Why Anarcho-Capitalist Private Police Would Be A Disaster

So I’ve been reading libertarian literature lately, which unsurprisingly glorifies the free market as the solution to all of the world’s problems. Some even take this to its extreme and argue that even police and courts should be privatised and replaced with the free market like doctors and dentists. These Libertarians/Anarcho-Capitalists (the water is a bit muddied between them) are quite vague on what would replace the state (like all utopians they spend far more time denouncing the present than describing the future). The general theme is that security would be like insurance, you pay a fee to a company in exchange for protection. This private police would patrol the streets and solve crimes committed against their clients. In order to retain your business, the company will have to provide the best possible service. Competition will keep the companies honest and prevent warlords or gangs from exploiting the opportunity.

However, there is a major problem with this theory. It has never actually happened. State power has disappeared and public police has been withdrawn many times in history, yet private police forces have never existed. To take an example close to me, law and order broke down in Belfast in the early 70s, yet the free market did not step in to fill the gap. Instead militias and defence groups were formed on sectarian lines, with Catholic groups to defend Catholic neighbourhoods and Protestant ones for the Protestant neighbourhoods. These grew into the IRA and UDA and spent as much time murdering innocent people as they did defending their own people. They funded themselves not by competition on the free market, but by smuggling, bank robbing and extorting protection money. Similarly in Yugolsavia and other former Communist countries, the state was replaced with violent gangs (usually based on sectarian lines) and the mafia, not the libertarian dream.

Some libertarians (like Rothbard) even believe that if the state was abolished, war would end. However, wars are mainly caused by ethnic, religious or national hatred with a dose of greed for power and resources thrown in for good measure. All of this would still exist even in a libertarian world. Tensions between Sunni and Shia, Jew and Muslim etc aren’t going to just disappear. As long as people have ideologies and beliefs worth dying for, they’ll be willing to kill for them. Rwanda shows that unorganised non-state actors are just as capable of murderous genocide. The profits from seizing resources like oil and diamonds would be just as lucrative and temptation of power would be just as enticing.

It is strange that in all their writings, libertarians view people as purely selfish and mercenary. It is never considered that people may feel loyalty and kinship with people of the same race, nationality, religion or class. Instead it is assumed that people will simply hire the army the offers the best price. However, security is primarily a question of trust and few people trust mercenaries who would sell them out if they were offered a good enough price. Instead they prefer to be protected by their own people (however this is defined). This is why whenever state power breaks down, it is replaced by sectarian militias, not free market entrepreneurs. Libertarians may not like this or wish that people acted otherwise, but people have a tendency to do what they want, not what political theorists want.

How would justice be served? What if, accused of a crime, I decide not to show up to court? After all, a major libertarian problem with the state is that it forces people to obey laws they never consented to. So if I never consent to the law I broke, or the authority of the court to try me, then they would have no right to punish me. They could detain me against my will and punish me for breaking laws I never consented to, but how is this any better than the state? Rothbard admits no one can be forced to appear before a court without their approval, but presumes everyone will want to this voluntarily. But what if I merely pay a judge to declare me innocent and ignore the other party?

In many cases, one side would have nothing to gain from going to court. Let’s say for example that person A has a field that person B claims really belongs to them. An Ancap would say that they could go to an arbitrator to solve this problem, but person A has nothing to gain from this. He already has the field, so in the best case scenario he stays in the same position and in the worst case he loses the field. Ancaps have no satisfactory response to this, hoping instead that the world is filled with people who think like them and will play by the rules. Maybe they’ll want to protect their reputation and avoid ostracization, but that presumes that a) boycotts work (as someone who has been involved with them, let me tell you, they are incredibly difficult to pull off) and b) the case is clearcut so that everyone knows who is in the right (which again is highly unlikely).

There is also the major problem that can be bought and sold is not going to be respected. If the ruling goes against me, I can just claim that the judge was paid for by my opponent which to an extent they are) and demand a retrial or else take justice into my own hands. If literally anyone can call themselves a judge, then the whole profession loses credibility and it will be hard for ordinary people to separate the chancers and lackeys from the impartial and fair (unless they read every judgement of every judge in the country).

