How Government Solved
the Crime Problem

by Hogeye Bill

Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. - Leopold Kohr

Something is wrong with police services today. Militarization of police, emphasis on trivialities such as victimless “crimes” while ignoring serious life-threatening crimes, the incarceration of masses of people at great expense and even greater injustice, and of course police brutality. The municipal monopoly model for policing must be questioned by any rational observer. So-called reforms have failed. It is quite clear that monopoly police bring out the worse in law enforcment, especially with respect to racism, violence, and authoritarian attitudes.

The main contention here is that it is the monopoly status of police forces which has caused this deterioration in service and increase in brutality. Current practice is to have one single monopoly force in a city or town. These local monopolies may allow and permit private security firms to operate, but only by permission as subordinates.

How would a competitive market in security services work in a modern city? We can get a rough indication by looking at historical examples, but since these examples are pre-modern - before the mass industrial era migration to urban areas - we also need to use our imagination and insight about modern cities to predict what competing defense services might look like today.

Historical Background

For most areas of production and service, we can compare the government regulated (or owned) current system to how it was done in past, relatively freer markets. For the ‘control points’ of society that governments have captured, we can look back to see how society did it before the capture. This may yield information we can use to predict how it could be done today, were the State to lose its grip over that control point. For example, when Gabriel Kolko or Roy Childs write about the US government’s capture of the railroad and transportation industry, they can cite the relatively free market railroads of the East Coast before the massive subsidies and political corruption of the transcontinental railroad.[1][2][3] Thus, we get some idea of what free market railroads might look like. Similarly, there have been periods of relatively free banking, so when Murray Rothbard writes about the Fed and cartelization of the the banking industry, he is able to inform us about what free banking might look like.[4] Roderick Long is able to tell us what relatively free market medicine was like before the 1910s, when government “solved” the health care problem.[5] With defense services, however, that is not the case. Government is, after all, a monopoly on brute force, so its seminal and most primal capture of social functions was to establish monopoly police and soldiers.

A second consideration comes into play: The last time free market security commonly prevailed occurred before the industrial revolution. Thus, the voluntary measures taken then, before modern urbanization, generally do not apply. The mass migration to urban areas make the old-time night-watchman system, quite adequate for villages, rather obsolete today. Furthermore, the old culture where men were commonly both armed and felt a duty to themselves and their community to personally “fight crime” is long gone. The cry of “Stop! Thief!” which would have roused all passersby to action in pre-modern days, would not likely be as effective in most urban areas today.

Thus, the major modern examples of non-government metropolitan police are due to government failure. Even in these cases, people were generally loath to abandon habitual government unless the failure was egregious. For these American vigilantes, there were no competing private police firms. The vigilante committees disbanded once order was restored; they were more analogous to temporary militias than standing armies.

Throughout the world, virtually all human cultures evolved a type of voluntary association we might call a surety group. These are groups of people who indemnify each other and protect each other. Often, there were additional social and religious aspects, such that the defense function is obscured, such as the sweat lodges of some American Indian cultures. In other cases the mutual protection and insurance function was more explicit. The Anglo-Saxon borh is a good example.

Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, government in England was radically decentralized. ... England possessed neither a police force nor a standing army; law enforcement and national defense alike were the prerogative and responsibility of the armed citizenry.

For purposes of security, the most important social unit was the borh. A borh was an association, typically of twelve people, who stood surety for one another's good behavior. If a member of a borh committed a crime, the other members were committed to bringing him to justice - but also to helping him pay restitution for his crime. (Financial restitution rather than retribution was the normal sentence for most crimes; those who refused to pay restitution were outlawed, that is, placed outside the law - meaning that anyone could kill them with impunity.)

The borh may have originated as a kinship group, but if so, its kin-based aspects soon dwindled; at the height of the Anglo-Saxon system, borhs were purely contractual arrangements. Individuals were free to apply to a borh of their choosing, and members of that borh were likewise free to accept or refuse the applicant; once accepted, an individual was free to leave, and could also be expelled. Since the members of the borh would be held responsible for one another's actions, there was a strong incentive to police members' behavior. Likewise, there was a strong incentive to belong to a borh and not be kicked out, because few were willing to deal with someone who belonged to no borh; such a person was in effect an uninsured risk, since he had no fellow borh-members standing surety for him. The borh system thus created powerful incentives for responsible behavior. -  Roderick Long [6]

This idea seems quite adaptable to modern times. It is basically the same way modern insurance companies work. They will insure your home and other belongings for a monthly subscription, and you can opt out or change insurance companies at will. Indeed, after a robbery, monopoly municipal police in most cases do no more than document the theft so that insurance will be paid. The monopoly police department’s recovery rate for stolen property is dismal. Why would it be otherwise? They have no incentive to recover the goods, let alone capture the thief or enforce compensation to the victims. It is easy to see the superior incentives for competing police compared to monopoly police, and why connecting police to insurance provides better incentives for recovering stolen goods.

