by William L. Anderson: Should
State Agents Be Held Accountable Only to the State?
Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, "the Beltway Snipers," shot
13 people over the course of three weeks in October 2002. Police
finally caught them on October 24. This Mises Daily was first published
on November 4, 2002. An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated
by Colin Hussey, is available
As many writers
have pointed out since the October 24 arrest of the alleged "Beltway
Snipers," law enforcement from the FBI to the Montgomery County
police have not deserved the accolades that have been poured upon
them for "solving" the murder spree. Even the mainstream
news accounts, which have gushed forth with praise for these various
government employees, have permitted any casual observer to note
that the investigation and month-long dragnet for the killers was
botched from the beginning.
While I have
no intention of belaboring upon law enforcement’s insistence upon
its "racial profiling" of the suspects – the imaginary
Angry White Male driving a white van – I should point out that
none of us should be surprised that the investigation was overly
politicized. Government, at last check, is and has always been a
political institution, so we should not be shocked when those
employed by the state act in a political fashion. While people might
condemn this behavior, it comes naturally to government employees.
The real challenge here is not to reform government, but
rather take criminal investigations out of the hands of the state.
will deal with the investigative aspect of police work, not actual
policing itself. While I may favor privatized police, I believe
that a realistic place to start is in the area of criminal investigations.
Thus, I concentrate on that in this article.)
numerous problems with the search, and while trying to find the
perpetrators of such action was truly looking for the proverbial
needle in a haystack – the murderers acting in the random fashion
that they did – there were some aspects that truly were peculiar
to government entities. For example, the day before the suspects
were arrested, they spent some time in Hagerstown, Maryland, which
is about 60 miles northwest of Washington and about 65 miles east
of my home in Cumberland, Maryland.
By that time,
authorities in Montgomery County along with the FBI were aware of
the names of their suspects and the vehicle they were driving, yet
refused to share that information with other police jurisdictions
until a day later, including adjacent Frederick County (where Muhammad
and his accomplice were apprehended) and Washington County, where
Hagerstown is the county seat. To put it another way, those politically
correct law-enforcement agencies placed the lives of citizens in
those two counties in danger because they could not get themselves
to publicly admit they had been deadly wrong in their highly publicized
To make matters
even worse, it took the police an hour to arrive at the rest stop
where the alleged snipers were sleeping in their car, following
the 911 calls from the maintenance worker who had spotted the vehicle.
(By then, the police had made public the information on the car
and its occupants.) The police version is that this was such a dangerous
operation that they had to have their full contingent there to make
sure things did not go wrong. Of course, the real reason is that
all of the various organizations and jurisdictions had to have their
representation so the "right people" could receive the
two unarmed men waited nervously, hoping the pair would not wake
up and attack them or even drive off and commit more crimes. To
put it another way, the police were willing to place the lives of
other people at risk so that the politics of the situation could
be enhanced for those who were supposedly deserving of publicity.
commentators have concentrated upon the incompetence and political
cravenness of the Montgomery County police, I believe that there
is a much larger issue at stake, one that unwittingly has been pointed
out by the mainstream news media. As I noted earlier, trying to
find a sniper or snipers in the heavily populated Washington Beltway
area was like finding a needle in a haystack, but over time, as
we have seen, even Muhammad the needle left many clues, including
evidence he did not leave deliberately. From Montgomery, Alabama,
to Tacoma and Bellingham, Washington, the pieces slowly but surely
began to fit.
however, is that there was no mechanism by which law-enforcement
agencies could effectively share information. Yes, there are national
databases, and the FBI supposedly is the entity that is supposed
to tie things together, but, to quote the sheriff from Cool Hand
Luke, "What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,"
and under the present government crime fighting regime, communications
always will be botched.
