Recently by William Norman Grigg: Let a Thousand ‘Rogue’ Grand Juries Bloom!
“Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?” –
~ Attributed to Boston physician Mather Byles, 1770.
"Do you see this soldier in this checkpoint?" Iraqi Wael al-Khafaji asked a Reuters reporter, pointing to a spot just a few feet from his Baghdad barbershop. "He can do whatever he wants to me right now and I can’t say a word. Is this democracy?"
Before the U.S. invasion, this businessman – like millions of other Iraqis – was ruled by a distant dictator who had little direct influence on his life. Today, everything he does takes place under the shadow cast by armed men who have given themselves permission to brutalize or kill anybody who refuses to obey them.
For Mr. al-Khafaji, it makes no material difference whether the checkpoint is manned by U.S. soldiers, State Department-employed mercenaries, members of Saddam's Republican Guard, or elements of a local sectarian militia. The problem is the presence of people who claim the right to use aggressive violence to force him to submit to their will. The problem is not one of geography or affiliation; it is a matter of institutionalized immorality.
Americans who supported the Iraq war would be scandalized by Mr. al-Khajafi's ingratitude. They would be wise to ponder his insight while examining the extent to which our own country is becoming a garrison state. They would also do well to emulate his habit of looking with acute suspicion – and no small measure of resentment – on the oddly dressed armed men who presume to exercise authority over us.
Democracy is the art of inducing victims of government power to focus on the question of who controls the government, rather than what it does. The same can be said of the perspective encapsulated in the slogan "Support Your Local Police" (SYLP).
As sociologist David Bayley pointed out, "The police are to the government as the edge is to the knife." The police are an implement of coercion wielded by the political class, whether they are operationally under the control of Washington, D.C. or City Hall.
From the SYLP perspective, the police and the "criminal justice" system they serve exist to protect life and property against criminal violence and fraud. If this were true, it would follow that most of those arrested and punished would be found guilty of crimes against person and property.
According to the most recent available statistics regarding incarceration, however, people convicted of actual crimes compose a very small minority of America's vast and growing federal prison population. As of 2009, crimes of violence accounted for roughly eight percent of that total, and property crimes contributed a bit less than six percent. More than half of all inmates were convicted of non-violent drug offenses, and thirty-five percent were caged for what are called "public order" offenses.
Libertarian activist Michael Suede points out that eighty-six percent of all federal inmates were punished for what are called "victimless crimes" – that is to say, offenses not properly described as crimes at all. It is reasonable to assume that similar trends exist at the state and local level as well.
There are instances in which police act in defense of persons and property. Those are genuinely exceptional, because rendering that service is not part of their formal job description: The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that police have no enforceable duty to protect individual rights. This helps explain why, as economist Robert Higgs pointed out roughly a decade ago, "there are three times as many private policemen as there are public ones."
In choosing to pay for private security assistance, Americans freely spend more than twice the amount stolen from us each year to pay for the government's armed enforcement caste. This is because the government that takes our money fails to provide the promised social good – protection of life and property.
Writing nearly a century ago, when our contemporary police state was in its infancy, the immortal H.L. Mencken protested that the government supposedly protecting him was actually the most rapacious and tenacious enemy of liberty and personal security. While it is possible for the typical American to repel the aggression of private criminals, "he can no more escape the tax-gatherer and the policemen, in all their protean and multitudinous guises, than he can escape the ultimate mortician. They beset him constantly, day in and day out…. They invade his liberty, affront his dignity, and greatly incommode his search for happiness, and every year they demand and wrest from him a larger and larger share of his worldly goods."
The one refinement we can make to this otherwise flawless polemical gem is to note that the terms "tax-gatherer" and "policeman" are functional synonyms. Both offices exist to extract wealth from the productive at gunpoint on behalf of the political class. The only substantive difference between them is that the latter are granted slightly wider latitude in inflicting aggressive violence, and equipped to do so.
As Carl Watner pointed out in "Call the COPS – But Not the Police," a seminal 2004 essay published by The Voluntaryist, gathering taxes has been a core police function since the institution was first imposed on the Anglo-Saxons following the Norman Conquest. The feudal order implemented by William the Conqueror was built upon the "frankpledge," which was the institutional foundation for a a police system designed to collect revenue for the monarch.
The Anglo-Saxon tribes had provided security through kinship-based groups called "tithes" and "hundreds," who defended cattle herds and other property and acted as posses to apprehend thieves. Anglo-Saxon courts emphasized restitution, with any punitive damages being used to compensate volunteers who had tracked down the offenders. Under the frankpledge, however, the "justice" system diverted all revenues into the king's treasury.
Royal courts worked tirelessly to expand the king's jurisdiction, which was enforced by royal appointees called shire-reeves (from which the term "sheriff" is derived). Eventually, royal enactments criminalized efforts by victims to seek private restitution; since such arrangements deprived the treasury of revenue, they were seen as a form of theft. This concept of the "King's Peace" could be considered the distant but recognizable ancestor of the modern notion that the disembodied abstraction called "society" is a victim of criminal offenses – even those in which no individual has been injured.
