How Police States Emerge & How We Move Beyond Them

In light of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Missouri police officer in the U.S., I’ve been thinking about the emergence and origins of the police state in America. The government response to the subsequent rioting has once again shone the spotlight on the militarization of state police forces across America that has been happening over the last decade or so. It’s actually unusual now for a town’s police department to not have a SWAT team.

The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military. They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to “clear” a building – that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

I can across a meme on social media which claimed that there has been a 26-fold increase in SWAT raids in America since over the last 34 years – from 3,000 in 1980 to over 80,000 in 2014. With my horror and curiosity piqued I set about verifying this claim and found several other sources citing similar figures for the increase in SWAT raids. One is a Wall Street Journal article, which also notes the origins of the SWAT team and how common they have now become in towns across America:

“The country’s first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 2005, the figure was up to 80%.

The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids.”

It is not an increase in actual crime (i.e. murder and theft) that explains the large increase in SWAT raids over the last three decades – crime in the U.S. has been declining since the 90s – it’s the increase in the number of actions that have been defined as criminal by the State.

Decades ago, Ayn Rand identified why this tends to happen in democracies.

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

Since declaring a ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971, the U.S government has made a great deal more criminals out of innocent people. The prison population has increased by a staggering 500% over the last 30 years. Furthermore, the ‘War on Terror’ and its associated legal powers, which came into being in 2001, gave a new rationale for the militarization of state police and huge budgets for the acquisition of military-style gear by state police departments.

The intellectuals and politicians behind the War on Drugs government program were convinced that the very moral fabric of society was threatened by casual drug use and drug abuse; that it was a social cancer that would destroy the American way of life unless government force was deployed on an unprecedented scale to eradicate it. The severity of the problem, as they perceived and imagined it to be, was such that in their view only government force could solve it and that therefore this was the justification for the increase in size and power of government – and for any reduction of individual liberty that may result. These were necessary evils as they saw it, the benefits of which, they were convinced, would greatly outweigh the cost and thus weren’t really evils at all.

Fundamentally, the War on Drugs was driven by a vision, by the dream of a society saved from a clear and present danger, and made better by government force. But the dream of a group of highly educated, but foolish men who saw themselves as the superior intellects destined to be society’s planners (and thus saviours) became a nightmare. Not because it wasn’t executed correctly or because of corrupt individuals, but because the theory itself was flawed.

So devoid of humility were these men that they never dreamed that their grand plan to ‘correct’ a society of hundreds of millions of individuals like it was a misfiring engine could have unpredictable, unintended and unforeseen consequences in the long-term. Such was the size of their egos that the future police state looming large on the horizon of their new world was entirely obscured from view. Such was the strength of their arrogance that they refused to even consider the possibility that the American society that would emerge from an unprecedented crushing of individual liberty might just be different from the one in their vision; one where 80% of towns have militarised police, where innocent people’s homes are invaded on average over 4,000 times a month by SWAT teams, where innocent people are killed by the very agency that claims to exist only to protect them.

The origins of the War on Terror and the negative impact it has had on the liberty of American society is a similar story. The belief in a clear and present danger to the American way of life to which government action is the only possible solution. The subsequent increasing of government powers resulting in the frequent violation of people’s liberty and property, and the general debasement of society to which this has led.

The monstrous irony of the wars on drugs and terror is that they both sought to solve a problem using government action that was actually caused by previous government actions; what was almost universally believed to be the cure was actually the cancer.

Long before Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” in 1971, the American government had already been restricting, regulating or prohibiting the distribution and consumption of some drugs through laws, regulations and taxes for several decades. The first U.S. anti-drug law that banned the distribution and use of certain drugs came as early as 1914, five years before alcohol prohibition was enacted. For decades leading up to the enactment of the War on Drugs, anti-drug laws and drug regulations had made drugs increasingly difficult to obtain, which lead to an increasingly large and lucrative black market for them. What was once a peaceful and relatively profitable market was transformed into an ‘immoral’, and much more lucrative one. This meant the generally decent, law-abiding folk who valued their reputations and retained their customers in the long-term by acting in their best interests in the short-term, were forced out of the market. Whilst those less scrupulous types, unconcerned with their reputations and disinclined to act in the interests of their customers in order to make as much money as they can before the law catches up with them or they get killed by a rival supplier, were enticed in. Not the kind of people that ideally you want to be buying drugs from. It became a corrupted market where suppliers had every incentive to value short-term gain over long-term gain (because any given day’s business might be the last you do), which is precisely the kind of environment you don’t want for goods that can be harmful if tainted and deadly if abused. It became a market where consumers had much more incentive to acquire as much as possible as soon as they could, lest their supplier suddenly disappear.

The fact is that Nixon’s “public enemy number one” was the bastard son of late 19th century and early 20th century government interventionism in America.

The War on Terror came in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a period of time when the American government so expertly played the part of the innocent victim that a numb American people mustered no resistance when it created a bunch of new laws that gave the government even more power to violate their liberty. The perpetrators of the attacks explicitly stated that their actions were in response to the U.S. government’s involvement in affairs in the Middle East; such as its support for perceived Somalian and Russian aggressions against Muslims, its backing of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, its support of Israel, and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

You can’t stomp all over people’s property boundaries and sell arms to psychopathic tyrants for years and expect no negative consequences. Sooner or later, a group of sufficiently motivated and capable people will retaliate, and that’s exactly what happened. From the IRA to al-Qaeda, Terrorism is an inevitable human reaction to organised, large-scale and long-term aggressions of the kind that statism produces.

