Intimidated by an increasingly loud minority of the U.S. population, city councils across America are considering “defunding” their police forces. Such a proposal would have been dismissed as unconscionable not so long ago. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it’s being debated, in varying degrees, in cities from Dallas, to Chico, to Denver.
Lest the calls to “defund the police” be dismissed as hyperbolic, overheated posturing, The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Project NIA director Mariame Kaba explicitly stating, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” Leading the way is Minneapolis, whose City Council voted to replace the city’s police department with a vague and undefined “community-led public safety system.” At least we got a heads’ up.
Law-abiding ladies and gentlemen: now might be the time pack up and get out of Dodge — while you still have something left to take with you.
We Need Government to Defend Our Most Vital Rights
The Declaration of Independence proclaims the government of the United States was formed to secure our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It further states the right to organize a government in a manner “most likely to effect” the “Safety and Happiness” of its citizens. Without protections for these natural rights, little else in society matters, and all other activities of the state, no matter how well-intentioned or seemingly benign, are irrelevant and trivial.
The words penned by Thomas Jefferson were carefully chosen. While the Founders sought a new government with a higher priority on individual liberty than ever before, they knew they wanted a government. They did not declare the founding of an anarchist enclave, free of any mechanisms of the state. Any government, at its most minimal, must protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or it is not worthy to wield the sole legitimate use of force granted by the consent of a free people.
John Locke argues citizens form a consensual social compact to protect life, liberty, and estate (property) to escape the perilous state of nature that exists without government. Well, we’re getting a real-world look at that state of nature now. It isn’t pretty.
Even a Night-watchman State Still Needs a Watchman
There remains a large amount of disagreement across the political spectrum on the size and scope of government. Do we truly need the state mucking about in education, agriculture, environmental issues, telecommunications, and health care? How large should our military spending be? Is there a better way to handle Social Security?
Yet, until recently, except for Rothbardian “anarcho-capitalists” and Antifa-aligned far-left anarchists, one uniting point of agreement was the need for government law enforcement. “Minarchist” libertarians also concede the government must hold a monopoly on the use of force. In his award-winning Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues a “minimal state” is justified insofar as it is “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud” and the “enforcement of contracts.”
Nineteenth-century Britain is viewed as a shining example of a “night-watchman” polity, the closest the world has come to a successful and prosperous “minimal state” in the last 800 years (Medieval Iceland went even further). By the late 1840s, Britain was one of the freest nations in the world. It promoted the abolition of slavery, free-trade, and free enterprise. A “hands-off” approach was taken to nearly every facet of life within its realm except one: security.
As free, laissez-faire, and liberty-focused as the last night-watchman state was, 19th-century British rulers accepted the vital and non-negotiable need to maintain law and order via government institutions in order to protect the life and property of Britons.
During the Pax Britannica, local police enforced laws and ordinances. Courts adjudicated disputes between subjects, ensured contracts were faithfully executed, and saw that justice would be served when laws were broken. A trim, efficient army of roughly 200,000 troops maintained peace across an Empire spanning a quarter of the globe while the Royal Navy patrolled the sea lanes, promoted the safe flow of goods, and hunted down slavers. “To serve and protect” was, in essence, the modus operandi of the British Empire’s political apparatus.
The Absence of Law and Order Invites Crime, Then Poverty
Property rights combined with faith that law and order will be enforced are the key to building prosperous communities. Historian Amity Shlaes reminds us: “One of the great tragedies of the 1960s riots was the subsequent withdrawal of retail shops, already somewhat scarce, from inner cities. Their departure left the inhabitants with nowhere to shop. For poorer citizens, riots worsened what urban renewal had begun.”
Poverty is not the mother of crime — crime is the mother of poverty, and, in turn, urban decay. What new business owner should spend his life savings on opening a business in a neighborhood where it cannot be reasonably assumed to be safe from arson, theft, or vandalism? What parents of young teens would not leave a threatening, violence-riddled community the moment they get the means to move elsewhere?
When police aren’t supported by mayors and city councils, when they aren’t allowed to do their jobs, the ripple effect is real and tragic. When firefighters or emergency medical teams cannot be assured of their safety, they can’t put out burning buildings, rescue people in trouble, or save those on the verge of dying. Most recently, many truckers have announced they won’t deliver food and other goods to cities that defund police. No one should be surprised.
As economist Thomas Sowell explains in his book Economic Facts and Fallacies:
Detroit did not have a massive riot [in 1967] because it was an economic disaster area. It became an economic disaster area after the riots, as did black neighborhoods in many other cities across the country. Moreover, riot-torn neighborhoods in these cities remained disaster areas for decades thereafter, as businesses became reluctant to locate there, reducing access to both jobs and places to shop, and both black and white middle-class people left for the suburbs.
Without a fully funded and supported police force, who will answer the call of a frightened student who thinks she’s being stalked on the way home from class? Who will respond to home invasions? Robberies? Threats of violence? Rampaging fires?
Beginning with ending the corrupting effect of unions, many police reforms merit consideration. But the solution isn’t to abolish police departments, it’s strengthening them in the right ways. As I wrote last year:
A large, disciplined, and respected police force is needed to stabilize broken communities long enough for law-abiding citizens to feel it is safe enough to return. Constant outreach between police and those they serve is integral to any progress. Residents should know the name of the officers on their neighborhood beat on a first-name basis. Abusive police behavior should be addressed immediately. Both policemen and citizens should be happy to see each other. Building trusting relationships between police and the communities they protect takes time, but it is a worthwhile investment.
By our very nature, we desire many things in life. We crave friendship. We need outlets for our gifts and skills. We seek time to reflect and contemplate higher things. None of these noble pursuits can be engaged, however, if our safety remains unsecured. Man cannot pursue the Good if he’s constantly looking over his shoulder, afraid that harm may come his way at any moment.
Yes, the U.S. government has far too much power and influence over our lives. Ideally, an American citizen should be able to go for long stretches of time without having to step foot in a government building, fill out a government form, or interact with an official of the state.
But we need our police. We need the innumerable good cops who daily lay their lives on the line to serve and protect the defenseless and endangered. Most of all, we must demand the government continue to do the one thing it is supposed to do — protect our life, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.