Mises Wire

Police Mergers Are Not the Answer, but Privatization Is

Out of Pennsylvania’s twenty-five hundred municipalities, about half (1,279) have no police department as of 2013. Since 2013, twenty more municipalities have disbanded their police departments, opting for police coverage by the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). On top of that, 420 municipalities only provide part-time coverage (no 24/7 coverage), requiring the PSP to “pick up the slack” so to speak. This may seem shocking, but this is the little-known reality of many Pennsylvanians.

Rising costs and strict budget constraints will only make police department disbandments more prevalent. This fact has struck fear in the hearts of many, prompting policy proposals to combat police department disbandments such as police regionalization (mergers), contracting for the police services of other municipalities, or charging municipalities a fee for the services of state police. However, these policies miss the mark. The problem itself is not a problem at all, but a solution to the long-standing government intervention of public police provision. Complete privatization is the only answer.

If a municipality in Pennsylvania decides to disband its police department, like Montgomery Borough recently did, the PSP steps in to provide police coverage. This may at first glance seem like a loss for liberty, allowing agents of a bigger government to step in, but in reality, the state police for the most part leaves people alone.

If there is a problem, such as break-ins or shootings, they will assist, but, from experience, there is little police harassment (I often remark to people that you can travel across almost all of rural Pennsylvania, driving well above the speed limit, and never come across a police officer). The state police mainly stick to major highways, only venturing away in the event they are needed.

Opting for PSP coverage releases the taxpayer from the burden of high costs to provide their own police department or pay some other municipality for coverage.

Unfortunately, levying a fee on boroughs that neglect to have a police department has been proposed many times. However, if a town does not desire police, they should not be compelled to pay for them. It is unwarranted to assume that such municipalities are free riding on state police coverage. Sometimes police provision is a “bad” that people want to do away with. Imposing a fee neglects those who genuinely do not want to be governed by the state.

As of September 2023, there is no fee levied on municipalities that opt to rely solely on the PSP, but there is no telling if that would change in the future being that implementing the fee has been debated repeatedly in the Pennsylvania state legislature for years.

Regionalization, another “solution,” has been in vogue. North Apollo (where I served as an elected councilman) is studying the feasibility of regionalizing along with Parks Township and Leechburg Borough. Residents of Kiski Township have also entertained the idea of creating a regional police force. Gilpin Township and Freeport Borough also regionalized. Most recently, the Northeastern and the York area regional police departments merged and formed the York County Regional Police Department.

The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy released a public policy brief in 2019 that surveys more examples of regionalization. The brief notes that regionalization saves costs, which can be true. Sometimes two inefficient firms may merge in order to alter their cost structures, so as to become more efficient. Municipalities can merge; however, under the alternative model of privatization, security providers would be free to merge and other benefits, such as policing costing nothing to the government apparatus, would be realized.

Privatization of the police, a policy espoused by Gustave de Molinari, Murray Rothbard, Bruce Benson, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe (among others), would allow taxpayers to determine how their security is provided according to their own budget constraints and voluntary preferences.

When privatization is discussed, people have very different ideas. Some think that privatization means the government solicits bids from service providers and chooses the best option. However, such “privatization” already exists in the current state of affairs in Pennsylvania (albeit excluding private security companies from placing bids). For example, the aforementioned Kiski Township currently provides police services to North Apollo Borough.

This half-baked privatization may be beneficial on some margins. It would cause the supply side of policing to become more competitive, potentially leading to lower budgetary costs. In a state that does not allow privatization, contracting out services to other governments or private companies may be preferable. But, is this what is meant by privatization?

No, privatization means the complete privatization of both sides of the market, demand and supply. The government does not purchase any service, and market actors provide security services to consumers if the consumers so choose.

In a small municipality in Pennsylvania, what might this look like? It may take the form of buying a gun, keeping property more secure, not going out at night as much, installing a security system and doorbell camera, installing LoJack in cars, taking self-defense classes, buying a guard dog, always going out with groups, keeping lights on in the house when you leave, starting a neighborhood watch organization, and possibly hiring security guards (this last option may only be feasible for businesses and wealthier communities). Or, one may decide to do some of these or none. No matter what, all of these are rational decisions; they take into account the expected costs and benefits to each of the consumers.

Additionally, private security is focused on actually providing security instead of enforcing unnecessary laws. Violators of drug and traffic laws and pesky local regulations will be freer in their activities. Their actions never had anything to do with security and should not be the responsibility of a public police force. So, the goal of private security is much more restrained than that of public policing, which will free up resources for keeping people safe.

Disbanding police departments and opting for PSP coverage, to a great extent, is effectively privatizing police, since the PSP patrols will likely not be a regular occurrence due to personnel and resource limitations.

But, is this private provision enough? Should municipalities at least provide a part—or full-time police force if the market fails to provide the efficient quantity of security/policing? This concern suffers from the social cost/benefit myth. It is alleged that the efficient quantity of a given good is where social cost equals social benefits, and that the market (private costs and benefits) sometimes diverges from this efficient quantity. The measurement of so-called social costs and benefits comes from the summation of private and alleged external costs/benefits (externalities).

On the contrary, there is no objectively desirable level of security provision outside what individual consumers desire. Therefore, the notion of social costs and benefits is bunk. As Rothbard states in The Myth of Efficiency,

There is the grave fallacy in the very concept of “social cost,” or of cost as applied to more than one person. For one thing, if ends clash, and one man’s product is another man’s detriment, costs cannot be added up across these individuals. But second, and more deeply, costs, as Austrians have pointed out for a century, are subjective to the individual, and therefore can neither be measured quantitatively nor, a fortiori, can they be added or compared among individuals. But if costs, like utilities, are subjective, nonadditive, and noncomparable, then of course any concept of social costs . . . becomes meaningless.

Ultimately, consumer preferences are the only measure of something’s efficiency. If more security is desired, then consumers will make a judgment about whether the expected benefits of additional security outweigh the expected costs.

And the expected costs of not providing security are miniscule. Crime is exceptionally low in the municipalities that typically do away with police officers. For example, violent crime in North Apollo is almost nonexistent. The month-to-month police reports listed negligible violent crime. Many of the municipalities that disband their police are rural and small towns, places that have similar crime rates.

Montgomery, a town in Lycoming county, PA, recently disbanded their police department, and they do not seem to be worried about their susceptibility to crime. The mayor stated, “I have no doubt they will be able to cover the borough’s needs. We are a small borough. I think we are about a mile wide and a mile and a half long. I have no doubt state police can handle that.” The police can certainly be done away with in that situation without much changing.

Some crimes are also just not worth preventing. The costs of stopping a thief, for instance, may outweigh the value of whatever was stolen. In that case, it is perfectly legitimate to not stop the thief. Crime cannot be 100 percent eradicated. We can only ask ourselves, “What is the optimal level of crime?” That is unequivocally the level that is consistent with consumer preferences.

It can be conclusively stated that regionalization, contracting, and charging fees for PSP coverage are bad policies relative to total disbandment. They fail to acknowledge the benefits of privatization. Police/security should be completely privatized. As an additional measure, the PSP should be abolished as well, ushering in an era of completely private security provision.

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