Saturday, October 10, 2009

Police and the Problem of Big Government

To my readers (if any are left), I apologize for the long absence. In August my family relocated to Newark, New Jersey (hopefully for good), and it's taken a couple months to get my feet back on the ground.

As in many American cities, one of the central issues here in Newark is policing. Newark has had a terrible history of violent crime, but in the last few years, since Cory Booker was elected mayor in 2006, we have consistently had the fastest drops in violent crime of any city in the nation -- a dubious distinction.

Cheers to Mayor Booker for that accomplishment. Crime, especially violent crime, is a scourge, on so many levels. It takes a brave man -- and Cory Booker is truly a brave man -- to take this fight seriously, to stand behind the police, to be willing to do things that might be unpopular in order to make a city where people can live ordinary lives. Booker has drawn the ire of the ACLU -- and cheers to him for having the courage and wear withal to do it.

It is often said that defending the physical safety of its citizens is a government's most fundamental task -- whether the fight is gang warfare, invasion by a foreign power, terrorism, abortion, or domestic violence. And truly, the fight against violence brings out with remarkable clarity the extent to which our life is essentially common. As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as individuals, without safe streets, which none of us can provide for ourselves, our life as individuals can never get started. We are truly political animals.

I note that Jane Jacobs begins her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with the problem of safe streets. Begins -- but does not end there.

All this said, I'd like to highlight a problem with policing, a problem ironic, because it pits the core of limited-government conservatism against conservatism's love for law and order. I hope we can resolve this opposition -- but first we must recognize it.

As laid out by Friedrich Hayek, the central problem with big government is the limitations of its vision. On the most innocent level, this is simply a recognition that even the best people have blind spots. Give a New Englander authority over the nation, and he's unlikely to appreciate the unique circumstances of Arkansas. Give a medical doctor authority, and he will tend to preference medical issues over non-medical. He's likely to preference his own methods, too: perhaps the rule of experts over the common sense of the average man, the medical concerns he's dealt with over those he hasn't, the friends he knows over the obscure faces he's never seen. The best banker can't possibly know all the people who are deserving of loans; the best doctor can't possibly know about every new treatment, and what's best for every individual; and the most enlightened city planner can't foresee every little business that will flourish in his city, and every way that people will use a public space.

Military man John McCain -- not my favorite politician, but a more or less decent guy -- had a lot more to say about military issues than, say, economics. That's not because he's a bad person. It's because he's a limited human being. Human beings have limits. A well-ordered polis does not limit the common good to the limited view of any individual, but does its best to spread authority among as many actors as possible. This, in my opinion, is by far the strongest argument for devolution of power, limited government, a free market, the free press, etc.: not so that people can define their own universes, but so that the common good can be served in more ways than any individual or centralized committee could see.

This problem is greatly exacerbated by the problem of political corruption. Give the government the authority to distribute healthcare dollars, and the smart politician, the guy who wants to win elections, is going to put his emphasis on political winners in health care. Scapegoat smokers, because they don't have enough votes to stop you. Give lots of money to the trendiest treatment of the trendiest disease, and don't waste money on things that only serve a small group. The market turns out to be much more "public minded" than politicians, because politicians need only please 51%, whereas the market seeks out every little niche and corner where there are dollars to spend, and dollars appear in every niche and corner where people have needs. Beyond the problem of limited vision, government centralization creates the problem of limited will: the will to serve majority blocs, who can get you elected, at the expense of minority blocs, who can't stop you.

All of this, I'm afraid, applies also to centralized policing. I suspect the black community's allergy to Big Police owes something to this instinct, even if it may be mixed with certain aspects of corruption in their own community.

So Mayor Booker goes after murders, because that's a Big Statistic, drawing attention from the people who fund campaigns, giving you something you can hold onto in a stump speech, and a clear legacy. Of course it is good to have fewer murders. But at what cost?

That's the problem: there are costs. There is, first of all, a manpower cost. If all the police are chasing murderers, who will catch the shoplifters, the people who run stoplights (quite a pandemic in Newark), the people who put pornographic graffiti on the playground where my almost-reading children want to play? If all the government staff are backing the police, who will take care of the trash on the streets, the grossly out-of-date tax assessments, the new-business approvals?

Then there is the monetary cost. Mayor Booker is funding his police push by raising taxes, especially property taxes. Of course I want the police to have enough funding to catch every murderer on our streets, and to get guns off the streets. But raising property taxes just makes it that much harder for honest people to afford to live here. It's one more push for families like mine to leave for more affordable places. It's a very limited vision that thinks the police can stop crime if you drive responsible people out of town.

