Friday, March 12, 2021

Defunding the police

This is Joseph.

I am a big fan of reading history. While I admit I have a Western European and Classical period bias in my reading, it isn't limited to just these periods. Every once in a while you hear an argument that really has no good analogue in how societies have tried things in the past. It doesn't mean that the past is a prison, but that I would like to consider ideas about how to use past ideas as a starting point for current problems.

Whenever I hear about "Defund the Police", I have questions. Now, the same slogan covers a wide range of policies, some of which are extremely good ideas. Militarized police is a step backwards to when the main peacekeepers were military, and that was definitely helped by a town guard that was less violent. You didn't want the same soldiers who sack cities to be keeping the peace in a town or city that you really care about. 

But if it means abolish the police, which occasionally it does, then I want to bring up my favorite example of a society without police: medieval Iceland. It is a very good example and has actually been brought up as a possible model by Libertarians from time to time (see the linked David Friedman article for an example). But it does raise a serious concern for a large society like the United States or Canada -- even in a small and highly interdependent society like Iceland you had a serious problem with blood feuds that eventually led to power imbalances and the fall of the Icelandic Commonwealth.  There does seem to be a huge advantage in a relatively neutral arbiter of the law.

That said, that does not mean that we cannot focus on improving the quality of the police and the strength of civilian governance. Our institutions are what holds a society together and it is an obvious point of improvement to diversify police functions and to find ways to improve policing outcomes. This is an obvious win-win. But I have some bad news -- most of the time the effort to improve a government function requires actual resources. It is quite rare that something is so overfunded that funding cuts actually improve efficiency. 

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