By Andrew Humphries

Some friends of mine were in a minor auto accident recently and regaled me with the tragi-comic tale of their interaction with the Delhi police.

Twenty minutes after being hung up on by the police and trying again, a cop arrived. The party who was responsible to the accident (they hit my friends’ stationary car from behind) did not have a licence. Instead of asking any investigatory questions, making sure people were alright, or following any procedure, the officer tried to elicit a bribe from the offending party to let them go.

Next, a contingent of cops responsible for helping injured people to the hospital arrived 45 minutes later, despite the fact that the police station was only ten minutes away. (Thank goodness there was no emergency!) My friends were fine and resisted going to the hospital, so these cops sat around doing nothing.

Finally, two hours after their second call, a cop arrived who explained that they were unable to give a challan to someone without a licence. There was no form or procedure for dealing with these kinds of accidents. So, he suggested that they work out their dispute between them. The process of waiting had basically been a complete waste.

Government regulators and police share in bribe money, each to the tune of 43% and 45% respectively. | Photo Courtesy: Google Images

Government regulators and police share in bribe money, each to the tune of 43% and 45% respectively. | Photo Courtesy: Visual Hunt

Libertarians agree that most of what governments do (if not outright harmful or useless), could be done better through voluntary associations in free markets and local communities.

Minarchists (those who think there should be minimal government) believe that governments should organize defense against foreign aggression, domestic police services, courts, a few public goods from physical infrastructure to the keeping of public records, and perhaps some minimal regulations.

Anarchists, on the other hand, believe that the world would be better on net (both morally and materially) if even these functions were discarded or organized voluntarily.

Anarchism may sound shocking, especially in the case of such things as police services.  Isn’t protection of person and possessions of utmost importance? Doesn’t the very operation of free markets and liberal society rest on the protection of individual rights? How could this be done without state-organized police?

I’m sympathetic to these questions. I would prefer a coercively-funded, minimal government that does a reasonably good  job of protecting individual rights over a world where people are so fearful and uncertain about their security that their lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

But is this the choice we actually face?

The extent to which police bully and extort resources from people, especially the poor and weak, is well known in India.  My friends in Guatemala avoid the police like the plague. In the United States, the police have become more and more militarized, arbitrary, and aggressive, due to the Wars on Drugs and “Terror”, not to mention the millions killed by their own communist and Nazi governments in the last century.

If we didn’t have government funded police, people would be able to keep their taxes and demand protection services on the market.

If we didn’t have government–funded police, people would be able to keep their taxes and demand protection services on the market. Private security guards are already big business in India. Resident welfare associations, malls, commercial areas can organize or buy their own security services. Competition in the market would make police more responsive, more competent, and less aggressive to their customers and their customers’ customers.

Some might ask, who will protect the poor?  But who protects the poor today?  If the police provide any useful services, I’m sure they are mostly provided to the wealthy who have political clout. When I think about my neighborhood Shahpur Jat, for example, which is relatively poor, I wonder how people protect their property and handle disputes. I’m sure the police are never called and that they probably ever come—except to extort money out of people.

At least if there is a vibrant market in protective services, these services may become more affordable to poorer classes over time than they are today.

So it seems to me that we would be better off without government-organized police.

The central questions that would have to be answered, however, are the following:

  1. Does the existence of a general state police today, despite seeming generally useless and harmful, deter more predation than it causes? In the short term? In the long term?
  2. Even if government police does decrease predation on net today, is it worth the cost in taxes, overbearing government regulations, and the threat of totalitarian government in the future?

What do you think?

Andrew is a former faculty at Michael Polanyi College, a three year liberal arts program at University Francisco Marroquin, Guatemala.

This article was originally published on Spontaneous Order.

Featured Image Credits: Flickr

Fresh insights delivered to your phone each morning. Download our Android App today!

Posted by The Indian Economist