the political economy of policing

Here is a general theory, drawn from the “Bloomington School” of political economy:

  1. Public safety is a good. Providing this good is at least somewhat costly: people must keep an eye on each other, refrain from violence, teach their children to be respectful of others, maybe punish or at least shun violators. The benefit is shared: everyone gains from the prosperity and peace that result from public safety. But the benefit is fragile: when any individual violates these norms, public safety can be undermined for all.
  2. Costly, fragile, shared goods are difficult to provide. One way to provide such a good is to make and enforce a rule that everyone must pay to provide it, and then use the funds to hire some people to do the work. If public education is a public good, then we can require everyone to pay taxes and use that money to hire professional teachers, and perhaps require every child to attend public schools. If public safety is a public good, then we can collect mandatory taxes to pay for police.
  3. One advantage of a mandate is that it solves the collective-action problem of providing the common good. Another advantage is that it puts the service-provider under the control of a government, which can be an equitable and liberal democracy. A third advantage is that the same rules that create the service can also regulate it in the interest of justice. For example, when establishing public schools, we can require that they serve all children.
  4. One disadvantage of this method is that the service-providers will likely reflect the biases and downright evils of the society. In a racist society, the schools, police, public health systems, and other public services will likely be racist. In a colony, they will probably be imperialist. In a communist state, they will probably be predatory. This means that although policing is not inherently racist in all countries and times, the police will be structurally racist in any racist society. (The generic problem is untrustworthiness.)
  5. Another disadvantage is that the service-providers, although meant to be agents of the community, may develop their own interests. They may lobby, threaten to strike, vote as a bloc, form close relationships with elected leaders, and so on. Then their actual impact will deviate from their assigned mission.
  6. Considering that the basic task of policing is coercion, the generic disadvantages of mandates will likely take the form of harmful coercion in the case of police. Harmful coercion is violence. In contrast, mandatory education or public health systems are more likely to demonstrate bias in how they distribute resources and define goods. Hospitals, for example, are “violent” (if at all) in a looser or more metaphorical sense than police with guns.
  7. One kind of solution to the problems listed in #4-6 is reform: change rules, oversight mechanisms, organizational flowcharts, or budgets to reduce bias and self-interest.
  8. Another kind of solution is to develop a thorough alternative to the mandatory approach described in #2. Mandates are not the only way to provide public goods. People can provide goods voluntarily under favorable circumstances.
  9. One kind of alternative to a mandate is a market. Individuals can purchase their own goods, possibly with a subsidy from the state to equalize their buying power. This is the idea behind school vouchers; it is also very common in policing, where lots of security is actually provided by private firms and technology, such as alarm systems. The drawbacks of markets are hinted at in #3.
  10. A different kind of alternative is a “commons”: a mechanism for collective action that is neither a top-down mandate nor a market. For both education and public safety, we see pervasive elements of commons alongside states and markets. For example, on a city block where adults keep their eyes on everyone’s kids, public safety (and education) are handled as a commons.
  11. Hybrids are not only possible; they are usually wise, because they avoid the risks of systematic failure and domination that come from relying on one social form alone. For instance, it is possible to have police with a limited role, a rent-a-cop at the drug store, and a range of voluntary associations and networks that generate public safety as a commons.

See also on the phrase: Abolish the police!; insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; the Chicago police and NY State prison scandals reinforce the need for countervailing power; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; China teaches the value of political pluralism; polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy; what kind of a good is education?; and the right to strike.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.