The biggest problem with private profit seeking police is that they will go where the biggest profits are, not where the most crime is. Most crime occurs in inner city low income areas (crime is correlated with poverty and population density) but the people most likely to be its victims are those least able to afford good security. No sensible businessperson would offer security insurance to people with little money to pay and a high chance of making a claim (low premiums and high claims is a formula for bankruptcy). Instead the best security would be offered to those with the most money, even if they are less likely to be victims of crime. The absolute poorest (such as the homeless) would have literally no protection and could be murdered without punishment. Even if they could afford protection, it would be of such a minimal standard that the chances of justice would be slim to nothing. An Ancap world would be split in two, wealthy gated communities, safe behind their walls and guards and the other world of dog-eat-dog tribal conflict.

Libertarians/Ancaps (a lot of Ancaps call themselves Libertarians) don’t really have an answer to this and the best they can come up with it is the vague hope that poor people could receive protection from charities or maybe even the private police force’s would do it for free, which is little more than wishing the problem away. Everyone knows that private charity is woefully insufficient to deal with crises such as famine and natural disasters and the reason that the welfare state was formed was because private charity was unable to deal with the problem.

Ancaps seem curiously blind to the dangers of making profit the primary aim of police forces. If officers are paid based on results (which is the free market way of doing things) then they have an incentive to arrest as many people are possible. After all, don’t libertarians always claim that the free market produces more than state bureaucracy? However, they don’t seem to consider that this leave wide scope for abuse. If getting paid is based on making an arrest, the standards for arrest will be significantly lowered and a lot of innocent people could suffer. The history of false arrests almost always show that the officer in question was under a lot of pressure to make an arrest, any arrest. If an officier suspects someone who doesn’t have an alibi, what more do they need? In theory they could be sued for false arrest, but so can the current police, and the burden is shifted from innocent until proven guilty to guilty until proven innocent.

Libertarians have an unrealistic view of the market, viewing it as perfect and the ideal solution to every problem. But there is no reason to think that a market for private security will operate as efficiently as a market for bread or shoes. Let’s say for example I run an inefficient private police force, in fact it’s so inefficient, that it is little more than a scam. How is the average consumer going to know this? After all, the vast majority of people are not robbed or attacked so how could I know whether I am safe thanks to good protection or just chance? Even if I am robbed and the thief is not caught, how do I know if this is because of incompetence by the security agency or the thief can’t be found (there will always be unsolvable crimes)? Even if I am unhappy with the service, there’s little to do but close the door after the horse has bolted.

Libertarians like to use “reputation” as a catch all term that will solve these problems, but reputation is essentially relying on rumours that can be wildly inaccurate and heavily influenced by advertising and PR. Most multinationals in the world have terrible reputations, yet they are still highly profitable (Coca Cola literally murders union organisers in Columbia). Even with the advent of the internet there is a glaring absence of review sites.

Libertarians like to imagine that businesses will be able to compete everywhere, so that no gang will be able to control a certain area because competitors will be able to replace them. But it is highly inefficient, to the point of not being feasible for one company to have clients all over the city or country. How can a small group of security guards patrol such a wide range of area? It is far more efficient (and the customers would feel far more secure) if there was one security firm that protected the local area. After all, while its possible to have a security guard patrolling a housing estate, it’s not profitable for him to protect only two or three houses. So there will be a strong tendency for local monopolies to develop. This tendency would be even stronger in rural areas where there simply wouldn’t be a large enough customer base for many consumers, and firms would be unable to effectively spread themselves over a wide sparely populated area. The tendency would be for local monopolies to form, with each town or parish forming its own mini-state.

