Police Militarization and the Welfare State

By: Julian Hassan

Many libertarians have championed police reform, including former Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Rand Paul on the recent crisis in Ferguson. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve never focused as much on the police militarization issue as you have on End the Fed or repealing Obamacare.

Individually, members of our police force are often upstanding citizens of high integrity. Yet it is incredible to uncover the sociological changes that the police force has undergone with the introduction of the welfare state. This is now a mainstream issue.

The term “nightwatchmen state” was introduced in the 19th century to make the classical liberal ideal of limited government look ridiculous. Today the welfare state is over a hundred years old, and the police, the former night watchmen, have gone senile.

How does this fit together? Former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, a board member of Law Enforcement Against Drug Prohibition, tells the fascinating story:

The war on drugs, the war on terror and the incentives from the federal government has pushed local law enforcement to the tipping point in which the very first principle of policing, written by Robert Peel’s commission in the 19th century, “to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment,” will fade from the American landscape if this trend is not soon reversed.

In his book Liberalism (1927), Ludwig von Mises said that this night-watchmen ideal was no more ridiculous than a bloated state that obsessed itself with “the preparation of sauerkraut, with the manufacture of trouser buttons, or with the publication of newspapers.”

Today, we have another ridiculous spectacle to add: the manufacture of “mine resistant tank[s]” for small towns.

While many members of the police force still strive to uphold the ideals of law and order, mission creep is setting in due to the excesses and lawlessness of the welfare state.  As British historian Lord Acton warned, “All power tends to corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”