How Might a Ferguson-like Incident be dealt with in a Stateless Society?

Fatal shootings will, of course, also happen in a society of private law enforcement. After all, a stateless society wouldn’t somehow magically change human nature such that violent confrontations between private law enforcers and citizens would never occur. I think it is reasonable to believe, however, that in a stateless society: violent and/or fatal confrontations between the public and individuals providing protection/security services would be less likely to occur in general; ones that did occur would be more likely to end more quickly, and with less fatalities; and that individuals providing protection services who used disproportionate force and/or killed someone would find it significantly more difficult to evade punishment for their actions.

So, let us hypothesize as to what would probably happen if and when a confrontation like the one that occurred between Police Officer Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson happened in a stateless society. For the purposes of this exercise we shall be assuming that officer Wilson’s testimony as to Michael Brown’s behaviour is truthful.

According to Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, his initial engagement with Brown and his friend was when he saw them from his car walking down the middle of a road. To paraphrase Wilson’s initial testimony, which he gave to a detective at the Bureau of Crimes Against Persons the day after the shooting, he believes that he remembers seeing two cars have to slow down to drive around Brown and his friend. As a result Wilson felt compelled to ask them to move onto the sidewalk. Given that Brown and his companion responded first by saying that they were nearly at their destination and then with an expletive to a further (rather sarcastic) comment from Wilson, it’s clear that they took objection to being told what to do by Wilson. This is where, from Brown and his companion’s point of view, the confrontation began. It’s important to note that at this point and throughout the fatal 90-second or so interaction, Wilson didn’t know that Brown was the person who had just stolen something from a nearby convenience store. To Wilson they were just two young men acting in a way he thought was anti-social or hazardous.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Firstly, in a stateless society (without government regulations, minimum wages, and taxes raising the cost of doing business) it’s reasonable to suppose that the store would probably have had an armed security guard. This means Brown, who was unarmed, probably wouldn’t have been able to just stroll in, steal something, intimidate the clerk and walk out in the casual manner he did. Even if he had managed to do so, it’s likely that the security guard would have pursued him into the street. If that happened, and Brown had reacted as aggressively to a pursuing security guard as officer Wilson claims he did to him, then it’s likely that the guard may too have shot Michael brown in defence of himself. However, I think it’s likely that a store security guard in a stateless society would be much more reluctant to use deadly force because if it was considered disproportionate or unnecessary by the local community or his employer, then it could easily result in driving away a significant number of his employer’s customers in protest or disgust – which in turn would probably cost him his livelihood one way or the other.

If Brown had been killed by the shop security guard and Brown’s family had contracted a private police agency to issue an arrest warrant under the charge of murder or manslaughter as we might expect, then I think it’s likely that any judge at any court agency presiding over the trial would decide that the security guard’s use of force was at worse somewhat disproportionate, but fundamentally morally justified – if indeed Brown had acted as aggressively as claimed by officer Wilson in his testimony. If Brown had not acted in the same way, however, and was holding his hands up in a surrendering motion when shot by the security guard, say, then I suspect most judges would rule that the security guard used avoidable and disproportionate force. What the guard’s punishment would be might be decided by Brown’s family or by the court agency, possibly depending on the particulars of their contractual arrangement. If the guard had shot Brown whilst he was surrendering, but had only wounded him, then he might be ordered to pay reparations to Brown. Proportionality in relation to punishment of crimes is an area of some debate amongst stateless society advocates, but I think most people would agree that there is such a thing as excessive punishment for a crime, which is perhaps rooted in the old biblical notion of an eye for an eye. Or maybe it just comes from our instinctive aversion to using force which leads to a natural tendency to use the least amount necessary.

Secondly, we need to ask: who in a stateless society would have confronted Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the road in the first place, and under what legal justification or authority would they have done so? The only people who might have confronted the two men for walking down the middle of the road may have been some kind of neighbourhood patrol person or team, which was contracted by residents or perhaps the road owners/operators. However, given that the road on which Brown was shot dead passes through a quiet suburb that doesn’t have high volumes of traffic, a neighbourhood patrol agent would have little or no incentive to confront Brown and his companion – after all, what could be gained from doing so? Furthermore, given that local residents would be free to contract an alternative supplier of neighbourhood patrol services should they be dissatisfied with their current provider, it would be most unwise for an employee to develop a reputation for hassling people (perhaps even some of the very people who are contributing towards his wages) because he would probably be dismissed if he didn’t change his ways.

In contrast a State police officer in today’s America who is cruising his ‘patch’ looking for unlawful behaviour, or even just for people who are doing things that he finds disagreeable, has every incentive to confront, hassle and harass people – and little incentive to avoid doing so. After all, even if the worse happens, police officers that shoot and kill people are rarely imprisoned or even dismissed. In other words, a State police officer has only the prickling of his conscience as his disincentive to hassle people, but if he is of low moral character or indeed lacks a conscience at all, or just gets a thrill out of confrontation, then this amounts to practically nothing.

In a stateless society the primary determining factor in whether any person providing security/protection services accused of assault, theft, murder or manslaughter could be indicted would be the court agencies providing conflict resolution services. These agencies would have every incentive to reject all those indictments which were clearly frivolous, lacked any evidence and would lead to losses, and take on those which in their judgement had a reasonable chance of success based on the evidence. Why? Because agencies that win most of their cases or at least win more than their competitors are going to get the most business and be the most profitable.

