Friday, January 6, 2017

Quote from To Serve and Protect by Bruce Benson

The Justice Department recently announced that it would stop using "private" prisons. Scare quotes because nothing that the government pays for is truly private. It reminded me of the following passage:
Some people argue that only the government should have police powers and the power to punish, since such powers in private hands will tend to be abused. In other words, the government must be the monopoly producer of police services, prosecution, and punishment. The fact is, however, that “the government” never actually produces anything. Everything that the government allegedly produces is actually produced by contracting with private entities working under contract. They are not owned by the government. They contract to provide their services because they expect to be better off than they would be in an alternative job. The benefits of the bureaucratic job may take many forms, including any pleasure received from helping to produce what a bureaucrat perceives to be in the public interest, a good living to support a family and/or an attractive life style, job security, perhaps pleasure from being in a position of power and authority, and so on. An individual police officer, then, is a private citizen who has been given a tremendous amount of power and discretion, and he is in a position to abuse the power that he is given. After all, since he is part of an organization with virtual monopoly power over the right to coerce, there is relatively little to constrain is tendencies to abuse his position, Not surprisingly, many types of abuse (corruption, physical abuse, falsification of evidence, etc.) occur in great numbers…

In light of this discussion, the normative view that government must be the only organization with police and punishment powers, for the fear that private entities might abuse such powers, really does not make that much sense. The fact that the idea of government production is a fiction actually implies that it makes more sense to have competitive options in order to constrain the ability of individuals to abuse power… In the context of the present discussion, however, this implies that contracting out must occur at some level.

This is an excerpt from the 2nd chapter of Bruce Benson's "To Serve and Protect." This is an important point. "Privatization" is not a yes or no question; all government services are ultimately supplied by private individuals. The question remains: should you have the option to deny the police your business if they fail to serve you, or should you be unconditionally subjected to their rules (and be forced to pay for their services even though you don't want them)? Should problem officers be difficult to fire (as public employees invariably are), or should the be easy to fire (as private employees typically are)?

There is nothing special about government provision that allows us to specify the outcome and achieve that outcome with any certainty. This is a point that libertarians like myself understand; perhaps we're bad at communicating it. Public provision and private provision are both subject to uncertainty. Either has the potential to harm the consumer. The real question is which system can be expected to perform better.

Anyway, I was sort of scratching my head at all the celebration over the Justice Department's announcement. It will still be the case that the federal government decides that certain people should be detained in prisons, and it's still the case that the federal government will pay certain other people to detain those prisoners. I don't really buy the framing that this is a categorically different way of doing things. 

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