There is a great deal of naiviety in presuming that criminals would never exploit the situation. What if a gang seizes a poor housing block and declares it will kill any other security firm that intervenes on its territory? Other firms might decide that it’s not worth fighting for. Cities are full of angry young men who don’t plan on living long and only care about the respect and money that a gun brings. It’s naive to the point of delusional to think these men will act like polite businesspeople. If people’s only aim is making the most profit, then they’ll quickly realise that a monopoly makes the most money fastest. The only way to stop these gangs would be to form your own gang, arm yourself and violently take the territory from them and then hold it so that other gangs don’t come along. Apart from a endless river of blood from all these tit-for-tat wars you’ll end up with a group of people who have banded together for mutual protection, which is essentially what a state is (those who don’t band together will be easily conquered).

Ancaps dismiss the likelihood of violence breaking out between security firms, as it would be rational for them to co-operate. However, if we were rational there would be no violence of any kind in society. For example, imagine if I steal from you, Ancaps would claim that my own security firm would sell me out if they thought I did it. But who would hire a security agency that won’t protect them? This is especially problematic when you consider that most disagreements are not clearcut or have easy solutions. A firm would lose face by punishing the clients it is supposed to protect. A cartel could form among firms to divide the city between them, but Ancaps pretend that this could never happen either. If violence is so unlikely, then why do criminal gangs so frequently kill each other?

The fact is that if we abolished public police forces, there would be a huge upsurge in violence. People would no longer be able to find neutral arbitrators and take matters into their own hands (made easy by the absence of restrictions on guns). Neighbourhood militias would be formed to protect “our” people and old scores would be settled. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other for 400 years in Northern Ireland and this hatred won’t just disappear. It only needs a few clashes to have whole community to rally around and go to war (convinced of course that the other side started it). Yugoslavia and Rwanda are other examples of how quickly a vacuum of power can drag otherwise peaceful places into a downward spiral of violence.

I could go on and on, and I’ve only mentioned half the points I intended, but the core message is that private police forces is probably the worst idea I’ve come across. It is so riddled with problems and flaws that only a madman could think it could succeed.

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16 thoughts on “Why Anarcho-Capitalist Private Police Would Be A Disaster”

  1. one word- “pinkerton”. A 160+ year old company. A sordid history with the labor movement and strike breakers in the early 20th century.
    I’ve had personal experience with them- and pth their response- and the level of data they had (before the modern computer age), was alarming,

  2. Robert, have you read the Free Nation Foundation archives?
    They’re some of the best proposals for an ancap or ancap-like society I’ve ever found. Of course, I’m a conservative, not an anarchist. I’d be very interested if an ancap-like system could ever be set up. Market designers would have a field day.
    http://freenation.org/a/
    “Yugoslavia and Rwanda are other examples of how quickly a vacuum of power can drag otherwise peaceful places into a downward spiral of violence.”
    -Both were examples of state-backed groups or states trying to restore their power, Robert. Nobody ever called Milosevich an anarchist.
    “If violence is so unlikely, then why do criminal gangs so frequently kill each other?”
    -Because they’re, er, criminal. I.e., outside the law.
    “The absolute poorest (such as the homeless) would have literally no protection and could be murdered without punishment.”
    -This is already pretty much the case.
    “If literally anyone can call themselves a judge, then the whole profession loses credibility and it will be hard for ordinary people to separate the chancers and lackeys from the impartial and fair (unless they read every judgement of every judge in the country).”
    -I think you vastly underestimate the accreditation abilities of the free market, Robert.
    I think everyone can agree that not every society can build institutions strong enough to make even first-world country status feasible, much less workable ancapism.

    1. “Robert, have you read the Free Nation Foundation archives?”

      Nope, I’ve never even heard of them.

      “Both were examples of state-backed groups or states trying to restore their power, Robert. Nobody ever called Milosevich an anarchist.”

      Well in Rwanda it was mostly non-state actors who did the killing. While the Yugoslav war was fought by states, my point is that even if Anarchists succeeded in removing the state, it would be straight away replaced by a new state. There would be a vacuum of power that would allow people like Milosevich seize power (many non-state militas also fought in the war and carried out massacres).