It would be a mistake to believe that the emergence of a police state in America merely reflects what the majority of Americans want the government to do or to be. It doesn’t. No sane human being, given the plain choice, would choose to live under a police state in which they were treated more like animals than humans. But the emergence of a police state in a democracy is so subtle, so pernicious that if its size is not observed and compared over a period of time, then its growth is not noticeable. Furthermore, when it emerges from the minds of intellectuals through newspapers, books and television, and is convincingly articulated by politicians, people see no reason to have their minds or consciences on alert. Under a system of elected representatives with legions of public servants and ‘experts’ under and around them, we see no reason to think for ourselves, to critically analyse the logic and reasoning underlying their plans for society. But this is dangerous, because their plans must involve you and me, and must dictate how our behaviour should be regulated, restricted and controlled in various ways order to manifest the state of affairs that they believe is best for you, me and everyone.

Any system of social order that requires people not to think is a dangerous one. Any system that can control people like puppets through a web of laws and regulations, and from which a police state can silently and invisibly emerge is detrimental to human progress; and capable of setting it back centuries.

It has been reported that the police in Missouri have been refraining from preventing people looting local shops. In other words, business owners in the area are paying for protection services that the supplier is refusing to provide. In peaceful society, such behaviour is considered implicit theft and responded to as such, but when it involves a government agency the victim must just accept the loss because the government has all the guns.

The police’s behaviour tells us two things. Firstly, that the they consider themselves under no obligation to provide protection to those who are forced to pay for their services. Secondly, that they are shrewd enough to recognise that it is in their interests to do whatever it takes to drag public opinion back in their favour. The more images and video the public sees of locals looting and burning shops the more they’ll become focused on those individuals and less so on the police’s behaviour. The police have also released a series of images that appeared to show victim, Michael Brown, manhandling a convenience store owner a few days before. Again, here the police are acting in their own interests. They are hoping that if the public sees him as a bad person, then the moral outrage being aimed at them is likely to dissipate more quickly.

The police are like everyone else in the sense that they desire to achieve their aims in ways that expend the least effort. People who are angry, morally outraged and resistant are much harder to police. More resistance means more arrests, and that means more paperwork. More anger means more rioting and that might mean another person gets shot. And that’s another headache the police don’t want. The police want to do as little as possible in order to keep picking up their pay checks. Each policeman only has to do that which pleases his superiors, which is usually far short or wide of what would best please his ‘customers’, the public. They have very little incentive to do the best possible job protecting the public because there are no negative consequences for not doing so like there are in peaceful society for a business that doesn’t do what its customers want – it goes bust. The only incentive that is left (which is the only hope for the public) is each individual policeman’s personal pride, sense of duty and morality. But these are usually abandoned for the greater benefit of conforming to the standards of the group and therefore not being rejected from it (a combination of peer pressure and simple self-interest). Those individuals with integrity and strong moral principles will most likely leave the force if they object to the standard behaviours of the group and believe that it cannot be changed for the better, which is a process that leads to police forces almost entirely populated by individuals with little integrity, sense of duty or moral courage. Exactly the kind of people you do not want providing the only protection and conflict resolution service allowed to exist.

Even if all the undesirable types were replaced with the finest people in society on the basis that the system was broken or had been corrupted, then after a few decades, the same kind of undesirables would end up populating the force all over again. The system has not been corrupted. It was never good. The system is not broken. It never worked.

The state police cannot go out of business no matter how useless, violent, inept, corrupt or inefficient they are because they acquire their funding at the point of the tax man’s gun, and not through voluntary exchange. No one can choose not to fund the police. It is this simple fact that has enabled the emergence of violent and militarized police forces all over America.

What is the solution, then? Well, the solution to a monopoly on the provision of protection and conflict resolution services sustained by coercion is the opposite: a free market in these services sustained by voluntary exchange. This would require the abolition of taxation, of course. To the generations of us raised on the notion that taxation is as essential to society as oxygen is to us, such a solution is terrifying, completely alien and unthinkable. But the fact remains that it is the only one.

Ludwig von Mises, the man who wrote the largest and most scientific defence of human freedom, once declared:

“No one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result.”

Every man in his own interests and that of his children must now give thought to the unthinkable: protection and conflict resolution beyond and outside of the State. Indeed, every further act of brutality and murder by the police state, every failure to protect and violation of people’s liberty and property, pushes even more people further away from the belief in the State and further towards this realisation; the realisation that the State system simply cannot be depended upon to protect people or to resolve conflicts justly. When that is the case, then what purpose does the State system serve and why are we paying for it? This thought sows the seeds for widespread resentment and hostility towards the once admired and respected police man. Although, how much anger and resistance police forces across the states will be met with over the coming years will be a measure of how much the American people have become indifferent to their own liberty; a measure of how much freedom they believe they deserve. I hope the instinctive human urge for liberty will rise up and manifest itself as much collective resistance across the country, but I fear that many people may just retreat into their homes like domesticated pets who have never known the wild. Only time will tell.

The ugly and violent struggle that American society is going through is a warning sign. If a police state can emerge from what once was, for a century or so, the most liberal society anywhere on earth with the least powerful of governments, then every society in the shadow of a government faces the same danger. The warning signs are there in many nations across Europe, in the form of increased and expanded police powers under the pretence of national security from terrorism, and the increasing popularity of protectionist and nationalist politics.

Mises was right, no one can stand aside with unconcern. A man must be concerned with his liberty in order for anyone else to be concerned with it. The time has come for us to hold individual liberty as the highest political ideal. And here’s the slogan for humanity: absolute freedom? Absolutely.

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