When discussing things with an anarchist, statists tend to ask questions like, “how would the roads get built? How would the trash get picked up? And what about the police?” These are entirely legitimate questions, as long as they are questions and not closed-minded arguments in themselves. However, one mistake they tend to make is that one anarchist has or should have all the answers. One person could not have the answers to all of the questions about how to organise a free society. The people would find and decide on those answers together; and they would not find the perfect, final solution to their problems, as no one ever has, but would solve them as necessary. But because anarchists understand better the doctrines of freedom, they need to present their ideas. One of the most difficult things for statists to imagine is a world without centralised law enforcement. As such, when they ask “how could there be no police?” they usually have not even considered there could be an alternative.
Michael Ignatieff, whom I admired before he went into politics, once said that anarchy could never work, because when the police went on strike in Montreal, there were riots in the streets, people were breaking into stores and stealing things, and it was chaos. I’m not surprised. By monopolising the ability to defend the people, the police were holding everyone for ransom, and no one was prepared to defend themselves. However, most anarchists do not suggest that the police suddenly leave the streets. Any sudden and complete removal of a coercive authority is bound to lead to a power vacuum that people will fill with violence. That does not mean that there is no alternative to police. It just means we need a little more time and a little more imagination. The police are the next group on the chopping block.
In the US, police powers keep growing as the constitution deteriorates. (1) The militarisation of police makes them more dangerous. (2) Police abuses occur every day on the pages of responsible newspapers. Sometimes they are related to the War on Drugs, as police batter down doors, smash in heads and gun down people they suspect of selling the wrong things. You cannot film or hand out things the police do not want you to anymore. (3)
A journalist was arrested recently for filming a public meeting of the DC Taxicab Commission. (4)
In fact, in the UK you cannot take photos of the police at all anymore, even though they can film anything they want. (5)
You cannot protest things they do not want you to protest (6) or dance where they do not want you to dance (7).
If you are really unlucky, you can be arrested for sitting.
Children’s lemonade stands are getting shut down like windows (that require five armoured men to close).
Police arrested two people for using a raft in a flooded street. They were not charged. (Some might say arrest for nothing is kidnapping.)
Sometimes cops taser people, some of whom are minors who end up in the hospital. In many cases, tasers have been used against people in handcuffs, children, the elderly or the mentally ill. 334 US citizens died between 2001 and August 2008 from police tasers, which are supposed to be non lethal.
Former marine Jose Guerena was shot by police 23 times for nothing; 13 year old Jimmy Cannon was shot 8 times. (8)
Sometimes violent acts against innocent civilians are carried out by police with histories of violence, and other police defend them, and they go back on the beat. (9)
The list continues. (10) These are merely well-publicised, recent examples. Police brutality in minority communities has been a fact of life for decades. These are not isolated incidents. They are the result of giving someone authority and weapons. But then, the police are just following orders and keeping us safe.
Your cameras are illegal, but theirs are everywhere. The U.K. has more surveillance cameras per citizen than anywhere else in the world. One estimate puts the number of video cameras watching every move their citizens make at 4.8m: 1 for every 13 people, with people being filmed some 300 times a day. And the police themselves admit that, for this enormous expense, only 3% of crimes are solved using CCTV, and one crime is solved per 1000 cameras. (11) FBI surveillance teams regularly employ warrantless GPS tracking to monitor the movements of peaceful activists – even if they are not suspected of ever committing a crime. (12) The Obama administration is fighting in court to keep this practice legal. (13) U.K. authorities are now admitting that every phone call, text message, email and website visit made by private citizens will be stored for one year and will be available for monitoring by government agencies. The plan will cost £12b. (14) They can watch you everywhere, just in case you are doing something they want to arrest you for. But they are not legally permitted to take away your camera. Good thing, too, as they are getting away with more and more brutality as they get more powerful. (15) It may seem like I am being selective if I say police in democracies can arrest you for anything when I might not be taking a fair sample of democracies. They may be less corrupt and violent outside these places. But unless their power is strictly restrained somehow, it can be abused. Anywhere people ask their governments for a “law and order” society, they should be careful what they wish for.
