Mises Wire

Abolish the FBI

Like all employees of the FBI, James Comey lives off the sweat of the American taxpayer. His large salary, upon retirement, will be converted into a very generous pension. Like most federal employees in a high ranking position like his, Comey continues to look forward to decades of living at a standard of living far above what is experienced by ordinary people in the private sector. 

To maintain this life of comfort, all he had to do was agree to look the other way as a powerful politician clearly — by Comey’s own admission — broke federal law. 

Naturally, this same treatment would never be afforded to an ordinary taxpayer, who would likely be looking at years in federal prison for offenses similar to that which Hillary Clinton has apparently committed. Moreover, Comey even went out of his way to do his best to ensure no federal prosecutor would proceed with charges when he claimed that “no reasonable prosecutor” would do so. It wasn’t enough for Comey to simply not recommend charges. He had to pre-emptively condemn any prosecutor who might proceed with charges.

Some have claimed that Comey was forced to cave to Obama administration pressure in order to protect his family. Of course, Comey could have resigned his position rather than take a position he regarded as unethical. Then the task of clearing Clinton would have fallen to Comey’s successor. There are precedents for this. When ordered by Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than do what the president mandated. Comey could have done the same, but then he would have had to give up some of his comforts and privileges. To find work, he might have had to move to an unexciting place like Indianapolis or Albuquerque. 

Nevertheless, Comey has accidentally done us a great service by publicly exhibiting the true nature of the FBI: it is a political organization that expands the reach and prerogatives of the federal government over citizens and taxpayers, while protecting the powerful.

Of all federal police forces, the FBI is the most romanticized, and every FBI agent is assumed to be the modern embodiment of a fictionalized version of Eliot Ness: incorruptible, professional, and efficient. Decades of pop culture has driven this home with TV series and movies such as The Untouchables, The FBI Story, and This Is Your FBI have long perpetuated the idea that when local police fail, the FBI will step in to be more effective and simply better than every other law enforcement agency. Corruption cannot touch the FBI, we are told, and they apply the law equally to everyone. 

A History of Abuse

This was always obviously untrue to anyone not suffering from crippling naïvete, but Comey has helped make the political nature of the Bureau plain for all to see. 

The reality and the romance, of course, have always been two totally different things, and it’s helpful to remind ourselves that it was the FBI that was in charge of the Waco massacre where 26 children were killed. It was the FBI that led the raid on Randy Weaver’s house where an FBI sniper shot a woman dead while she was holding a 10-month old baby. It was the FBI that spied on Martin Luther King, Jr., and targeted peaceful anti-war organizations for political reasons during the 1960s and 70s. It was the FBI that came of age arresting opponents of the First World War. 

Naturally, in all of these cases, the FBI has actively covered up the facts and denied wrongdoing. 

James Bovard reported in his 2012 article “A Stasi for America“: 

A ripple of protest swept across the Internet in late March after the disclosure that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was teaching its agents that “the FBI has the ability to bend or suspend the law to impinge on the freedom of others.” This maxim was inculcated as part of FBI counterterrorism training. The exposure of the training material—sparked by a series of articles by Wired.com’s Spencer Ackerman—spurred the ritual declaration by an FBI spokesman that “mistakes were made, and we are correcting those mistakes.” No FBI officials were sanctioned or fired for teaching lawmen that they were above the law...At least the FBI has been consistent. Since its founding in 1908, the bureau has rarely let either the statute book or the Constitution impede its public service. Tim Weiner, the author of a superb exposé of the CIA (Legacy of Ashes) has delivered a riveting chronology of some of the FBI’s biggest crimes with his new book, Enemies.

Violating the rights of ordinary people has been standard policy at the FBI for decades. But, who can be surprised that the FBI now seeks to protect powerful politicians from the same laws that the FBI would enthusiastically use to prosecute and imprison ordinary citizens?

The FBI Is Unconstitutional and Ineffective

Thanks to the enduring view that federal police would tip the balance too far in favor of the federal government, many Americans opposed federal agencies like the FBI throughout the nineteenth century. It was feared that federal police would turn into secret police forces such as those known to be used in imperial Russia. Certainly, the Constitution does not mandate any federal police force. Consequently, it was not until the twentieth century that federal agencies like the FBI gained traction, thanks to a rising tide of pro-federal sentiment brought on by war and hysterical fear of “anarchists.” 

