[Originally published in the Front Range Voluntaryist, article by J. Allen Barnaby of the Free Association Center]
Policing, the protection of person and property, can and should be handled privately for reasons both ethical and prudential. This simple truth is often hard for most to swallow, especially those looking to rationalize the various forms of centralized control they'd like to continue exerting over the entire populace within a certain geographic area.
Decentralized policing services can and should be provided by the individual landowners or users who truly find any particular protection service more valuable than its cost. The competitive pressure made possible by decentralizing decision-making aligns the incentives of security providers much more closely with those of the marginal customer relative to a centralized political system where some fraction of the population enforces their preferences upon the whole. A political process allows those holding its reins to externalize the costs of services onto unwilling dissenters who may have better options on the table in its absence.
But what about the poor, you ask? The working poor almost invariably rent homes and travel on roads owned by others. Those owners make their livings providing low-cost services to the poor and have strong incentives to pay for cost-effective crime deterrence on their properties in order to prevent damage and provide their customers relatively safe passage to and from their businesses in order to continue making their living. Insurance companies (think homeowners' and life insurance) can and would discriminate between customers who take various deterrence measures and those who don't, charging owners and individuals higher premiums depending upon their varying risk profiles. By making assets more profitable year in and year out, the benefits of protection services become capitalized into the value of the properties themselves. We must acknowledge, however, that we do not have Utopia on the table from which to choose, so we must make a comparative judgment between centralized and decentralized provision of protection. Centralization poses grave risks of abuse, and as will be explained below, offers little relative benefit to the poor and powerless in practice.
Regime economists of course, even those espousing free market rhetoric across any number of other areas, readily object to the proposition that policing can be provided without centralizing said service by force. They teach us that policing is a prototypical "public good," and that the "optimal amount" of policing services can't be provided without some kind of forced centralization.
The first problem with this approach generally is that, while positing that decentralized decision-making might lead to the under-provision of a service, it completely ignores that centralization is even more likely to lead to an over-production in terms of cost while offering little assurance against under-production in terms of the actual service quality enjoyed by those unable to wield political power for themselves. What's worse is that those who advance this position usually offer the pretext that without centralization, the poor and ostensibly powerless would lack access to quality service, even as their proposed solution often fails to serve this very group.
The second problem with the public goods rationalization is that "prototypical" services like policing don't even obviously meet the theoretical requirements of a public good on their own terms. We're told policing is non-excludable, meaning that the cost of keeping non-payers from enjoying the benefits of the protection service prohibits the optimal level of protection from being provided to paying subscribers as well.
However as a practical matter, policing is clearly excludable. Among other strategies, police agencies can simply publish the properties for which they intend to defend by force, allowing even relatively short-sighted criminals to avoid their subscribers and incentivizing them to case unprotected non-payers instead. Within most political jurisdictions currently, county and city jurisdictions haphazardly perform this function already, but as we have seen above, flexible police jurisdictions determined by market demand would better serve individuals living amongst a diverse local population by most closely aligning incentives.
Private, decentralized policing is also largely rivalrous in consumption, in stark contradiction with the second requirement of a public good. While defending one house in a neighborhood from the threat of a ballistic missile would generally require defending the whole neighborhood from the same threat, thereby rendering the defense of each additional house in the neighborhood essentially cost-less once the first is adequately defended, providing a deterrent from most crimes, as well as investigation and restitution services, are generally costly to extend to each additional person or property.
It's up to those that value their freedom to resist all who would employ the mere force of arms to centralize decision-making within a privileged political class. This goes double for the seemingly fundamental State services of policing and dispute resolution. As a practical matter, subjecting service providers of all kinds to competition and holding them to principles of natural justice will place significant limits on centralization of all kinds. Such restraints also hinder the growth of political power, a force to be resisted at all costs by the true friends of man and liberty.