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How the Monopoly Power of Police Agencies Encourages Abuse

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Tags StrategyThe Police State


Many were justifiably outraged yet also puzzled at how the police officers on the scene could so callously ignore the dying pleas of George Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe.

Racism has emerged as the most prominent explanation. This is certainly plausible, but not certain. Given the near identical case in Texas of a white man being choked out by police with a knee to the back, as well as data showing that cops kill many more whites than blacks, the racism charge is far from given. As Lew Rockwell recently pointed out, "Police have indeed killed many blacks, but they kill many whites as well. In fact, police kill more whites than blacks."

Moreover, it is unclear if officer Derek Chauvin would have acted any differently if Floyd had been white. That’s a discussion beyond the scope of this article, however.

Cases of police brutality are large, and they impact people of all races. According to MappingPoliceViolence.com, police in America killed nearly eleven hundred people last year alone. A 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimated that more than half a million US citizens reported that the police used "excessive" but nonfatal force against them for the years 2002–11.

So, why are there so many cases of officers sworn to "serve and protect" who end up brutalizing the very citizens they are sworn to protect?

How Power Increases Violence

One explanation could be found in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment. The experiment and its results were evaluated, among other sources, in University of Colorado political philosophy professor Michael Huemer’s 2013 book The Problem of Political Authority.

In the experiment, a social psychologist selected twenty-one male college student volunteers "to play the role of either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison."

The roles of prisoners and guards were randomly assigned by the psychologist conducting the experiment. Those students selected to be prisoners lived in makeshift prison cells on the Stanford campus for two weeks, while those selected as guards were tasked with “watching over” the prisoners in eight-hour shifts at the end of which they were free to go home.

There was minimal guidance provided to the participants, Huemer noted, aside from "instructions concerning the provision of food and the avoidance of physical violence."

The results were appalling.

"What the experimenters observed was a spiraling pattern of abuse on the part of the guards that began almost immediately and worsened each day," Huemer wrote. "Prisoners were subjected to relentless verbal abuse," as well as compelled to perform "tedious, pointless, and degrading tasks ad nauseaum."

"Not all the guards approved of or participated in the abuse. But the abusive guards assumed de facto positions of dominance among the guards, which no one challenged," Huemer continued.

The experiment became so stressful on the participants and the observers, Huemer wrote, that five of the prisoners had to be released early, "and on the sixth day the experimenters found it ethically necessary to terminate the experiment."

The disturbing results of the Stanford experiment certainly reverberate in our minds as we grapple with understanding how Chauvin could continue kneeling on Floyd as the life left his body and how other officers on the scene merely stood by.

"When some human beings are given great power over the lives of others, they often discover that the sense of power is intoxicating. They want to exercise their power more frequently and more fully, and they don’t want to give that up," Huemer concluded from the Stanford experiment.

The Power of a Monopoly on Force

In the case of government police, an ingrained sense of authority can overwhelm any sworn duty to protect. The state has granted them power over others, indeed a monopoly on the legal initiation of violence. That power can so often become a nefarious influence. As Huemer wrote, "An individual’s circumstances can have dramatic corrupting or uplifting effects."

Making matters worse is the perceived moral justness of state authority. Police are the enforcers of government laws, and if the government is morally justified to rule, then citizens by nature are duty bound to obey.

On this score, Huemer quotes George Orwell:

How does one man assert his power over another…? By making him suffer….Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation.

It may be worthwhile to consider that perhaps Chauvin and other abusive police aren’t exclusively motivated by racism, but instead are animated by the exercise of power granted to them by the state. The accusations of racism serve as an effective tool to distract from the institutional problem of state power.

Conversely, a free society in which security is produced on the market eliminates the mirage of authority granted to the state and its enforcers. Private security forces are guided by the notion of needing to serve customers or face losing them, rather than being imbued with a sense of power over all citizens backed by a government monopoly on enforcing obedience.

It’s hard to ignore Orwell’s warning when watching the last moments of George Floyd’s life being choked out of him by an agent enforcing state power.

It’s tragic that it took Floyd’s death for more to wake up to this reality. It’s time to break the state’s monopoly on violence and also free ourselves—and the police—from the superstitious belief in state authority.


Bradley Thomas

Bradley Thomas is creator of the website EraseTheState.com, and is a libertarian activist and writer with nearly fifteen years of experience researching and writing on political philosophy and economics.

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