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Abolishing the Police Won't Mean Abolishing State Violence

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The aftermath of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has set off riots, protests, looting, and waves of social demands and changes that will take years to sort out. Yet perhaps the most interesting and provocative development has been the demand for cities to “defund” municipal police departments.

The all-Democrat Minneapolis City Council didn’t just discuss such a measure; indeed, they voted unanimously on June 7 to defund and disband the police department in a measure that members claimed would improve public safety. Tax funds previously earmarked for the police will go, council members said, to social service agencies.

Not surprisingly, the standard response from many people (and especially conservatives) has been near disbelief, with the expressed opinion that the move is “insane.” Bronson Stocking of Townhall writes: “The mob won't be happy until police are abolished and complete anarchy, like we've seen in Minneapolis recently, becomes the new normal.”

Likewise, Patrick Buchanan writes in the American Conservative:

The “Ferguson Effect” will take hold. Cops will back off from confronting the lawless and violent. Criminals will see an opening to seize opportunities. The urban poor who look to the police as their only protection will stay inside and lock their doors. And small businesses, realizing the cops may not be there, will sell and move out.

As I read my conservative friends on sites like Facebook, they take it as a given that any move to eliminate government police forces automatically will result in something akin to a Death Wish landscape of criminals killing, burning, raping, and looting the cities. In other words, they instinctively believe that the police truly are the “Thin Blue Line” that protects law-abiding people from harm intended by criminals.

Capitalists Are the Real Criminals

People accept this narrative on its face, as though it were true simply by its utterance, and it reflects the larger belief that humans don’t cooperate peacefully with each other unless the authorities force them to do so. On that subject Buchanan, Nancy Pelosi, and Bernie Sanders are on the same page. Furthermore, they are likely to see agencies like police forces at governing levels from municipalities to the FBI (and even the CIA) as entities that exist for our good, to protect those who are law-abiding from the Bad People.

We see this fundamental belief extended to the business world, and there is very little difference between the pages of the American Conservative and hard-left publications like The Nation or Jacobin. The theme is that what might seem to be socially cooperative behavior—individuals buying and selling voluntarily in the marketplace—actually is fundamentally coercive, with businesses being predatory entities. The more successful the business, the more proof that it gained that success by preying on others.

For example, when the rioting and looting in US cities was at its height, Bernie Sanders declared that business owners have been “looting” the poor for forty years which would seem to be a backhanded endorsement of the violence and theft taking place, or, at the very least, a justification for the looting and burning. Again, because Sanders and his followers view business activity as violent theft and government action as either peaceful or promoting peace, there would be no reason in their minds to have police protect private property or its owners, since “property is theft.” (One doubts that Sanders believes that about his own three houses and his other personal property, but socialists have lived with that disconnect for years and always get away with it.)

Certainly at least some Minneapolis city council members seem to believe that private property owners should be subject to break-ins and home invasions as a form of social justice. Lisa Bender, the city council president and the leader of the abolish-the-police movement, effectively said that having property protection is “privilege.” To be fair, she was saying it in the context of how white suburbanites have reasonable expectations that the police will offer some semblance of protection while others are not so fortunate:

Because for those of us for whom the system is working, I think we need to step back and imagine what it would feel like to already live in that reality where calling the police may mean more harm is done.

Policing as a Revenue Racket

She is not entirely wrong. People living in high-crime areas often do not see police as their protectors, and that is not, as some conservatives might believe, unreasonable. The police officer often is not their friend, but neither is the typical police officer anyone else's friend. The reason is that no one reasonably can conclude that modern police forces exist to protect ordinary citizens. In fact, the US Supreme Court already has ruled that police are under no legal obligation to protect anyone.

In current times, police forces in most states and municipalities are more interested in collecting revenues from fines in order to prop up their own pay and benefits and to provide more money for general government coffers. Eric Markowitz writes in the New Yorker:

Alexes Harris is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of “A Pound of Flesh.” Published in June, the book analyzes the rise of monetary sanctions in the criminal-justice system. Harris argues that jurisdictions have increasingly relied on levying fines for minor infractions—broken tail-lights, vagrancy, traffic violations—as a way to generate municipal revenue. For instance, a Department of Justice investigation revealed that, in 2013, police in Ferguson, Missouri, issued arrest warrants for nine thousand people, almost all for municipal-code violations such as failing to pay a fine or missing court appearances. Doing so allowed the city to collect $2.4 million in fines and fees, the second highest source of income for the city, behind taxes.

Protected from lawsuits by qualified immunity and protected from accountability by their unions, police in the USA have evolved into something akin to an occupying army that declares itself to be beyond criticism and beyond control by the underlings that it claims “to protect and serve.” Although we can decry this situation, we should not be surprised.

We Need State Control to Ensure Either "Order" or "Social Justice"

Modern police forces are yet one more creation of progressivism, the view that we should be governed by dispassionate and well-trained “experts” instead of politicians. From dealing with pandemics to investigating crimes, the idea is that the “experts” should have control and that we should always listen to them and do what they tell us. To do otherwise is “taking the law into your own hands,” which always is portrayed as being antisocial.

The police clearly fit within that viewpoint, which has become almost second nature to most Americans. Liberal progressives, who almost always believe that “training” will “solve” almost any difficulty when it comes to government agents exerting authority over others, are adamant that individuals should defer to government at every level, whether it be education (including Harvard University’s recent attack on home schooling, a thoroughly progressive initiative), policing, and the home itself.

