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‘Underpolicing’ And The Social Contract

If authorities won’t act to stop crime, people will seek private solutions. Maybe that’s good.

American cities seem less safe these days. 

After decades of decline, violent and property crime skyrocketed in 2020 amid COVID restrictions and race riots. We’ve also seen anecdotally the high-profile cases of mass shoplifting, transit violence, catch-and-release prosecutorial policy, and border insecurity. It seems that the original U.S. social contract—where the role of government is to protect the citizenry but do little else—has been inverted. Americans are responding through private security and vigilante justice, which, while not ideal, calls into question whether the government was ever worth relying on in the first place.

Murders have spiked 33% in major cities since 2021, while nearly all of the largest police jurisdictions experienced jumps in violent crime, reports CNN. Shoplifting has become common, to the point that stores have locked items behind glass or even close altogether. Border insecurity is adding to national tensions; recorded illegal crossings increased to 250,000 by December 2023, far surpassing rates from previous decades. 

Public drug use, a persistent problem in urban centers, has increased throughout the opioid crisis. Numerous homeless encampments sow disorder, thanks to a combo of high home costs and programs ill-suited to keep people off the streets.

Another public safety threat is the rise of protests that often turn violent. These include the killing of George Floyd and subsequent riots; January 6th; “pro-environment” road blockades; and pro-Palestinian campus protests targeting Jews. They all point to a growing trend of the U.S. adopting a violent, lawless protest culture

The college protests in particular—where administrators were often slow to intervene against violence, harassment, and property destruction—symbolize a general sense that civil authorities aren’t protecting people. Similarly, when rioters in Portland, OR, vandalized stores and arsoned government buildings throughout the summer of 2020, Mayor Ted Wheeler issued vague condemnation, saving the bulk of his criticism for law enforcement officials.

Right-wingers blame the criminal justice reform movement, and the larger agenda of police defunding and radical “anti-racist” and “anti-colonial” ideology.

They have a point: prosecutions and the general approach to stopping crime seem increasingly soft. One oft-criticized decision is many cities’ elimination of cash bail. New York City, two years after this, saw a 37% increase in index crimes, writes former Queens executive assistant district attorney Jim Quinn in a Manhattan Institute report. Quinn further notes that 27% of felony suspects were rearrested while their initial case was being tried, 5.6% on violent crime charges. More broadly, there is a perception that the police are standing down in the face of increasing crime. A 2020 ProPublica report cited how this is happening in various big U.S. cities. 

But it’s easy for the right-wing solution of more aggressive jailing and policing to go wrong, too. The Brennan Center argued that in the late 2010s, America’s prison population outpaced the violent crime rate, with nearly 40% of inmates nationwide incarcerated for a non-violent crime. Mandatory minimum sentencing had a dubious impact on crime rates, and led to disproportionate sentences, particularly for people with minor drug convictions, that make it hard for ex-cons to gain upward mobility.

On the left wing, criminal justice reform proponents argue that more lenient policies aren’t causal, noting that crime also spiked in cities that maintained pre-2020 funding levels. Whether or not that’s true, it seems of little comfort when stories rage daily on social media and cable news about career criminals with huge rap sheets getting released only to commit more felonies.

Beyond this left-vs.-right debate is where libertarians can enter, proposing an alternative public safety approach that does not rely exclusively on governments. The original social contract was flawed to begin with, because it assumes such bureaucracies are good at stopping crime, responding to emergencies, and accurately reporting statistics.

But they’re not good at this, for reasons that harken back to the public choice flaws we often bring up in this column. Law enforcement bureaucracies don’t have a monetary incentive to fix the problem; in fact, the more crime that exists, the stronger case local police departments have for requesting federal grants. There are not precise legal contracts in most cities that define what levels of safety a given police force should provide, much less litigate against their failure to do so. While we occasionally hear of citizen efforts to sue their cities for lack of order, no actual government workers are directly financially responsible due to qualified immunity. 

It calls into question whether governments are the best ones to be providing public safety, and leads to the obvious next option: taking matters into one’s own hands, or outsourcing to private security.

For years, Detroit residents have complained of long 911 wait times. As a result, the city is dotted with private police forces. America is chock full of HOAs that offer gates, video surveillance and security guards—an employment category that has skyrocketed in recent years. Gun sales, too, have spiked following 2020. 

Private securitization is even more pronounced in the Third World, as I saw during my 1.5-year Global South tour. Rich and poor neighborhoods alike are consumed with barbed wire, tall fences, aggressive dogs and armed security guards, as a statement against the corrupt and ineffective local cops. 

With the rise of competitive governance, we’re likely to see more innovative and humane ways of privatizing the security function. One idea I’ve read, geared towards private cities, is to outsource security to insurance companies. They will craft their own strategy to combat crime, and be held liable for damages if any crime happens to residents. This would shift incentives away from the law enforcement bloat seen now, and into systems that actually work. 

Rising crime, while clearly bad, is a chance for libertarians to explain the dangers of government dependence, tout the bonafides of private security, and offer new ideas to increase stability in a country going through dangerous times. 

Cover image use authorized under the Creative Commons CC0-1.0 license.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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