In today’s world things are very different. It is the government and only the government that decides whether a government law enforcer may be indicted or not. This is a system replete with moral hazard and extremely susceptible to conflicts of interest, as experience is showing us. As Jeffrey Tucker put it in a recent tweet referring to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson:

“Breaking news: Government declines to declare the government guilty.”

Tucker wrote a revealing piece on “how grand juries really work” in response to a certain amount of outrage spawned by his comment, in which he explains the true nature of the process and recounts his own personal experiences of it. He writes:

“Having been a central figure in testifying against the government in a grand jury case, I can assure you that this is not true. The political elites own the process from beginning to end. They manipulate the outcomes in ways that are predetermined from the outset. It is a highly unusual thing for a grand jury to counter what the government desires.

Take a look at the venue. It is a government building, usually the courthouse where the prosecutors have their offices. Cops and bureaucrats are everywhere. For most everyone else, this is unfamiliar territory. You go through body scanners, you are in a strange place, you are completely controlled by government agents. You are handled and manipulated by officials from beginning to end.

This alone is a very intimidating experience. Every juror goes through this. He or she is taking time off work and experiencing something completely unlike the real life they know. It is scary but it is also somewhat flattering. Jurors feel like they are being invited to be part of something big and important, a big-shot government thing to which they had never previously had access. This alone inclines them to go with the official story, which mostly favors the prosecution but sometimes (in the case of Ferguson) is with the cops as the very core of what the state is all about.”

In addition to the inherently flawed and biased grand jury process, significant flaws in the subsequent investigation of the shooting were summarised and discussed in a recent Huffington Post article, which I recommend reading.

If no such neighbourhood or road patrol existed, then the only person who may have confronted Brown and his friend would have been a passing driver who took exception to their inconveniencing them. Such things happen rarely now and so I do not see any reason to think they would be any more likely in a stateless society. However, let’s assume the worse did happen and a driver stopped to verbally confront Brown and his companion, and that Brown reacted in the same way claimed by Wilson, by blocking the car door and manhandling the driver. Let us also assume that the driver had a handgun – because this may be a reasonable assumption of a stateless society, and indeed is even one of many parts of America today. According to Darren Wilson’s account of what happened, after he had managed to fire one or two shots at Brown from inside his car, Brown ran off. At that point, Wilson, as an officer of the law and with the intention of fulfilling his duties as one, pursues Brown on foot in order to arrest him. And that’s when we end up with a young man dead in the street with about ten bullets in him.

I think it’s much less likely that we would have the same fatal outcome from a similar confrontation in a stateless society because surely hardly anyone would pursue down the street the man that had just manhandled them through their car window. I think it’s much more likely that most would simply drive away as fast as they could, wishing they hadn’t confronted Brown in the first place. If someone did pursue and shoot Brown, fatally or otherwise, then Brown or his family would almost certainly contract a police agency to issue a warrant for the arrest of the accused, which would no doubt be publicised throughout the local area. If it came to court, then whether a judge and jury ruled in favour of Brown would depend primarily on whether they felt the driver’s actions could reasonably be defined as self-defence.

At the very root of the rage felt by Brown’s family and the community in Ferguson is that they have been denied the opportunity to put an agent of the State on trial, by the State itself. The sense of injustice is palpable. I think in such a case in a stateless society, where the protection/security agent was justified in his initial use of force against the individual, the case would almost certainly be taken on by a conflict resolution agency and taken to court – mostly on the strength of the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed. I think it’s also reasonable to suggest that in a stateless society it would probably have become quickly known that Darren Wilson was going to go on trial for his actions, and as a result there would have been none of the tragic rioting and looting that we’ve seen since Brown’s death.

At this point we should note the proper libertarian position on the morality of the State and its agents (i.e. police officers), which Murray Rothbard summed up nicely in his work ‘The Ethics of Liberty’:

“…the State is a coercive criminal organization that subsists by a regularized large-scale system of taxation-theft, and which gets away with it by engineering the support of the majority (not, again, of everyone) through securing an alliance with a group of opinion-moulding intellectuals whom it rewards with a share in its power and pelf.”

Accordingly, then, the default libertarian position when it comes to incidents like the Ferguson one is that State police officer’s are always the aggressors because they represent a criminal organisation – i.e. one funded by coercive means.

Incidents like the Michael Brown shooting always serve to remind me that, as Rothbard put it:

“…the State, by its very nature, must violate the generally accepted moral laws to which most people adhere.”

The State can function in no other way, no matter how good the intentions of its agents or its written laws. This is one of the most profound truths of our age. Deaths at the hands of State agents occur more frequently over time because the State always gets bigger and because, as Einstein once observed:

“force always attracts men of low morality.”

There is something fundamentally flawed about the law enforcement system of a society in which stealing cigarillos can end in a death sentence and yet burning and looting people’s businesses is largely ignored – by the very agency that has a legal monopoly on the provision of protection and conflict resolution services. Something has to give. The monopoly must be broken in order to see the end of legalised, un-punishable murder in society by agents of the State.

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