      “I think you vastly underestimate the accreditation abilities of the free market, Robert.”

      I think you vastly over-estimate it. Look at the largest and most profitable countries in the world like Nike, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Microsoft, Apple, Wal-Mart etc. They all have terrible reputations, yet are still enormously popular. Reputation is often used as a magic wand that will solve all the problems of a lack of regulation, but I doubt it.

      1. True, as Somalia showed, warlordism is a sustainable system. Ancapism, at least, as imagined by its proponents, seems to me to be only one out of many possible alternatives to the state.

        Apple, Monsanto, and Microsoft all depend on legal monopolies on applications of ideas to thrive. The reason the other companies survive is because of their strong economies of scale and cost advantages.

  3. I don’t necessarily support the “private police” model of anarcho-capitalists. However, I would say that a lot of the critiques here are superficial. That is, they’ve been addressed in the works of the libertarian theorists (e.g. Rothbard) that described them.

    For example, you wrote that for-profit seeking police would not go where the crime is. Specifically, poor and minority urban areas. This misses an element of crime that anarchists, anarcho-capitalists and libertarians tend to agree on: the vast majority of crime, being victimless, would be abolished. Urban areas are rife with crime because they are heavily policed, not for violence, but for nonviolent property crimes and drugs. Even most violent crimes in these areas stem from said property crimes and prohibition (e.g. gang wars over turf for drug distribution, drug-involved robberies, retaliations).

    This leaves crime as we know it in a very narrow category: random acts of violence. As it stands, modern state policing rarely prevents this. It isn’t designed to prevent it, but to respond to it. The role of police is that of a clean-up crew. That’s not a high bar for alternatives, be it militias or paid private police or community investigators, to reach.

    It is true that an anarcho-capitalist shortcoming is the assumption that everyone will share the same rules and values. That is, that everyone will agree with the rules in place and thus consent to forms of voluntary arbitration. However, it’s also unnecessary from an anarchist perspective. If a person has alienated them from the community, be it a private court or a popular counsel, or a democratic collective community structure, no one will be there to protect them in turn. They’re at risk for reprisals with no defense. If this sounds harsh, we still need to keep in mind this is an improvement over modern criminal justice: it is far less brutal than imprisoning people for decades – living tombs – or the death penalty. Even a dysfunctional, inconsistent system would be an improvement over the institutionalized abuse that is modern policing. A libertarian/anarcho-capitalist/anarchist system doesn’t have to be perfect. It simply has to be better than what exists. And that’s not hard.

    Although anarcho-capitalists don’t explore this in depth, the polycentric nature of defense also opens up room for defense opportunities outside of private policing. In this model, poor individuals would not necessarily be stuck with inadequate defense or without recourse. They can still form collectives, defense associations, community militias and so on. This is also an anarcho-capitalist shortcoming in contrast to anarchists: community and collective defense models at local levels would most likely be the choice, assuming individuals were not forced to submit to a single state police agency, as opposed to paying for private defense.

    Rebuttals such as “what if warlords emerged and a gang took over” don’t exhibit a lot of critical examination, either. The single thing that allows gangs, in the modern world, is the fact that the role of fighting these gangs is restricted. A community cannot take up arms and drive gang members out of their community – they would be called vigilantes and arrested. The police, the criminal justice system, simultaneously refuses to allow individuals to defend themselves while doing an inferior job of it themselves. An entire community, armed in solidarity, is more powerful than most police departments.

    You said, in respect to anarcho-capitalist defense models: “However, there is a major problem with this theory. It has never actually happened.” This is true as far as the anarcho-capitalist model. But “it would not work” does not logically follow from “it never happened.”

    Moreover, militias have been successful. The ‘bad’ militia stories are exceptions, because militias have been the predominate protection paradigm for most of human history. You can say “Well, the IRA…” but it ignores the fact that every village, every community, relied primarily on its own members for defense and conflict resolution up to the 19th century. In fact, modern policing is just that – a modern invention. And policing as we know it, the roots of today, began in the American colonies as slave patrols. Urban police forces post-slavery were built primiarly to break strikes, not to defend people or enforce statues.