The problem with all this surveillance, from the wiretapping to the eye scanning to the GPS trackers on cars, is that it presumes guilt. As such, it lends itself to abuse as innocent people are inevitably targets of arrest or violence. We see innocent people go to jail or get killed for a police mistake. Is our legal system not built on the premise that we are presumed innocent? Is it not better that one innocent man goes free than 10 guilty men are sentenced? Perhaps no longer. I am not a student of comparative democracy but I would not be surprised if there are legal systems that are both strong and fair. I believe, nonetheless, that any government is capable of covert surveillance of its people.
Incidentally, contrary to their slogan, the police do not actually have to protect you. Their job is to uphold the law, which is whatever lawmakers want. But courts have ruled consistently that they do not have to protect you—even to enforce restraining orders. 5% of 911 calls bring police fast enough to arrest the perpetrator. To those who say citizens’ arming themselves would lead to chaos do not seem to understand that an unarmed populace is a sty full of pigs awaiting slaughter. If anyone should be armed, it is normal people who might have to defend themselves one day.
Why is it that we have these people who don a uniform and are suddenly allowed to mete out violence when no one else is? Were they chosen for their superior morals? Their fairness in applying the law? While obviously not all police are bullies, the people most likely to enter the police force are those who feel the urge to bully others. People who want power and authority without having to earn it through respectability, who are violent and controlling and do not want to go to jail, have found their calling. Police should consider their consciences when applying the law. If laws are unfair, if they put peaceful people in jail, there is no reason to enforce them. But doing so will not change the actions of most police, because not all police have consciences.
Do we really need police? Some statists seem to think that, without government we would all be killing each other. Well, would you kill others? No, because you and almost everyone else has natural and cultural influences that militate against it. Therefore, it is only a few bad apples. The same could be said of police who transgress their legal limits. However, again, those with a penchant for violence and power are more likely to join the police force; and when people are handed uniforms, guns, sticks and the authority of law, the potential for the abuse of power is far greater. It is illogical to say that the reason we do not have violence in a given neighbourhood is because of the existence of the police.
In my neighbourhood in post-revolution Cairo, there are no police anywhere to be found. There is not much crime—nothing visible, anyway. And why would there be? People who live here and do not plan to move have a stake in the stability of the community, and most are not willing to sacrifice it for the small personal gains of property theft or uncontrolled street fighting. No one misses the police that much; and they do not talk much about democracy. Instead, the word they use for what they won and want to keep is “hurriya”: freedom. (It happened at Occupy Boston, too.)
In the lower-class neighbourhoods particularly, the police were brutal thugs, and when they said walk, you walked. During the Egyptian revolution, the police left all the neighbourhoods, creating a vacuum that the people needed to fill as government-sponsored thugs hit the streets and tried to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. The government thought that the people would be so desperate to avoid the violence of men without uniforms they would ask the people in uniforms back. Instead, the people took care of their own homes and defended themselves. It was not wonderful, of course, because they could not leave and go to work. When I suggest doing away with the police altogether and use the revolution as evidence that we will not go around killing each other if it happens, the people in Cairo are skeptical. No one wants to spend all their time defending their homes. But if freedom from police becomes the norm, the people will find another path to security.
Since violence is a constant of human history and part of human nature, everyone should learn to defend themselves. Individual men should be able to defend themselves against other men. Women could be the victims of rape. Communities come under siege by gangs. Territories get invaded by aspiring emperors. And if the 20th century is any guide for the future, we can expect the state in many places to turn on its citizens. I wonder if there would have been much of a Holocaust if the Jews and Gypsies of Eastern Europe had been allowed to arm themselves. You might say that not everyone wants to defend him or herself, but they might have no choice. Outsourcing self-defense to the police would only be the ideal if the police could be trusted. But very few people with power can be trusted, because power is an intoxicant.