Such reciprocal voluntary agreements have a certain timeless appeal. Consider the modern parallels: like insurance agencies, the surety groups [borhs] helped members to spread risk by pooling assets; like credit bureaus, they vouched for the good stand- ing of their own members and denied access to outsiders who had demonstrated their unworthiness; like credit card companies, they stood behind the claims and acts of their members. - Tom Bell[7]

Fast-forward eight centuries, to the early 1800s. We have massive urbanization in London. The old night-watchman system, adequate to village life, no longer is able to handle the London urban masses and rampant crime. They still had a culture of mutual aid for apprehending thieves, where people generally came to the aid of victims and spontaneously apprehended thieves because it was ‘the right thing to do.” But in the urban setting, this was an order of magnitude more difficult than in a small village where everyone knew everyone, and strangers were easily identifiable. Thus, there arose a new enterprise - private thief-taking.


Did thief-taker firms work? After one scratches the victor’s history surface, it seems that it did. There is no evidence that crime was reduced when the government of London captured and monopolized the police service. Indeed, the main motivation for creating the first municipal police force was not because thief-takers were not doing a good job - it was to gain political and social control over people. Yet today thief-taking is pronounced ineffective or criminal in modern history books. Evidence that government is not necessary for providing defense services (such as crime rates) is ignored, while cherry-picked examples of criminals who became thief-takers are put front and center. If you do a computer search on “thief-takers,” you are likely to see a picture of Jonathan Wild, a notorious criminal, rather than pictures of honest, successful thief-takers or their “protected by” signs on their customers’ doors.[6]

The statist capture of defense services was led by Sir Robert Peel. To this day, English police are called “Bobbies.”

But before the reign of the Bobbies, English law enforcement relied heavily on organizations known as Associations for the Prosecution of Felons - also known as thief-takers' associations. Imagine a cross between a Neighborhood Watch group, an insurance agency, and an Old West style posse. People in a particular neighborhood would pool their resources, and supply their own labor, to support their local thief-takers' association. The association would keep its eyes open for robbers (particularly those who robbed houses displaying the plaque of association membership!). If a crime (against an association member) did occur, the association would hunt down, or pay to have hunted down, the wrongdoer, often cooperating with similar associations in other districts - and then use the pooled resources to pay for the felon's prosecution in a government court. (Criminal justice was not free in those days.) The traditional English system - with its roots in Anglo-Saxon antiquity, but extending as recently as the nineteenth century - is worlds away from the modern system of centralized police and gun control." - Roderick T. Long[6]

Bobby Peel apparently did not intend to create an brutish monopoly organization. His heart was in the right place, as they say, but his understanding of the incentives created by monopoly power was inadequate. Peel’s pretty vision was:

Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them. [9]

This does not correspond to the actual results of monopoly policing. It’s not even close! Peel’s vision does, however, correspond to what is called “community policing” - a more-or-less failed attempt to reform monopoly police. This attempt is reminiscent of control economies like the old USSR trying to artificially mimic markets. It will never work as well as a real market.

The United States copied London in adopting monopoly municipal police in the mid 1800s. It is important to note that the motivation for monopoly police was not that they could fight crime better than private firms. The motivation in the US, just as in London, was to control people.

The modern police force not only provided an organized, centralized body of men (and they were all male) legally authorized to use force to maintain order, it also provided the illusion that this order was being maintained under the rule of law, not at the whim of those with economic power.

Defining social control as crime control was accomplished by raising the specter of the "dangerous classes." The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker "riots" were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass. ... This underclass was easily identifiable because it consisted primarily of the poor, foreign immigrants and free blacks. This isolation of the "dangerous classes" as the embodiment of the crime problem created a focus in crime control that  persists to today, the idea that policing should be directed toward "bad" individuals, rather than social and economic conditions that are criminogenic in their social outcomes. - Gary Potter[10]

With the establishment of monopoly police forces, social control took precedence over crime prevention or reduction in the cities. Some cities became so crime-ridden that private associations called Vigilance Committees had to take over for a while.

Vigilantes and Government Failure

In San Francisco after the Gold Rush started, city government was incapable of providing order. The city police were incompetent and corrupt. Crime was rampant. The mass influx of young men with wild dreams of riches and no family connections provided the conditions for violence and criminality to prevail. The local government was helpless. The city jail was so inadequate that it could not hold prisoners; escapes were frequent. Violent criminals, if arrested at all, were often out in days, if not hours.


A Committee of Vigilance was organized in 1851 to remedy this, motivated by a theft and brutal beating of a shopkeeper. The city government of San Francisco apprehended the two criminals, but voluntarily handed them over the the Vigilance Committee, although they declined to participate in or endorse the proceedings. The Committee provided esteemed lawyers for the accused, and held a formal trial. The jury rendered a split decision of 9-3 guilty to not guilty. The Vigilance Committee refused to hang the criminals, defying the sentiments of the mob, saying that it would not do so unless the verdict was unanimous. They gave the criminals back to the city government. However, the next thief was caught red-handed. He was given a fair trial, found guilty, and publicly hanged - the same penalty that he would have received under statist law.

Unlike the movie and TV vigilantes like Batman, Zorro and the Lone Ranger, the Vigilante Committee members and leaders were not secretive - their names and mission statement were published in the June 13 Daily Alta California newspaper. The Committee was hugely successful in reducing both crime and fires. Murders went from an average of about 100 murders per year, to two while the vigilantes were operating.

Alan Valentine, author of Vigilante Justice wrote:

There was no question that the Vigilantes had become the most powerful force in the city and had the support of most of the citizens.

The main opponents were entrenched politicians who saw their power being taken away. An instructive and funny incident ensued. The Vigilance Committee was preparing to hang two tried and convicted criminals. Local politicians got the California governor to issue a warrant of habeas corpus, and had the sheriff deliver it to the Committee. The Vigilantes could have resisted the order - they clearly outnumbered and outgunned the government sheriff and his deputies, but they turned the prisoners over. However, the government failed to take any action against the criminals, so two days later 36 vigilantes went to the jail, took the prisoners, and promptly hanged them. The governor, apparently seeing the incompetence of the official government, made no further intercession.

1851 vigilante actions officially made 91 arrests during their hundred days of action. Four were hanged, one was whipped (a not at all uncommon punishment at that time), 14 were deported to Australia, 14 were informally ordered to leave Californa, 15 were handed over to public authorities, and 41 were discharged (two others for whom no decision is recorded were apparently discharged). Evidently more effective than the public law enforcement system had been, as crime declined so rapidly that for a short period, San Francisco was a city of considerable order and safety. The Committee announced that it was suspending action as of September 16, 1851. - Bruce Benson[11]

Unfortunately, after the Committee of Vigilance disbanded, the government took over and crime increased again. Furthermore, a corrupt political machine gained control of city government.

Between November 1855 and May of 1856 more than one hundred murders were committed in San Francisco. One occurred on Nov. 17, 1855 when a machine politician, Charles Cora, shot and killed William Richardson, the United States Marshall. Richardson was unarmed. Cora was arrested, but the sheriff was one of his cronies and several of the best lawyers in the city were retained to defend him. The trial was held on Jan. 3, 1856, but, “The jury was fixed, the witnesses were rehearsed in perjury, and the proceedings were a farce. … Cora was discharged.” (Gard 1949:162) On Apr. 22, 1855 the San Francisco Herald called for “a return of the good and vigorous days of the vigilance committee”. - Bruce Benson[12]

After a further atrocity, the murder of a publisher who dared to criticize a politician named Casey - perpetrated by Casey in broad daylight - the Vigilance Committee was reestablished. The Committee demanded that Cora and Casey be turned over to them for trial. The city government complied. There was a trial, and they were unanimously found guilty. A public hanging promptly ensued. It was clear that politicians were no longer above the law. The lawless government had again been subdued by “law and order” vigilantes. Again, once the crime was under control, the Committee disbanded.

Due to the last point, we do not get any examples of competing private firms among the urban vigilante groups. We do see how people have an internal intuition about justice, and do not necessarily see government as the final word on law. When push comes to shove, natural or customary law takes precedence over decreed law. Anarchists take heart!

The Solution: Competing Private Police

Monopoly police have the same problems as any other monopoly: a shoddy product at an overly expensive price. When people can choose which service they want to subscribe to, then the firms providing that service have the incentive to give their customers what they desire. Contrast that with monopoly government police, who don’t need to nice or satisfy anyone but their political bosses. If the bosses order them to bust pot smokers and hookers instead of reducing robbery and rape and murder, that is what they do. To a private policeman, you are a customer; to a government policeman, you are a suspected criminal. This attitude makes a difference.

Some have a concern that competing police may not serve the poor. This kind of attitude is mistaken in general; the fact that Bloomingdales serves the rich does not prevent Walmart from serving the poor, and guess which makes more money. Bruce Benson, in his book To Serve And Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice, covers the reasons.

One might object that a criminal justice controlled by private interests would have problems like neglect of the poor, low quality, abuse of power, and monopolization. Austrian theory would argue the contrary, and Benson supplies the evidence that illustrates why these concerns are unfounded. He shows how the public police and justice system fail the poor and how the private sector helps the poor. Examples such as private streets in St. Louis, private guards in low-income apartment complexes, and private police forces for low-income neighborhoods in New York City put to rest concerns for the poor in a private system. - Mark Thornton[13]

A recent example of government failure followed by private enterprise providing defense services is Detroit, Michigan. Alternative private police firms have sprung up in the absence of government police. One of the most famous of these firms is Detroit Threat Management. Like the vigilantes of old, DTM stresses vigilance and prevention rather than reaction.

There are some very compelling reasons to think that competing police, and more generally a society with competing legal systems, would be superior and produce better laws than the monopoly government counterpart.

  1. It is frequently based on actual rather than hypothetical consent. Consent is a powerful basis for jurisdiction, which can be seen from the gymnastics which State courts are willing to perform to construct implied consent.
  2. It reduces the number of difficult social decisions. Besides the substantive rules, there are many aspects of the legal system about which there is no social consensus. Allowing individuals to choose systems that provide the bundle of such characteristics they prefer will eliminate the need for consensus.
  3. Competition is likely to produce better service, beginning with reduction of the huge backlogs in state and federal courts.
  4. A competitive system is also likely to produce better substantive rules. Rules which help discover the truth, keep legal costs low, and minimize overall transactions costs are attractive to those litigants who are unable to predict which side of a case they will be on in the future. Production of such rules will attract customers.
  5. Private legal systems are also likely to produce better decision-makers than the State monopoly courts.
  6. Cooperative solutions enhance the quality of law by making their participants partial residual owners of the institutions they create.
  7. - Andrew P. Morriss[14]

Would people in predominantly black neighborhoods hire what they consider racist occupiers - white policemen - to patrol their neighborhoods? Would they hire police firms that enforce victimless “crime” laws that devastate families, leave fatherless children, and create poverty? To ask is to answer. The incentives of competing police are as healing and nourishing to a community as monopoly police are destructive to it.

To those who say this notion is too radical, I reply: Don’t you want to see the end of police brutality, of brutal murders by police, now seen almost daily on YouTube? There will always be a few crooked cops, but we know how to set up the infrastructure for liberty and safety which minimizes bad behavior. We simply replace monopoly police with competing police.

Do you say you want a half-measure or compromise? Fine: Break up big city police forces into divisions that compete. Tell the division chief that all income for his department will depend on voluntary subscriptions by the citizens they patrol. Let people choose their police service when they pay their water or sewer bills, as a checked option or write in. Departments that lose customers don’t get paid. Period.

One need not be an anarcho-capitalist to see the advantages of competing police. Why should only rich people be able to choose their defense services? Why should only the wealthy be treated as customers, and the rest of us treated as criminals or suspects? There is only one thing preventing this obvious solution to police brutality and the production of horrible law: a statist mental block - the blindness that stupidly assumes police must be a monopoly.


  1. Gabriel Kolko, Railroads and Regulation: 1877-1916
  2. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism
  3. Roy Childs, Big Business and the Rise of American Statism (1971)
  4. Murray Rothbard, The Federal Reserve as a Cartelization Device
  5. Roderick Long, How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis
  6. Roderick Long, Anarchy in the U.K. - The English Experience With Private Protection
  7. Tom W. Bell, Polycentric Law
  8. Cf: Wikipedia: Thief-takers
  9. Cf: Wikipedia: Peelian principles
  10. Gary Potter, The History of Policing in the United States
  11. Bruce Benson, The Enterprise of Law
  12. Bruce Benson, Lecture: Vigilantes in the American West: Private Solutions for Government Failure
  13. Mark Thornton, Review of Bruce Benson’s “To Serve And Protect”
  14. Andrew P. Morriss, Miners, Vigilantes & Cattlemen: Overcoming Free Rider Problems in the Private Provision Of Law

For more, see this index of articles about competing PDAs, which includes some video lectures.

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