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 State power has disappeared and public police has been withdrawn many times in history, yet private police forces have never existed.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.