Americanly Yours

Promoting Free Markets, Free Trade, and Freedom!

Privatizing Police And Fire Departments, Part II

August 10, 2010 By: Phred Category: Uncategorized

I wanted to take some time and point out several of the things that I left out of yesterday’s article.

One important aspect of the model that I presented yesterday is the idea that insurance companies would likely bundle privately provided police and fire protection with homeowners insurance.  This would allow them to provide a basic level of a “public good” to the populace while charging paying customers extra for premium services.

A free market for the provision of police and fire protection could achieve many of the benefits of collectivization which exist in the current environment.  The main difference is that this collectivization would be voluntary, as opposed to the forced collectivization which is the main feature in the current model.  Furthermore, voluntary collectivization would likely occur within much smaller geographical areas than is currently the case, allowing neighborhoods and small communities to take advantage of economies of scale.

We can apply the homeowners insurance model presented yesterday to small collective units, such as neighborhoods.  Currently, there are a growing number of homeowners’ associations throughout the country which provide many of the same services which are currently provided by municipal governments.  These associations are able to provide residents with services like garbage collection, water, gyms, zoning regulations, and even fire protection and security services.  Members pay monthly or annual fees to their homeowner’s associations and are given such services in return.  In contrast to governments, homeowners’ association has every incentive to purchase services from the most cost effective provider.

Thus, it is not difficult to see that homeowners associations would be a great vehicle for expanding the number of people served by privatized police and fire departments.  In fact, forming homeowners’ associations within existing neighborhoods and apartment complexes is an excellent way for poorer people to pool resources in order to provide security and fire protection.

A great resource for those interested in the history of the provision of “public goods” by non-governmental entities is “The Voluntary City,” a book put out by the Independent Institute. This book is fascinating and leaves the reader wondering why we were never taught any of this in school (until the reader realizes that he went to a government school that had no reason to teach students that non-governmental entities can do good things).  The book deals somewhat with private law enforcement, but it also goes into great detail about the history of homeowners’ associations and the types and scopes of services that they have provided (and continue to provide).

The other major aspect that I neglected yesterday was the fact that municipally funded police and fire departments are relatively new phenomena.  The first government run municipal police force in the world was founded in London in the mid-1700’s.  This first police force was founded in a city which had managed to exist without a government police force–and without decaying into chaos for over 1500 years.

The oldest government run police force in the United States was founded in Boston in 1838–208 years after the founding of the city.  Boston has had a government police force for much less time than it went without one. Before the creation of the city run police force, Bostonians organized night watch groups, volunteer police departments, and even relied on the work of private detectives.

Surely, there are many major differences between the time before the 1830’s and today.  Thus, it would be unlikely that eliminating governmental support for and control of Boston’s (or any other city’s) police force would result in policing being undertaken in a manner similar to how is was done 200 years ago.

But, technological advances and a long and unbroken history of effective private security companies must provide us with optimism.  There are currently more private police officers than there are governmental police officers. Some of these police work as security officers, while many others work as private detectives.  The point is that they exist and they would continue to exist in a world where police provision was completely privatized.

Georgetown Law professor John Hasnas has done some interesting work on this subject.  His main point: look around at what goes on in the real world before saying that these ideas are not possible. To quote Hasnas:

“The proper response to the claim that government must provide police services is: look around. I work at a University that supplies its own campus police force. On my drive in, I pass a privately operated armored car that transports currency and other valuable items for banks and businesses. When I go downtown, I enter buildings that are serviced by private security companies that require me to sign in before entering. I shop at malls and department stores patrolled by their own private guards. While in the mall, I occasionally browse in the Security Zone store that sells personal and home protection equipment. I converse with attorneys and, once in a while with a disgruntled spouse or worried parent, who employ private detective agencies to perform investigations for them. I write books about how the United States Federal government coerces private corporations into performing criminal investigations for it.24 When I was younger, I frequented nightclubs and bars that employed “bouncers.” Although it has never happened to me personally, I know people who have been contacted by private debt collection agencies or have been visited by repo men. Once in a while, I meet people who are almost as important as rock stars and travel with their own bodyguards. At the end of the day, I return home to my community that has its own neighborhood watch. I may be missing something, but I haven’t noticed any of these agencies engaging in acts of violent aggression to eliminate their

Ah, but that is because the government police force is in the background making sure that none of these private agencies step out of line, the supporters of government contend. Really? How does that explain London before the Bow Street Runners? The New York City police force was not created until 1845. The Boston Police Department, which describes itself as “the first paid, professional public safety department in the country”25 traces its history back only to 1838. What kept the non-political police services in line before these dates?””