    Anarchist Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War, and Rojava in modern Kurdistan are also examples of alternatives to policing that have been and are being implemented with success. The biggest point to take home, even if the anarcho-capitalist model seems bad, is that what we know as policing and law enforcement today isn’t necessary. It’s a new invention, we did fine without it, we’ve implemented working alternatives in the recent past and there are new alternatives being implemented right now with success.

    1. So you begin by saying that most laws will be abolished and most of what are today crimes will be legal. But any group, property owner or organisation can make up whatever laws they want, so we could easily have even more laws than today. After all, surely theft and fraud will be crimes even if they are non-violent?

      “As it stands, modern state policing rarely prevents this. It isn’t designed to prevent it, but to respond to it.”

      The problem with preventing something from happen, is that most people don’t know that you’ve prevented it. After why do you think we imprison people and have police patrol the streets? Most countries have strict controls on guns and other weapons primarily to prevent violent crimes.

      “If a person has alienated them from the community, be it a private court or a popular counsel, or a democratic collective community structure, no one will be there to protect them in turn”

      I’m not sure what you mean by this, can you explain? I’m not sure how having certain people outside the law where others are free to torture and kill them, counts as better than our current system.

      You then say that community groups would form, but not gangs, as these are tow completely separate categories. Many paramilitaries and gangs began as community groups. People might not mind gangs if they keep them (relatively) safe from other gangs and a share of the loot.

      “it ignores the fact that every village, every community, relied primarily on its own members for defense and conflict resolution up to the 19th century.”

      And you ignore the fact that the murder rate was far higher before the creation of modern police forces.

      “And policing as we know it, the roots of today, began in the American colonies as slave patrols.”

      Not every country is America and not all countries share the same history. The British police does not have its roots in slavery.

      “It’s a new invention, we did fine without it, we’ve implemented working alternatives in the recent past and there are new alternatives being implemented right now with success.”

      I would hardly call 200 years old “new”. Is the American or even Irish state new? There are almost no alternatives and during the pre-police era, crime and murder were multiples of the current level.

      1. “And you ignore the fact that the murder rate was far higher before the creation of modern police forces.”
        Why shouldn’t we ignore this fact? Coincidence is not causation. Violence was going down for THOUSANDS OF YEARS before modern police forces and crime was going down DIRECTLY before they were constituted.

          1. Actually we do have estimates for thousands of years on the rate of violence, and they’ve been going down consistently, decade on decade, century on century. Steven Pinker has covered this extensively.

  4. Good article. And good comments on it. I wish everyone in the world spent this much effort responding to those with whom they disagree.

  5. “However, there is a major problem with this theory. It has never actually happened. ”
    Except that it happened at least 5 times. So yeah, you’re lying.

      1. Medieval Iceland, Medieval Ireland (yes I know you disputed this but there’s no reason to believe you were honest doing so), Colonial Pennsylvania, Somalia post-Barre and large parts of the “Wild” West. Now let’s compare that to the example you choose, where the police and military were still active, if ineffective. We see that the State was present throughout the period of “The Troubles” and even less limited in it’s activities than it presently is (e.g. extra-judicial killings).

  6. When the slaves were freed nobody had a plan for what would happen to them afterwards. They just knew it had to be done.

    This State has failed, do we need a blueprint to replace it or do we just need it gone?

  7. Some people need to do their research before spouting off. Private police have existed. The most notable and recent example being in 19th century San Francisco.

    http://reason.com/archives/2015/07/21/san-franciscos-private-police

    The government needs police in order to enforce all of the rules it creates that criminalizes peaceful behavior. Private police aren’t going to put people in cages for using heroin, as those people have every right and reason to resist such efforts and private citizens don’t want to pay for the cost of arrest and incarceration.

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