Economics of Police Brutality



Here are a few thoughts on the economics of apparent police brutality and media portrayals thereof:

1. Judiciously edited video can be deceptive. However, I’d be interested in learning the conditions under which a woman being cross-checked by a cop who looks to be about a head taller than her and probably 50-100 pounds heavier—I’m not very good at eyeballing these kinds of things—is warranted. Perhaps it’s a credible commitment to take no prisoners as a means of defusing an explosive situation, but I’m skeptical. The fact that the cops “disappeared” her (even if only temporarily) while she was giving an interview was a little bit alarming.

2. As stories like these develop, I predict that they will be cast as struggles between the state and individual rights as recognized under the first amendment. This interpretation has some merit, but the key problem rests fundamentally on questions of poorly-defined property rights. In the second video, this is stated explicitly: the news team was “on public property.” Of course, when “the public” owns something, nobody does—which means that the right to exclude others from use is poorly defined. Common property is a source of conflict. It is clear that I don’t have the right to enter your living room and say what I want under the guise of free speech or to observe what you’re reading or watching on TV and report on it under the guise of a free press. When resources are unowned, our claims come into unavoidable conflict. Conflict is a necessary consequence of poorly defined ownership.

3. Monopolists behave like monopolists. Competition is a civilizing force: if I don’t like the service your company provides, I can take my business elsewhere. This is only true in a limited sense in the case of defense and police protection. The case for government provision of police services rests on a standard story about externalities. If I subscribe to police services, my neighbors enjoy a benefit for which they do not have to pay because criminals will presumably be less likely to go about their business in our neighborhood. At the same time, though, government provision changes the incentives: insulation from competition means that income is not tied to ability to create value. The creative competitive pressures of the marketplace are replaced by the noisier (and in some cases, destructive) competitive pressures of the political sphere. The structure of incentives lends itself to corruption and inefficiency.

Criticisms of the incentives inherent in government provision of services are sometimes unfortunately interpreted as personal attacks against the people providing the services. Nothing above is not to denigrate people who put on a police uniforms because of the actions of a few bad apples. My own experience with the police has been largely positive: many cops are outstanding human beings who are dedicated to their jobs. One of my friends from high school is the quintessential “good cop,“ the officers who took the police report after our house was robbed did a commendable job, and the campus safety officers here at Rhodes are outstanding. However, provision of police services often relies on people to do what is right for its own sake irrespective of the incentives created by the system. In a fallen world, relying on individual virtue rather than the clearly-defined incentives that emerge in a market economy is a recipe for waste, abuse, and inefficiency.

Cross-posted at Division of Labour.

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