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How Much Policing Do We Really Need?

Brutal Policing has been an Issue for Awhile

Policing in America has been a contentious issue, especially since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many different explanations have been extended as to why confrontations between the police and citizens so often become lethal: racism, poor training, availability of firearms to civilians, etc. As such, “solutions” to the problem target these issues. However, the ideas of Ludwig von Mises regarding economic calculation, despite being developed almost a century ago, offer far more interesting, and potentially more fruitful, insight into the matter of policing in a free society.Policing

Mises’s argument was that without private property in the means of production, there can be no market prices for capital goods and therefore no way of calculating the opportunity costs of using capital goods to produce certain goods instead of others. The decisions of central planners of what to produce and by what means would be arbitrary and chaotic.

Bureaucrats are the Worst

Because government policing is provided bureaucratically, without market prices and profit and loss, there is no way for police to know whether they have allocated resources to their most highly valued uses. Instead of consumers determining what problems police focus on, bureaucrats and politicians decide.

Three days prior to the death of Eric Garner, who died shortly after his arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes, New York governor Cuomo’s website bragged about how much revenue his Cigarette Strike Force had generated. It is highly doubtful that the citizens of New York demanded that the NYPD allocate resources to tobacco tax enforcement.

Just like everyone else, police respond to incentives. According to economist Bruce Benson, the War on Drugs did not really start to escalate into what we know it as today until Congress passed the 1984 Crime Control Act, allowing police to take a cut of the revenue from drug crime through civil asset forfeiture. Benson found in Florida, as did many others replicating his study elsewhere, that when police allocate more resources to drug enforcement, they use fewer resources to defend property, and property crime goes up.