For example, the city council of Minneapolis did not call for refunding the tax dollars saved through disbanding the police to the city’s taxpayers, but rather have announced plans to transfer that money to government social programs. In other words, the progressives there plan to help expand what is called the therapeutic state in the belief that government mental health “experts” will counsel people into living better lives.

On the conservative side, support for the police seems to be a more nebulous support for an ordered state. At the risk of seeming trivial, this viewpoint often is explained on the popular CBS cop show Bluebloods. During one of their famous dinner table discussions, someone asks why killing a cop is worse than killing an ordinary person. Frank Reagan, the fictional New York City police commissioner (played by Tom Selleck) replies that the police represent order and that attacking the police is an attack upon the order of society itself.

In the end, we are dealing with similar belief systems that don’t have anything but blind faith in the systems as an authority. On the right, the police protect society, because, well, that is what people believe and even if it is not true, they believe it anyway: the police protect all of us from violent people, and if they are disbanded, society will degenerate into lawless chaos. That police forces have evolved into insular and autonomous entities that have become a law unto themselves does not seem to take root in at least some conservative thinking.

On the progressive left, there is the unending belief in the therapeutic state. If there is a role for official policing, it is to aid in the fight against capitalism and bigotry. Thus, the left-wing district attorney in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, can declare that his office will concentrate its efforts on prosecuting landlords who, in his view, constitute a criminal class. Democratic politicians such as Beto O’Rourke can call for unleashing the tax police upon religious groups that do not adhere to the Left’s sexual orthodoxy. So, those on the left who might call for abolishment of the police still want government to have at least some police powers to go after people they don’t like.

The Left Does Not Permit Private Self-Defense

The question of whether or not abolishment of police forces would automatically lead to bloodshed, violence, and utter chaos is not easily answerable, because the various political landscapes are not even. Take Minneapolis again. The governing mentality there is thoroughly progressive, which incorporates the belief that all facets of life should be governed by progressive entities, including the right (which progressives consider to be nonexistent) to protect one’s life and property.

Years ago, I was discussing a law in Canada that makes it illegal for one to defend oneself against physical aggression from others if that defense involves what authorities call an “offensive” weapon. The man told me that Canadians are “proud” of that policy because, in his words, it limits violence. (That means that if someone attacks me, although it might be violent, my fighting back using an “offensive” weapon adds to the violence, which is self-evident.)

There certainly would be support in Minneapolis for a similar policy, especially given that at least its political leaders consider any kind of defense of one’s life and property to be nothing more than “white privilege.” Thus, if one fits into a certain ethnicity and social/economic group, then any kind of self-defense is prima facie illegitimate. Likewise, in such a viewpoint, violence against others and their property is legitimate provided that the ones engaging in the violence are included within a certain protected group. In fact, if we are to properly interpret what Sanders declared, looting and arson actually would be considered acts of self-defense against capitalists and landlords who, in their view, are the real criminals.

Such a governing philosophy, not surprisingly, would not prevent the recent burning and looting that have scarred Minneapolis and other US cities, since this philosophy provides a justification for it. It would not take long, should this violence continue, for cities to become totally unlivable. Perhaps it should not be surprising that Minneapolis police have engaged in predatory behavior, since the entire governing philosophy of that city seems to endorse it.

However, we also know that, at least before the riots, Minneapolis had had a reputation of being a prosperous city and a livable place, and there certainly are many places in Minnesota itself where violent crime almost is nonexistent. The business atmosphere in the Twin Cities is highly rated and overall quality of life is rated as excellent. And then the riots came, exposing not only an underbelly of discontent, but also a governing philosophy that simply cannot deal effectively with what is happening.

One doubts that such a progressive governing philosophy would permit property owners to band together to protect their belongings without running afoul of lawmakers and their worldview. After all, if protecting one’s property is nothing more than a manifestation of “privilege,” and the real looters are those who own property, then there is nothing left to do but to turn loose the mobs.

There are other places in Minnesota and in the USA, however, where the municipal police model actually does more harm than good. After all, what is municipal policing? It is the forced outsourcing of protection in which the “protectors” “capture” the protection apparatus and act not as real protectors, but rather like a mafia that demand protection money. It would be patently dishonest to say that people cannot come together to create something that is more effective and more just.

Unfortunately, policing is caught between two narratives, neither of which adequately and accurately describes the current social and economic climate. If the worldview of people in a community is one that is open to exchange and voluntary cooperation, then an outside police force really is not necessary.

However, in an atmosphere in which private property and business owners are portrayed as the enemy that should be driven out, even an outside police agency will be limited in its effective response and most likely would opt out of most duties, which is exactly what we have seen in cities once the looting started. At very best, police in these kinds of communities (such as Baltimore, Detroit, and other dysfunctional places) will put a band-aid over a cancerous tumor and ultimately will opt out of the protection business altogether.

In other words, governing worldviews matter. Governments led by the philosophy that private property and private enterprise are coercive and parasitical and should be smashed can only replace one coercive municipal force with another that is just as bad. After all, the socialism that so many of these politicians demand is one that is totally dependent upon massive amounts of state-sponsored violence and coercion, although in the short run attacks on businesses and private property are useful in that they eliminate business owners from the political equation.

Places that actually see private enterprise and private property as a good thing, as something that is socially beneficial, actually can get along well without the practically autonomous police agencies. Unfortunately, it seems that on both the local and national levels, demands for more confiscation and coercion seem to be directed into a predatory philosophy of governance.

Author:

Contact William L. Anderson

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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