Is Monopoly Self-Justifying?

One common rebuttal to those of us who criticize the police is “Don’t like cops?

Next time you’re in trouble, call a crackhead.” The argument behind the joke is clear: Those of us who criticize police still value the security they supposedly provide, and therefore we should not be so critical of the police. But there’s something perverse about this argument. The state uses coercion to monopolize the provision of law, security, and justice. Their supporters then appeal to the absence of alternatives to justify abuses by this monopoly.

Even if we assume that the state’s monopoly on force is necessary, this should not protect them from criticism. Arguably, this should make us more critical. As Albert Hirschman noted, when the quality of goods an organization provides declines, those who are unsatisfied have two options. They can exit and cease supporting the organization, or they can use their voice to air their grievances and hopefully secure improvements. In a competitive market, it’s fairly easy for consumers to exit and take their business elsewhere. But with a state monopoly, exit is quite costly, as it requires moving to an entirely different jurisdiction. Those who appeal to the lack of alternatives to the police in order to shout down criticisms of the police are effectively saying, “You can’t viably exit, so stop using your voice.” But if exit is not an available strategy to keep the police in check, then voice becomes extremely important.

However, I think the state’s monopoly on force is illegitimate. While we must raise our voices against police brutality, I think our goal should be to abolish the state’s criminal justice system and replace it with a variety of non-state methods for providing law, security, and justice. Those who say “Next time, call a crackhead” assume that this isn’t a viable possibility. To them, the only options are police on one hand and lawless chaos where we resort to calling up crackheads to defend ourselves from thieves and murderers on the other. This false dichotomy reflects an extraordinary failure of imagination, but one that is quite common in our society. Whenever libertarians argue that the government shouldn’t provide a service, we are accused of wanting that service to not be performed at all. As Frédéric Bastiat wrote back in 1850:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Similarly, many assume that if we do not want a monopolistic state police force, we want no security, law, or justice at all.

This false dichotomy ignores real world examples of alternative possibilities for governance. As Anthony Gregory explains, “Private security is already a greater bulwark against violent and property crime than many people realize.” He points out that in 1997 there were three times as many private security guards as public police officers. Yet these security guards rarely commit the sorts of brutality and aggression we usually see from police. This results from differences in incentives. Private security guards “are liable for the wrong they do, unlike the state’s armed agents, who work for an institution of monopoly, theft, kidnapping, rape rooms and murder.”

In some cases, law has been provided almost entirely from the bottom up rather than by the state. In his book The Enterprise of Law, economist Bruce Benson describes various means of providing law without state power. He points to customary law in England, a form of restitution based justice that operated on the community level before it was crowded out by authoritarian law. Another example Benson discusses is the Law Merchant, a form of private law that governed international commerce and enforced decisions by ostracizing merchants who refused to comply with rulings.

Far from being necessary for law and order, the state actively undermines law and order. As my SFL colleague Jason Byas explains,

The State’s very nature—an enforced monopoly on the provision of legal and defense services, or at least on the “final authority” of either—is in stark contradiction to impartiality, the principle that no one can be the judge of their own case.”

That police are rarely held accountable for acts of brutality and aggression demonstrates this tension between the rule of law and the monopolistic state. Rather than appealing to the police’s monopoly to defend them from criticism, those who value law, security, and justice should seek to end the state’s monopoly on these services.