A heavy residue of Anglo-Saxon tradition endured into the 18th Century. A French visitor to London in the mid-1700s was astounded when none of the local residents could direct him to the police – or even recognize the term. "Good Lord! How can one expect order among these people, who have no such a word as police in their language?" he exclaimed.
In fact, the term was familiar to educated 18th Century Britons, who – as historian Leon Radzinowicz points out – considered it to be "suggestive of terror and oppression." A 1785 Police Bill proposed by William Pitt the Younger shattered against an iron wall of opposition to what was regarded as a "dangerous innovation." Until the second decade of the 19th century, the British government's ambition to create a standing police force was confined to its Irish colony, where its heavily armed Royal Constabulary field-tested methods that would later be imported to the homeland.
During the same period, Napoleon Bonaparte, the armed evangelist of the Jacobin revolution, created the first modern police force. Bonaparte's ascent to power began with a brutal police action: The massacre of 13 Vendemiaire (October 5, 1795), during which the young Corsican general used artillery to slaughter Royalist protesters on the streets of Paris.
By 1812, writes David A. Bell in his book The First Total War, large areas of Europe under Bonaparte's rule were afflicted with "pervasive bureaucracy, particularly new agencies for tax collection and conscription…. To implement the new order, there came new police forces, often staffed largely by Frenchmen."
Presiding over this apparatus of regimentation, extraction, and coercion was secret police Chief Joseph Fouche, the Jacobin fanatic who prefigured Felix Dzherzhinsky.
Bonaparte's star was in eclipse by 1814. However, as British historian Paul Johnson observed in his book The Birth of the Modern, "the golden age of the political police" had just begun. The Congress of Vienna gave birth to what one contemporary critic called "All sorts of wild schemes of establishing a general police all over Europe."
At the same time, Robert Peel, the military governor of Ireland, introduced the so-called Peace Preservation Police, a centrally controlled paramilitary auxiliary to the 20,000-man military force garrisoned on the island. Peel explained that the force "was not meant to meet any temporary emergency" but rather intended to become a permanent institution. In 1829, Peel was England's Home Secretary. With Parliament's resistance at low ebb, Peel proposed the creation of the Metropolitan Police.
"The new police institution had many supporters in government, but opposition was to be found in the wider society," wrote Watner in The Voluntaryist. "The fundamental principles behind the force were seen as … anathema to Whig political principles, which emphasized `liberty over authority, the rights of the people against the prerogatives of the Crown, local accountability in place of centralization, and governance by the "natural" rulers of society instead of salaried, government-appointed bureaucrats.'"
Populist parliamentarian William Cobbett, an outspoken foe of "tax-eaters," was among the fiercest critics of the Metropolitan Police, which he saw as the vanguard of a country-wide army of occupation.
"Tyranny always comes by slow degrees," Cobbett declared in an 1833 speech in Parliament, "and nothing could tend to illustrate that fact [better] than the history of police in this country." Less than a generation ago, Cobbett pointed out, the very term "police" was "completely new among us." Now, owing to Peel's innovations, London was now overrun with "Blue Locusts" – "a police with numbered collars and embroidered cuffs, a body of men as regular as the King's service, as fit for domestic war as the redcoats were for foreign war."
In 1783, the last of King George's occupation troops were evicted from New York. In 1844, New York City's municipal government became the first in America to embrace Robert Peel's system of paramilitary police. This amounted to exchanging Redcoats for "Blue Locusts." Other major cities – New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1852, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago in 1855 – soon followed. State police agencies began to appear in the last decade of the 19th century, and first decades of the 20th.
While those police agencies were locally controlled, they were not servants of the public; they were instruments of the political class that created them. On the western frontier, where political power was either radically decentralized or entirely theoretical, security for person and property was "protected by private policemen who were paid by – and, so, responsible to – the community where they served," notes libertarian writer Wendy McElroy.
Unlike the European gendarmes and royal British "shire-reeves," McElroy points out, "Western sheriffs did protect people and property; they did rescue schoolmarms and punish cattle rustlers. Their mission was to keep the peace by preventing violence."
Most importantly, in the Old West, sheriffs and marshals didn't claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Thus when corrupt sheriffs like Montana's Henry Plummer or Idaho's David Updike used their office as cover to operate as "road agents" (horse thieves and highwaymen), they were arrested, tried, and punished by private "committees of vigilance."
The only legitimate role for a peace officer is to interpose himself on behalf of individuals threatened by aggressive violence. That is a role that can (and should) be carried out by any law-abiding individual – including instances when the purveyor of aggressive violence is a police officer or other state official.
In the recent nationally coordinated police crack-downs on "Occupy" protesters we have seen the following scenario play out numerous times: Peaceful demonstrators confront riot police; individual riot policeman commits physical aggression against protester, then immediately escalates the conflict by using potentially lethal force; when the crowd reacts, the other police officers – rather than coming to the aid of the victim – form a protective barricade (I call it a "thugscrum") around the assailant.