Thanks to war hysteria during World War I, the FBI rose to prominence as Woodrow Wilson’s shock troops against “dissidents” (i.e., peaceful opponents of the war). Indeed, persecuting and prosecuting political enemies of the American state would become something of the forte of the FBI, with the role of the agency being expanded ever more during times of perceived national crisis. The idea of the FBI as a crime-fighting organization — the primary message of fawning treatments of the FBI such as The Untouchables and The FBI Story — for decades served as cover for the FBI’s political activities. As Foreign Policy pointed out in 2014, though, the FBI quietly dropped its claims of being a crime fighting organization and began declaring itself a “national security” organization. Down the memory hole goes the FBI’s original claimed raison d’etre. In its current Q and A, the FBI now acts as if it had never claimed to be a crime fighting organization at all: 

Is the FBI a type of national police force?

No. The FBI is a national security organization that works closely with many partners around the country and across the globe to address the most serious security threats facing the nation.

No longer tied down by the need to waste its valuable time — as the FBI sees it — on mundane, real, and concrete crime such as kidnapping, the FBI can now focus on the far-more-amorphous “national security.” Never mind the fact, of course, that the FBI’s record on preventing terrorist acts such as 9/11 and the Orlando shooting is abysmal, and the terrorist plots it has “prevented” in recent years were actually facilitated by the FBI itself. Predictably, after the FBI was criticized in the wake of the Orlando shooting, James Comey declared to the press that the FBI did a fine job: 

“We are also going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently,” Comey said. “So far, the honest answer is: I don’t think so.”

The FBI Was Created to Compete with Successful Private Agencies 

It should be noted that the FBI was not created to fill a hole in law enforcement needs. On the contrary, it was created to usurp and displace a highly-efficient and effective private police force that already existed: the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. 

Writing in Private Investigation and Security Science: A Scientific Approach, Frank Machovec notes that “The FBI, founded in 1908, was modeled from Pinkerton’s organization and methods,” while Marie Gottschalk writes in The Prison and the Gallows that “In its early years, the FBI modeled itself after the Pinkertons and other private police agencies.”

In fact, government-run police organizations had long been shown to be inefficient and prone to corruption, which is why the private sector turned to private security instead. Gottschalk continues: 

The unreliability of metropolitan police, with their strong local and partisan ties, prompted major businesses and industrialists to establish the Pinkertons and other private police forces. The Pinkertons ultimately functioned as a de facto national detective and policing service until the 1920s, when the FBI finally came into its own.

By the early twentieth century, the Pinkertons and other private investigative organizations had established themselves as reliable and effective. It’s why the Pinkertons repeatedly show up in popular culture as the highly-efficient and dangerous enemies of beloved Old-West outlaws like Butch Cassidy. 

As early as 1857, politicians were already noting the public’s favorable perceptions of private police over public police, with Chicago mayor John Wentworth noting: 

Our police system has been gradually falling into disrepute; and it is a lamentable fact that, whilst our citizens are heavily taxed to support a large police force, a highly respectable private police is doing a lucrative business. Our citizens have ceased to look to the public police for protection, for the detection of culprits or the recovery of stolen property.

The federal government, however, wanted a similar force that it could directly control, and thus turned to a federal police force instead. The desire to present the new agency as like the Pinkertons can be seen in the decision to call FBI investigators “agents” just as many private sector investigators were addressed (as opposed to “deputy” or “officer”).

The Pinkertons were primarily interested in property crime with actual victims (i.e., train robbing). The FBI, however, could be used to go after political enemies, protesters, supposed draft dodgers and others who ran afoul of government regulations created to benefit the government itself. Over time, the FBI would crowd out the Pinkertons as a national police force (although, unfortunately, government organizations were known to contract with the Pinkertons). 

This was all to the good according to many critics of the Pinkertons who wanted a government-controlled national police force that could be used against the private sector, rather than be controlled by it. 

