The Private Security Guard Is Not Your Friend

There has, of late, been a spate of Internet writing maintaining that "the policeman is not your friend."

Well, a listen a what me a see. I was book shopping at Waterstone's in Cardiff, checking out the "Staff Picks" near the front of the store. I noticed a couple of security guards furtively peering out upon the public square beyond the storefront and talking on their Secret-Service headsets. This got my attention. I paid for my book and went out and took a seat in the square. I sat down and pretended to read while I watched the action. There were three 12-year-olds being plenty furtive themselves, hiding behind trees, peeking at some bicycles. (I had heard security say, "They're going to take the orange one," and there was, indeed, an orange bike, so I knew I had my "men.") I stared at the obvious ringleader and shook my head a bit. Rather than getting my message, that he'd been spotted and should back off, he stared back and said, "What the fuck you lookin' at?" I shrugged my shoulders and thought, "You, getting arrested."

A minute later, with a fairly smooth move, he used the orange bike as a lever to break its own chain, and hopped on it to ride off. Well, he was going for about 20 feet when security converged on him from three different shops. (That's how stupidly, obviously suspicious these kids were acting.) The first guy who reached the kid was about 6'2'' and 200 pounds or so. He hooked the 5'2'', 100 pound pre-teen under the chin with his arm, lifting him off the bike by his neck. Then he slammed him into the pavement. Another guy jumped on the kid's back and shoved his face against the tarmac. He then dragged the kid's hands behind his back, as if he were about to handcuff him, perhaps forgetting that, being private security, he had no handcuffs. Finally, realizing the absolute pointlessness (in terms of an arrest, anyway) of holding someone on the ground in the place-the-cuffs-on position when you have no cuffs, he and a couple of other of the "arresting officers" dragged the kid off.

It is hard for me to imagine that this kid wouldn't have had a far less violent arrest if it had been a couple of bobbies in the square instead. I suppose if you entirely ignore the behavior of private security forces, like the gangs of mercenaries that roamed the countryside in the Middle Ages, like private security in Iraq, the actions of bar bouncers, such as the one who murdered Jaco Pastorius, the drug cartels terrorizing Mexico, the Mafia, etc., etc., then you might be able to convince yourself that the problem all comes down to "the State." (Make a suitably frightening noise here.)

But if it becomes difficult to sustain this willful blindness, here, I think, is a more reasonable summary of our situation:

1) Society needs a warrior class.
2) That warrior class easily can itself become a danger to society, whether that class is paid through public or private funds. It's just the nature of the beast. These are people with a propensity for violence, after all.

Easy answers? Ain't no easy answers, not even precisely obeying the precepts of Spencer, Mises, and Hayek.


  1. If the government wanted to institute a monopoly on the sale of laptops, and then some economists associated with the LvMI "predictably" were outraged, would you dismiss this all as poppycock? Would you point to the time you bought a laptop that constantly froze up, even when there were competing producers?

  2. Gene, when the private enforcement officer abuses you or kills you, both you and he are partaking of the very essence of liberty. When the "public" enforcement officer abuses you or kills you, he is an agent and you the victim of tyranny.

    You used to understand this stuff before you became some kind of eggheaded intellectual.

  3. Gene and Jim,

    Does it at all affect your snarky comments, that in Gene's example:

    A) The private guards used unnecessary force on an actual criminal, as opposed to the cases I've blogged about where a totally innocent person was abused by government police, and

    B) That, as far as I can tell, the kid wasn't really hurt that badly? In contrast, the "policeman is not your friend" posts that I do, discuss cases where the cops either kill someone or put him in the hospital?

    One last thing: Gene I spent about 4 minutes googling and came up with a case where people think British police overreaction led to two guys dying last month. I know you can't imagine that happening, so please email their relatives and tell them to drop the lawsuit.

  4. Bob, I do not for a moment deny that government security forces often go out of control. And they should be called on this when they do so. But you seem to be ignoring the private bouncer killing Jaco, and my Mafia and Middle Ages examples. The warrior class society needs can easily go bad. Ain't no easy answers.

  5. Gene,

    There are no easy answers, but some answers are better than others. Don't we have reason to believe that if protection agencies had to compete for services that would improve said services?

    It seems to me you are making the charge I see libertarian critics make all the time; "you libertarians think if we just abolished the government we would all live in some utopia." I have never read where a libertarian author has said that. A purely libertarian society would of course have problems - including protection agency workers who screw up. But such workers would be more likely be punished for their misdeeds - like the bouncer in the 'Paco Case' - rather than placed on 'administrative leave' with pay.

    In any case, the last thing we should be doing is granting a monopoly to a warrior class.

  6. His name was 'Jaco,' not 'Paco,' and the bouncer got four months for murdering him. And just how many of the private contractors killing in Iraq have been prosecuted?

    In any case:

    1) Libertarianism certainly is a utopian project;
    2) Government security forces do have competition right now, e.g. the private security forces we've been talking about; and
    3) Past instances where there was no dominant security force in an area have hardly been pretty.

  7. Gene,

    1) Libertarianism may be a utopian project. My point was that advocates for a libertarian society do not claim such a society would be a utopia.
    2) Government may face competition, but you pay for government services whether you want them or not. That is not the case with private companies (at least not ones contracted by the government). I think this impacts the quality of services they provide.
    3) I agree. (Though I do not believe advocating that there be competitive private security forces is the same thing as advocating there be no dominant security force in a given area).

    I regret the error in calling 'Jaco' 'Paco.' Indeed, the bouncer's sentence may have been light. On the other hand it seems the circumstances leading to that tragedy are not clear.

    I believe the circumstances leading to the tragedy in Iraq are far more clear. Private security forces there were (and are) subsidized by the government. That hardly makes them private. Would they be there at all if the people who wanted them there alone had to pay for them?


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