Whenever a riot breaks out, statists call the rioters anarchists. That is wrong. Anarchists are people who believe the initiation of force is immoral. These people are better described as thugs. But they also consider it a prime example of why we need police. I am still not convinced. The police cannot simply stop rioting, and they obviously do not deter it all the time. They also cannot protect literally everyone, because there are not enough of them. The reason there are so many victims in a riot is that people have come to rely on the government for protection, and if the police do not show up, they have nothing with which to protect themselves. (I should mention that a recent riot in Vancouver was roundly condemned and followed by a major public shaming of the culprits who were photographed. Shame is a powerful emotion and a powerful weapon that does not require police.) People need to learn to defend themselves and their property collectively. How could that be done?
Are there no alternatives to police and prisons provided by government? Free-market security would probably be cheaper and more loyal to you than the police. What about security systems and all the other technologies that exist for security? What about security guards? What about guns? If every house had a gun, or just that every house could have a gun, thieves would be more reluctant to break in. Or the police could be privatised. The incentives would be based on helping the employers, ie. the community who hired them, rather than the state, ie. the powerful that are far removed from society. They could still get disability payments. Risks would be priced into the costs of hiring them, like they are in every other private sector job. San Francisco has had a private police force for a long time, paid for by private clients. Or, the police could be security agents designated by the community itself to help people when needed. There is no doubt they would be compensated if wounded or their families compensated if they were killed; after all, that is what happens everywhere in the world.
For their needs, the poor often do not have access to police (except where they know police as oppressors and not protectors), so they benefit most from private security. They could also organise mutual protection, perhaps through neighbourhood watch programmes, as poor people live around other poor people with the same problems. The current model has almost everyone paying taxes and the benefits of police being unevenly distributed (much like infrastructure). If everyone had that money back, they would be able to pay for what security they needed. A security market would almost certainly emerge with differentiated pricing to provide for both the rich and the poor, as it has with all the other essentials, from food to clothing to transportation.
To those who say these ideas are unrealistic, I would remind them that they are already happening, to some extent. To those who say they are the same as having police, they do not realise the fact that a firm you pay in a free market is likely to adhere very carefully to what you want from it, or else it will lose your business; whereas the police are very hard to hold to account. No less, firms’ competing in a free market will almost definitely be more efficient and thus cheaper than the police, and one would be able to choose which services one wanted.
We have plenty of security providers at the moment. They provide security guards, cameras, alarms and so on, and as private companies that will do anything to keep your business, we can usually count on them. What if a thief manages to break through anyway? Perhaps the contract we signed with our security company says they should pursue the thief and get our stuff back, or we don’t pay them. Though government police are not legally bound to protect us, contracts could ensure that our service providers do.
Clearly, there are preferable alternatives to police and prisons provided by government. What about security systems and all the other technologies that exist for security? What about security guards? What about guns? If every house had a gun, or just that every house could have a gun, thieves would be more reluctant to break in. Or the police could be privatised. The incentives would be based on helping the employers, ie. the community who hired them, rather than the state, ie. the powerful that are far removed from society. They could still get disability payments. Risks would be priced into the costs of hiring them, like they are in every other private sector job. Or, the police could be security agents designated by the community itself to help people when needed. There is no doubt they would be compensated if wounded or their families compensated if they were killed; after all, that is what happens everywhere in the world.
Even better in my opinion, neighbourhoods could band together to protect themselves from thieves and thugs. In fact, that is exactly what happened in Cairo during the revolution, when there were no police. Being forced to take care of themselves, the locals banded together, and in some areas of the city fostered a sense of community as had never existed before. As Munir Fasheh describes in his TED Talk, instead of being citizens, “citizens with a defined national number, protected by a national government, connected to a national bank that steals from the people of the communities”, we should behave as communities, with our loyalty not to an anonymous state and government but to the people we know we can depend on. (16) That way, we will be safe from the thugs who operate outside the law and those who operate within it as well.