however, a very simple epistemological justification for arrest in a free society. It is as follows:

Necessarily, man acts on the basis of his knowledge. At best man can be epistemologically certain, that is, certain in a given context of knowledge. Man can seldom, if ever, be metaphysically certain, that is, certain that there exists no alternative in the universe to his judgment. To be metaphysically certain, in most cases, requires omniscience, which man clearly does not possess. Man can generally only be certain that he has examined all relevant facts available to him, and integrated them without contradiction; what is relevant is again dictated by his state of knowledge.

Knowledge of the truth of propositions is not an either-or condition, a dichotomous function. Knowledge is a continuous function, varying from, at one end, complete ignorance to, at the other end, complete (epistemological) certainty.

In assessing the guilt or innocence of a man accused of committing a crime there exists, accordingly, an epistemological evidential continuum, varying from possibility of such guilt, to certainty of such guilt. At different levels on the evidential continuum, different actions are appropriate.

Thus, when one suspects that a man might possibly be guilty of a crime, it is proper to question him. When one has evidence that a man is probably guilty of a crime, it is proper to arrest him. And when one is convinced that a man is certainly guilty of a crime, it is proper to punish him. In general, the appropriate action with respect to suspected criminals depends upon the amount of evidence one has. Arrest is then justified when guilt is probable.

Now this does not of course mean that the morality of one’s actions finally depends upon the contextual validity of one’s judgment. Whether one was right or wrong in questioning, arresting, or imprisoning a man depends upon whether he had in fact committed a crime. If in a free society the police arrest or the courts convict a person who later turns out to be innocent, they would be required to make restitution for their errors equal to the damages and inconvenience they caused him (unless the person had contractually freed them of this obligation).

There are two ways in which an anarchocapitalist justice system could deal with police and judicial error. Either the police force of a free society could have its clients contractually agree to be subject to arrest when the police (or a magistrate) judged the evidence to be sufficient (thus freeing them from the obligation of making restitution if they arrested a person who later turned out to be innocent); or they would agree to make restitution if they made a mistake.

Of the two possibilities, I prefer the latter. If the police or courts make a mistake, they should pay for it. In a free market of justice, police making many errors would thus quickly be eliminated by bankruptcy.

This article is excerpted from chapter 3 of Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization (Society for Rational Individualism, 1969).Download PDF

  • 1Roads in a free society would, like everything else, be privately owned. For a description of the financing, construction and maintenance of roads without taxation or eminent domain, see my article “’Public Services’ Under Laissez Faire, parts VI and VII — the Roads,” which appear in the July and August 1969 issues of The Rational Individualist.
  • 2A second obvious method of financing police protection for the deserving poor would be through charity — either from private agencies, or from the police department itself.
All Rights Reserved ©
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute