Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Safety

There are certain goods and services that egalitarians, as third parties, would prefer that no one enjoys rather than for some to have more than others. (The proviso “as third parties” is necessary since egalitarians will not do without these goods and services themselves, but they still see fit to comment on inequalities from afar.) One of these services is public safety, as shown in a series of articles written by ProPublica reporter Jeremy Kohler complaining about the fact that people in St. Louis can hire private security, rather than about everyone in the city being equally unprotected.

Consider this headline: “St. Louis’ Private Police Forces Make Security a Luxury of the Rich.” That is one way to spin the fact that the supposed engine of providing “equitable” public safety—the St. Louis Police Department—fails to provide much safety to anyone. The problem for these egalitarians is not so much that the government police do not protect the most vulnerable but rather that some people—having already paid taxes ostensibly for the purpose of the provision of public safety—have the means to choose to shell out more money to actually receive public safety. According to city alderwoman Dwinderlin Evans, private policing is unfair, “especially when you have neighborhoods that can’t afford to pay for extra policing.” Apparently, what is fair is paying taxes for services not received.

One of the private policing firms in St. Louis is The City’s Finest, which hires sworn officers from the St. Louis PD to perform patrols and other tasks. According to Kohler, “The City’s Finest has raised its pay to exceed the department’s overtime rate—in essence outbidding the police department for its own workforce.” This makes it seem as though it is only natural that the city has a monopsony on hiring security personnel, and private security entrepreneurs are just detrimentally making it more expensive for the city by bidding away scarce resources. In reality, entrepreneurs can afford to pay more for personnel because they allocate these personnel to more highly valued uses. It is the city, through its taxing power, that is able to allocate resources in a way that is not subject to consumer sovereignty. The city government taxing resources away from the productive sector is the outside intervention, not the security firms.

Kohler states that private policing firms “are not part of the city’s government and, as a result, are not accountable to taxpayers citywide,” implying that entities that are part of the city government are somehow accountable to the taxpayer. Kohler himself provides much evidence to the contrary. In another article, he suggests that the fact that so many St. Louis PD officers moonlight for The City’s Finest presents a conflict of interest: if they, as police officers, actually do their job well, then that’s going to put the private security company they work for out of business. Even if that were the case, is the problem with private security or the taxpayer-funded monopoly whose officers apparently shirk on the job?

Kohler also kvetches that employees of The City’s Finest respond to “such issues as a car abandoned on the street and a golf cart theft, trivial matters compared with the sorts of crimes he [Major Ryan Cousins, a St. Louis police officer] tries to solve for the police department.” This is rich for several reasons. First, the fact that people paid for private security to perform these tasks suggests that they are not trivial matters to these people. Second, police departments are routinely called for matters that some might consider trivial, such as noise complaints—private security is not unique in this regard.

The St. Louis PD, in particular, would not respond to such calls anyways. Kohler recalls that at a meeting between a dozen business owners and two St. Louis police officers, the chief operating officer of a chain of gas stations told the officers, “We don’t even call you every time. . . . To be honest, you guys don’t come. . . . No offense, but if someone’s not dying, you’re not coming.” Should the St. Louis PD be praised for such judicious use of resources?

Kohler also cites two reports on the St. Louis PD that said officers lacked the resources to implement more community-based policing practices, one of which is proactively dealing with quality-of-life issues before they lead to more serious crimes. The fact that private police are better able to implement community-oriented policing than government police, despite the billions in subsidies to the latter by the federal government specifically for this purpose, is a bug—not a feature—for Kohler, even though it seems he would praise the same implementation if it were the government police doing it.

A further complaint Kohler makes of private police firms is that they enforce “neighborhood orders of protection,” which ban individuals from certain areas of the city after they have repeatedly caused nuisances and been arrested. He agrees with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and with longtime public defender Mary Fox that these orders of protection violate “civil rights,” which apparently include doing whatever one wants wherever one finds himself. Legal scholar Randy Barnett, in The Structure of Liberty, notes the problem with so-called public property:

A society that includes extensive public property holdings is therefore faced with what might be called a dilemma of vulnerability. Since governments enjoy privileges denied their citizens and are subject to few of the economic constraints of private institutions, their citizens are forever vulnerable to governmental tyranny. Therefore, freedom can only be preserved by denying government police agencies the right to regulate public property with the same discretion accorded private property owners. Yet steps to protect society from the government also serve to make citizens more vulnerable to criminally-inclined persons by providing such persons with a greater opportunity for a safe haven on the public streets and sidewalks and in the public parks.

It seems that some aldermen in local governments have found the idea that anyone who is not currently in prison ought to be allowed to go wherever he pleases as long as he is not on private property—even if he is a proven nuisance to adjacent property owners—not to be a viable one. Kohler acknowledges that “neighborhood leaders and police officials have defended neighborhood orders of protection as a tool for residents and businesses to make their streets safer by sending a message to criminals that they are not welcome.” Not every community should have to be gated to keep nuisances out nor should security have to wait until a proven nuisance commits a crime in order to be able to legally exclude them from a neighborhood. Even though these orders of protection are legal and (spottily) enforced by the government police, Kohler considers private police particularly bad because they do a better job of enforcing the orders.

Egalitarianism is a mixture of envy and antimarket bias. Egalitarians try to hide behind a façade of caring about the poor. However, in ProPublica’s articles on private policing in St. Louis, no evidence was presented that poorer people would be better off without private policing, only that inequality per se is bad. Better that everyone is unsafe than anyone be protected.

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