Finally, there's the problem of public trust. This plays out a little differently in Newark, because Mayor Booker is black, but there is a distinct feeling of racism in Big Policing -- and it's not surprising, because even here, the police chief is white, the police are disproportionately white, and the people who get arrested are disproportionately black. Even Mayor Booker has been accused of being "not really" black.

Of course there's some foolishness mixed into this racial issue. Folks like Al Sharpton seem to claim that black people can't be held accountable for crimes, that the only reason to prosecute a black murderer is racism, that racism is the only explanation for there being more black people convicted of violent crimes. That's all boloney. The legacy of slavery is terrible, and does put many black people in a much more desperate situation than the typical white American -- but having racism somewhere at crime's roots does not make the prosecution of crime racist. That thinking only perpetuates the evil legacy.

Nonetheless, Sharpton's rage points out a problem. Big centralized policing creates a feeling of us vs. them. When the folks in the West and South Wards of Newark see the white police rolling in, crime fighting seems like an imposition from the outside. Cooperating in the prosecution of crime looks like siding with the outsiders against your neighbors; it should be siding with your neighborhood against the people who tear it down. And by a perverse logic, if the police are from Outside, breaking the law comes to seem like a sign of being truly local.

This is all usually framed as black vs. white, and there's truth to that. But more fundamentally, it's the neighborhood (the 'hood) against City Hall, our community against people from outside our community, the local vs. the distant. And that's not an unreasonable way to feel.

The general conservative, limited-government arguments made above apply here, too. The guy in City Hall, for all his good will -- and let me say, I think Cory Booker has a heck of a lot of good will, and I really respect him as a truly public-spirited man -- just can't know all the issues in the community. The folks in Fairmount (a neighborhood where a woman was just shot crossing the street) know things about their violent crimes, and about other aspects of their community, that Cory Booker just can't know. It's not that he's a bad person. It's that he doesn't live there, and even the best man can't understand what he can't see.

Big Policing means taking away local initiative: by sometimes draconian police policies; by taxing away the money that would let people invest in what matters to their neighborhood, whether it be a community center, a church, or a new barbecue place or barber shop; by taking away a sense of local self-government and moving it to an authority trying to make decisions for 280,000 human beings across some twenty-five square miles.

And all of this at least creates the feeling that a minority -- our neighborhood -- is being sacrificed to the majority. It starts to feel like someone whose ultimate responsibility is 51% of the votes is looking at Fairmount, not as an organic community, but as "only" 10,000 votes, most of them not paying attention. Mayor Booker needs the backing of national figures (Hilary Clinton just came out as a fan) so he can get national money and national tv time. I believe he thinks he's doing the right thing -- but it's easy for the community to feel like the things that matter to the Mayor aren't the little things that help their neighborhood.

So if Big Policing isn't the solution, what is? This might sound liberal, but I'd back off policing a bit and focus on the "root causes" of crime. Our city has terrible education and a terrible economy. That creates desperation. Even worse, though, it creates an environment that people want to flee. We're home schoolers, so we're not worried about the schools, but a city that taxes the middle class out of existence in order to fund mandatory schools where children doesn't learn . . . that's not a city that attracts helpful people. If you want to stop crime, you'll be much better off with a community of strong neighborhood businesses and strong families than with twenty more police officers chasing murderers.

Of course, Mayor Booker believes that fighting crime serves this end as well: good people aren't going to come to, or stay in, a violent city. But he can fight crime all he wants, and the families and businesses still aren't going to come if taxes make it unaffordable and the schools make it unconscionable. The vast majority of crime isn't random; there are ways to avoid it, even in a violent city. But taxes and bad schools are much harder to avoid. Good people are never going to come if you raise taxes and make schools a distant second priority while you chase after violent criminals. And the violent criminals aren't going to go away if the city has nothing to offer but police chasing after them.

In addition to making good people a priority, a mayor might try a decentralized approach to fighting crime. Rather than City Hall vs. the neighborhood, it should be the neighborhood policing itself. How? If there are violent criminals on the street, citizens should have a right to defend themselves. They should have a (Constitutional) right to bear arms, at least to defend their own home against assault. And they should have the right to organize their own community police force. I'll save for another post some strategies for decentralized crime fighting, but suffice it to say that most motor-vehicle violations can be reported by citizens, rather than police chasing after citizens; so can littering, and graffiti; and the only way to stop the sale of drugs is to get the neighborhood involved. Distribute cameras (they're already distributed, in the form of cell phones), and let a centralized court sort out what neighbors report. Let neighborhoods -- the smaller the better -- elect their own police chiefs, rather than putting all the authority 280,000 people away.

More than anything, let people know that law and order is the jurisdiction of neighbors, not a distant authority.