The FBI Is a Product of Anti-Capitalist Movements 

Indeed, the rise of the FBI is very much the product of left-wing and labor unionist movements to curb the power of the Pinkertons in favor of the FBI and similar agencies. 

A recent example of this line of thought can be found in Elizabeth Joh’s 2006 article “The Forgotten Threat: Private Policing and the State.” 

As explained by Joh, the left was highly critical of the Pinkertons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for their role in combating striking workers and for being employed by private organizations. While federal police forces such as the FBI would work only in the “public interest” it was assumed, organizations like the the Pinkertons functioned at the morally base level of seeking “profit.” 

The Pinkerton’s however, never functioned with the sort of firepower, manpower, and legal immunity enjoyed by federal agencies today. Indeed, in some cases, the Pinkertons surrendered to their “victims” as in the case of the Homestead Riot of 1892 where, according to Joh, “[o]utnumbered, the Pinkerton guards surrendered, and were beaten by an angry mob.” 

Three workers were killed in the melee, making the Homestead Riot a peaceful affair by FBI standards. Under the leadership of the FBI, federal agents killed 17 times as many people at Waco, including children. However, unlike Waco, which produced no sanctions or sustained public reactions against the FBI, the Homestead Riot became the high tide for anti-Pinkerton scrutiny and a flashpoint for action against private security agencies. For example, following an investigation of private security agencies at the time, the US Senate’s investigatory committee declared that private security is illegitimate and that “use of private armed men is an assumption [that is, usurpation] of the State’s authority by private citizens.” Indeed, the Senate committee declared, the use of private arms to secure private property will lead to “anarchy.”

For decades afterward, government committee and pro-labor groups worked together to condemn, investigate, and discredit private security agencies. Government agencies, it was maintained, would be responsive to elected officials and the public at large. If private policing agencies could be done away with, the public was told, no more would police organizations function in their own self-interest. 

Such views have always been impressively naïve, although the public has long fallen for these claims. Moreover, one of the primary benefits of private security has been that it is subject to a totally separate and often hostile (to private security) legal system. Unlike the FBI, which enjoys a variety of government-granted immunities from responsibility for abuses and wrongful deaths, private security is legally subject to the same laws as everyone else. Even worse, agencies like the FBI can directly tap into nearly limitless funds through their taxpayer-funded budgets. Unlike private security firms that are constrained by real-world budgets, government prosecutors and police agencies face no such limitation. Obviously, this places defendants at an even more lopsided economic disadvantage than when dealing with powerful private firms. 

Today, federal police organizations, federal courts, and federal prosecutors are all part of a single organization. Naturally, these organizations tend to favor each other in their proceedings. On the other hand, if there is a distrust of private security within the court system (or vice versa) that’s all for the best, since as a result of this tension, checks and balances are likely to actually mean something. The same cannot be said for the current system which unifies policing and court proceedings within a single organization and in which a sizable number of government judges are former government prosecutors. 

The Triumph of Federal Police in Public Opinion 

The war on private security has now been so successful that few Americans would even entertain the idea of doing away with federal police agencies like the FBI in favor of private security organizations. It is now simply accepted that federal police officers may function unimpeded in every community in America, independent of local law enforcement (such as democratically-elected sheriffs), with powers to enforce everything from laws on what we eat, what we grow in our backyards, and whom we can hire. The FBI functions with an immense amount of insulation from the voting public and requires only the approval of the president and the attorney general to function unimpeded. The Hillary Clinton affair has shown how easy it is to choose between serving the White House, or serving the public, which has no power over the FBI. 

Nevertheless, the FBI continues to benefit from decades of pop culture and government whitewashing which portrays the FBI and other federal agencies as professional and effective. Always a product of left-wing and Progressive desires for more government intervention and a weakened private sector, the FBI continues to benefit from the perception that it functions in the service of the “public.” 

With James Comey’s recent demonstration of the FBI’s political motivations and origins, we have gained yet another insight into how the FBI works, and public service has very little to do with it.

Image Source: Dave Newman www.flickr.com/photos/groovysoup/
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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