Minarchism Found Dead at Ferguson
As incredible as it seems, the bourgeoisie seem to be turning against the police. In the wake of Ferguson, polls say that about half of us don’t trust them. Obviously, blacks remain way ahead of the curve on this, having been maltreated by the cops for many decades. But with whites catching up, we are starting to see a consensus developing.
I never thought I would see the day.
Why is this significant? It’s not just about police budgets or the call to reform on the margin. It’s not even about who is going to pay the political price. The status of the police is bound up with the perception of the value of the entire public sector. The police are the “thin blue line,” long perceived as the most essential and irreplaceable function of the state. This perception is now under pressure from public opinion, and this joins a shift in intellectual opinion that has been developing for decades.
What’s at stake is the very foundation of public order as we know it. If government can’t do this right, if the police are accomplishing the very opposite of their claims, if they are undermining our security rather than providing for it, and this is widely understood, we have the making of not only an ideological revolution but an authentic turning point in the history of politics.
The police power has pushed and pushed for decades: more power, more personnel, more weapons. Even as public opinion has turned against many other “services” offered by government, there has been no push back regarding police. Politicians don’t win public office by promising to curb police power; the demand to escalate has traditionally led to cheers. Where’s the limit? No one has yet discovered it.
If that changes, the results could be epic.
Step back and ask the fundamental question: why is the state necessary? Why do we have to pay all these taxes? Why must we constantly defer to its power? Why must we adore its leaders and pay homage to those who die for it and raise our children to adore its history and works? What is the point of this gigantic contraption that lives in our midst and at our expense?
These questions are at the heart of the philosophy of politics, economics, and the social order. How they are answered determines what kind of world we live in.
Many people have ideas for what they want the state to do. It should protect the environment, provide for income in old age, go to war against bad guys, stop discrimination, help the consumer, regulate financial markets, improve the moral environment. The state does all these things and there is a constituency for all of them.
But you know what? We must distinguish between essential and luxury functions of the state. All of the above are luxuries, not essentials. The roots of the modern state dating to the era of the Enlightenment — the 18th century — postulate that the whole function of the state is to provide security for person and property. This is the basis of its legitimacy. The most famous summary of this view comes from Thomas Jefferson via Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
That’s it. That’s the foundation. It’s supposed to be a “night watchman.” Once it does that, it can and will do other things but this is the reason for its existence.
If you look at politics carefully, you can see political leaders drawing on this “minarchist” sensibility whenever they want to enhance their own power. They can always count on the fact that people believe that protecting us from harm is the reason why we put up with these people running our lives in the first place. The belief has been so entrenched in the Western mind that questions about the limits of such a security power are rarely asked.
This is why 9/11 was such a boon for the federal government. It seemed to demonstrate that we have a serious problem with being secure and that therefore the government is necessary and essential to our lives.
Floods of commentary after that event, in fact, directly attacked libertarianism for being so tough on government. The crimes of 9/11 were used to draw on the widespread belief that the police power of the state cannot be performed by any other means but via the coercive apparatus of the public sector.
It’s a serious issue. Why can’t security be provided in the same way as society provides shoes, software, and sodas? Why can’t the market be the best and most efficient provider of even our security?
There are lots of fancy rationales but they all come down to the idea that we need public sector security provisions because the state can do things that the private sector cannot do. This is the reason we must sacrifice our liberty and property. It’s a philosophical and technological necessity.
If you look back over the last 300 years before the middle of the 20th century, you can find only a handful of thinkers who believed that security services could be outsourced from public authority to market entrepreneurs. One of them was Gustave de Molinari, the 19th century French radical who made the core point: we trust the market for most all essential things in life, so why not trust it for the most essential thing of all? If the market has mechanisms that make it superior to the state in nearly every area, what is the mystical feature of security that makes it the great exception?
But even among the French laissez faire school he was alone. The rest of the classical liberal school was united: the state ought to be strictly limited but it absolutely must provide security services. Because the old liberals conceded this one exception, and despite their genuine conviction that society could work on its own without top-down impositions, they inadvertently gave the thugs and despots precisely what they were looking for, a wedge issue that separated the longing for freedom from the administration of public affairs.
Think about politics in your local community over the last twenty years. Anytime the local government needs to raise funds, what is the sure-fire excuse? To add to policing to stop crime. Education is a close second but only the subject of policing can consistently count on majority support. The average person may not believe that he or she is a prisoner of Locke and Jefferson, the great prophets of minarchism, but we are. People have been willing to pay insofar as security is the great excuse.
But something has changed. The federal government has shoveled billions in funding and weaponry to the local police. They have become completely militarized. Instead of helping us and securing our rights, they are threatening us and taking away our rights. Absolutely no one is happy about seeing the blue lights in the rear view mirror. The age of the civilian cop, an extension of who we are and what we desire of public service, is over.
Now we have smartphones and youtube. Anyone can spy on the cops and hold them accountable. We are gradually discovering the great truth. Whether the police abuse on this scale is new or whether we are only now discovering what has always been true is immaterial for discerning the turning point. Once the fog dissipates and we see reality for what it is, there is no going back.
Security is not the most essential function of the state; it is the most dangerous one, the very one that we should never concede lest we lose all our freedom. The night watchman is the biggest threat we face because it is he who holds the gun and he who pulls the trigger should we ever decide to escape.
Allowing the police force as the essential exception to a voluntary social order is like allowing a cancer cell as the single invader in a body. Once it invades, it cannot be contained. It has to be killed for the person to survive.
This is why skepticism of the police, even fundamental opposition, is so important. If doubt spreads, the ground shifts beneath our feet. If the conviction that the state cannot even perform its most “essential” functions at net benefit to us evaporates, the rest of the great services that the state provides comes into question too.
We live in times of radical disenchantment with the state. Its welfare state, its drug war, its educational institutions, its energy and transportation infrastructure, its monetary policy, its wars and regulations, its courts and jails — none of it lives up to its promise. The costs exceed the benefits for all of us. And now the police too are a net drain, even a threat? Yes.
If anyone thinks this is not a paradigm shifting moment, he or she is not paying attention. Once people realize that those who we trusted to protect us are actually the biggest threat we face, the theory and the age of minarchism comes to an end.
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The Economics of Life Itself : Beautiful Anarchy is the writing platform of Jeffrey Tucker, in which he covers economics, art, popular culture, and politics from a pro-liberty, anti-state point of view.