Police States and Private Markets by Jeff Deist, Ludwig von Mises Institute

The following is the transcript from a talk delivered at the 2014 Houston Mises Circle. Video of the talk is available here.

I’d like to speak with you today not about the NSA or any of the vast federal spying apparatus that has so eroded our personal and financial privacy; nor about the federal healthcare bureaucracy that undermines our medical privacy; nor about TSA demanding access to our physical bodies at the airport; nor about the countless drug laws, smoking laws, helmet laws, ID laws,and Big Gulp laws that come together to make up our soft police state, or nanny state if you prefer. Now I say “soft” police state because while we know America is heading down a very dangerous path, we should respect those who suffered in the very real, not-soft police states of the twentieth century. There is no comparison, and we shouldn’t use the term lightly. But if we don’t see the growing parallels between totalitarian societies in history and modern day America we have only ourselves to blame.

What I would like to discuss today is the business end of the police state, which is to say the police themselves. Not federal agents necessarily, but garden variety local cops and sheriffs. For many people, police represent their only real, tangible contact with the state. Sure, they pay their taxes and comply with a million petty government rules and regulations, but in their day-to-day lives — in their homes, at work, driving around, walking around — they don’t necessarily feel or see the heavy hand of government. So for the average, law-abiding American, who is not likely to come in contact with Mr. Obama, the local congressman, or even the local mayor, police officers serve as the most visible reminder of the state. And hopefully most of us don’t interact with police much at all, beyond maybe the occasional speeding ticket or fender bender. But for those Americans who do find themselves interacting with police today, the actions, attitudes, and mindset of those police officers is likely to have changed quite a bit from, say, thirty years ago, and changed dramatically for the worse.

The Peace Officer Archetype

So whatever happened to “peace officers”?

Today when we use the term peace officer, it sounds antiquated and outdated. I’m sure most people in the room under forty have never heard the term actually used by anyone; we might as well be talking about buggy whips or floppy disks. But in the 1800s, and really through the 1960s, the term was used widely in America to refer generally to lawmen, whether sheriffs, constables, troopers, or marshals. Today the old moniker of peace officer has been almost eliminated in popular usage, replaced by police officer or the more in vogue “law enforcement officer.”

The terminology has certain legal differences in different settings; in some places peace officers and police officers are indeed different individuals with different functions, jurisdictions, or powers to execute warrants. But nobody says peace officer anymore, and it’s not just a coincidence. The evolution of language, particularly when driven by the political class and media, can have powerful implications for all of us. And I submit that the morphing of peace officers into police officers is much more than just linguistic.

Now the archetype of a peace officer is mostly fictitious — sheriffs in westerns often come to mind, stern lawman carrying Colt revolvers called “peacemakers.” But the Wyatt Earps of western myth weren’t always so peaceful, and often — at least in movies — used their peacemakers to shoot up the place. And while Americans today can’t really relate to the Old West, we do have enough institutional memory — that’s a polite way of saying old people — to paint a pretty accurate picture of the trusted peace officer of Norman Rockwell’s America in the first half of the twentieth century. Fictitious or not, whole generations of Americans grew up with an apple pie view of the peace officer as a friend, not an agent of the state to be feared.

Sheriff Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show is perhaps the best and most facile example of what it once meant, at least in the American psyche, to be a peace officer. As a peace officer, Sheriff Taylor exhibits four key traits that profoundly distinguish him from most modern police officers.

  1. First, he is part of the community. He does not see himself — nor do others see him — as somehow apart from the residents of Mayberry. He does not exhibit an “us vs. them” mentality that seems so prevalent in many police officers today. He does not see himself first and foremost as a government employee or union member. He does not resent the people he protects, but instead considers himself a fellow citizen. In other words, Sheriff Taylor is a true civilian.
  2. Second, he truly seeks to maintain peace within Mayberry, and sees his job as keeping the town safe, quiet, happy — peaceful. He is a peacekeeper, not an enforcer. In fact, he seldom uses force. He does not want a crime wave in Mayberry to justify an increase in his pay or budget; on the contrary, he would view an increase in local crime as a personal failure. He is apt to downplay, rather than exaggerate, the importance of his job. His focus is on creating an environment that discourages crime in the first place.
  3. Third, in every instance Sheriff Taylor attempts to smooth over and defuse problems, rather than escalate them. He invariably looks for simple, common sense, polite answers to conflicts, rather than using his legal authority to threaten or arrest. He rarely concerns himself with technical application of the law; but rather uses his judgment to solve problems and make them go away with the least fuss possible. He never makes a bad situation worse.For example, in one memorable scene Andy and his deputy Barney Fife have been summoned to the dilapidated home of an angry man who is causing a disturbance. Upon seeing the two officers, the man promptly begins firing his old rifle at them from a second story window. Barney reacts as you might expect, pulling out his own rifle, calling in reinforcements, and barricading himself behind the squad car for a shootout. Andy, by contrast, knows the man to be somewhat cranky and believes he can be talked out of it. So he crouches over, zig-zags his way to the front door, enters the house, and then emerges in short order with the suspect, who is now much calmer. The sheriff has, as usual, talked him out of it. No arrest is made, if you can imagine that.
  4. Fourth, Andy genuinely cares about and tries to help the people of Mayberry, having their best interests at heart. See, for example, his gentle treatment of Otis, the town drunk. As a result, he has the trust, admiration, and respect of the townspeople.

Now of course as I mentioned, The Andy Griffith Show was fictional. And there’s no doubt that many, many small town sheriffs in America over the decades have been anything but peace officers. Yet it’s

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