We can take Hasnas’ advice and “look around” to see the same thing with regards to private fire departments.  There are many volunteer fire departments in the United States.  New York City did not have a government run and funded municipal fire department until 1865–again, they have survived longer without a government run and funded than they have with one.  The volunteer fire department in Pasadena, Texas serves a population of 150,000 residents (a number that swells to over 1 million in the daytime).  In fact, this volunteer fire department is so well run that the Federal government even trusts them to provide fire protection to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

While we may be years away from a political atmosphere that will allow serious discussion of privatizing police and fire departments, this is a very realistic idea with centuries of history to back it up.  Furthermore, given the dismal performance of our current police forces, this idea is certainly worth taking into account.

To quote Professor Hasnas once more:

“If a visitor from Mars were asked to identify the least effective method for securing individuals’ persons and property, he might well respond that it would be to select one group of people, give them guns, require all members of society to pay them regardless of the quality of service they render, and invest them with the discretion to employ resources and determine law enforcement priorities however they see fit subject only to the whims of their political paymasters. If asked why he thought that, he might simply point to the Los Angeles or New Orleans or any other big city police department. Are government police really necessary for a peaceful, secure society? Look around. Could a non-political, non-monopolistic system of supplying police services really do worse than its government-supplied counterpart?”

Americanly Yours,

Phred Barnet

Please help me promote my site:

Share on Facebook

Become a fan on Facebook

Bookmark and Share

5 Comments to “Privatizing Police And Fire Departments, Part II”

  1. We need to take our part in educating people around us that are economically illiterate. If people understood more about sounds and true economic principles better decisions amongst the people of our nation would be made! Thanks for the article

  2. Privatize everything!!!

    Very interesting connection back to Boston Phred

    I’m wondering about the cost though–do you think there would be overlap and wasted resources by splitting up the departments?

  3. Hey Mac,

    Thanks for your question. As to whether or not there would be wasted resources and overlap from a completely voluntary police and fire protection system, I think that you would find that the opposite would be true. In a purely voluntary/market system, resources would be allocated in the most efficient manner possible. The price system would be allowed to function in an unrestricted manner, and this would allow individuals and organizations to purchase and allocate their resources in the most efficient manner.

    Furthermore, we must always remember to compare the reforms that we want to make to the way that the present system is set up. You must ask yourself whether the police and fire departments are currently organized in an efficient manner. The obvious answer is that they are not. In a voluntary system, things would not be perfect, but they would be substantially better off than they are now.


  4. I strongly am a supporter of privatizing municipal government. Privatize police and fire services as well as scavenger services, law services, maintenance, plow services, and every services to private contractors and limit the contract to a maximum of two years so you give others a chance and avoid corruption and bribes.
    You look at these cops these days and most of them are so damn lazy and know they have job security through their unions and take their benefits for granted. A private detective and security agency can hire and the state can certify its members where its members have strict criterias before they are certified and are able to patrol the streets.
    Cops should be public servants and should be ready to protect property and the safety of its citizens. I see a lot of these so called cops who are on a power hungry mission and think they are above the law with little or no regard to its citizens. I feel you need older, more mature, and more educated cops out there.
    If city government were privatized, I feel that city government would not be financially strapped as they are. Run government like a business. Have qualified mayors and aldermen be the managers not clowns who are just big mouths and know how to stir up crowds. Have leaders who have business experience and have been around the block be our leaders.

  5. wouldn’t government have authority over all these private police companies, as they do now? As for private municipalities, don’t ignore our Democratic Republic, or do you want this modified? I don’t like the idea of private police companies, each to their own piece of the city.
    Welcome to my list of followers, I assume you were attracted by my website. I’d like imput!


Leave a Reply