This is not
due to lack of technology or even the lack of people who have the
aptitude to do the necessary work. The real problem is that for
all of the talk of cooperation "inherent" in socialism,
government agencies are extremely competitive with one another,
but in a provincial way. The refusal of Montgomery County to cooperate
with its neighbors speaks volumes of this truism. For that matter,
most local police will tell you the agency that is most uncooperative
with them is the FBI, thus disproving the false notion that the
national government knows best.
The real issue,
then, is how do we effectively put together the mechanisms to allow
for better criminal investigations, especially when we are dealing
with criminals who carry their crime sprees across state and jurisdictional
lines. Here is where private enterprise can step in.
I ask this
simple question: Why do we depend upon government to carry out the
vital job of criminal investigation when we don’t depend upon government
to provide us with the important basic items of food, clothing,
and shelter? In fact, we instinctively know that if we were to depend
solely upon the state for our sustenance, we would starve or die
of exposure to the elements. Yet, people then turn around and insist
that government is the most effective entity to investigate crime,
especially when lives are at stake.
What I am proposing
is that we permit private firms to engage in criminal investigations
instead of leaving this important job to the politicized state.
First, as we have seen in other areas of private enterprise, for-profit
firms have no problem sharing information with each other –
except when government intervenes in the name of "antitrust"
laws. Second, unlike the monopoly of state law enforcement in which
political goals always trump public safety, these firms would not
be loaded down with such dangerous baggage.
incentive to solve crimes with accurate data would be much greater
with private firms than government agencies. Not only would the
reputation of solving crimes mean more business and more profitability
to successful firms, the system of liability in which companies
could be successfully sued in court for sloppy or dishonest investigations
would also temper the desire for a "quick fix," especially
in difficult cases.
In recent years,
we have seen that criminally suspect "investigations"
by law-enforcement agencies have landed innocent people on death
row in many states, most notably Illinois, where DNA testing exonerated
half of the death-row population. One shudders to think how many
other Americans are incarcerated at the present time for crimes
they did not commit because politically zealous police and prosecutors
railroaded them into prison. Unfortunately, even though we are well
aware of these problems, we also see that it is an extremely rare
occurrence when those in positions of crime investigation and prosecution
are actually punished for their criminal negligence.
To put it another
way, private investigating firms would carry a much heavier burden
than the state currently does. While this is hardly a "perfect"
defense against mistakes, I could guarantee that private firms would
make far fewer errors than are currently made by government employees,
including those in the FBI "crime" labs that, as we know
now, routinely botch investigations, sometimes on purpose and sometimes
I realize that
such a proposal also has its possible downside. Since the state
determines what is and what is not a crime, such agencies also could
be politically manipulated into carrying out investigations that
satisfied the political appetites of bureaucrats and elected officials.
Thus, we likely would still have the same political emphasis upon
certain kinds of "crime" that perhaps should not be considered
crimes at all.
But even here,
private enterprise gives us a barrier that state-run crime investigation
does not offer. Contrary to public opinion, it is easier to hide
errors and outright fraud in government agencies, since government
ultimately decides what shall be criminal and what shall not. Private
firms do not have that cover. Moreover, private companies also have
the option of walking away if government wants them to obtain politically
correct outcomes in their investigations.
I am not advocating
what is commonly called "privatization," in which firms
compete for having the government designate them as a local monopoly.
Instead, I am calling for firms that compete with one another in
the same jurisdiction.
of this is a panacea, and I realize that the presence of government
policing is fraught with its own sets of problems. The real world,
as Austrian economics demonstrates, is one in which error is always
present. I am simply calling for another way to look at how we presently
"solve" crimes in our country today, noting that we now
have the worst of all worlds.
of the alleged Beltway snipers should not make us more trusting
in local law enforcement and crime investigators; in fact, it should
do the opposite. The incentive structure inherent in government
kept agencies from seeking the right people and sharing information.
We need a change, and private, for-profit enterprise is the only
way we will have the kind of change we need. It may not be perfect,
but it surely would be better than the politicized regime that rules
over us today.
L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him
mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland,
and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute. He
also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit