Guardians of the Peace?
December 17, 2009
Ireland’s police force, An Garda Síochána, is threatening to take action in light of public pay cuts, as reported by theIrish Times. Although illegal according to the constitution, past examples of disobedience amongst law enforcement in Ireland include the “Blue Flu” of 1998.
The Blue Flu was described as a “black day” by the Garda Commissioner of the time, the head of the national police force in Ireland. Despite not being endorsed by any leaders in the Gardaí, low-ranking officers and staff called in sick ubiquitously. The Irish Defense Forces were called in to stand by, as absenteeism reached 85% in some areas.
The government’s inability to punish the Gardaí for such action stems from their monopoly power. There is quite simply no alternative to the national force available, which creates incentives to collude over wages and conditions. For this reason, public forces are likely to receive higher pay and less arduous schedules than any free market counterparts fairly could.
The reality is that no government or free people can properly negotiate on even footing with a national police force, as long as no real alternative exists. Could private security provide the answer? Certainly, by supplanting national law enforcement, maintaining accountability, promoting competition amongst service providers, and ensuring that society cannot be blackmailed by public workers with the threat of chaos.
There exist numerous examples of successful private forces worldwide. The Wall Street Journal reported during the summer on movements by the city of Oakland in California to supplement their public force, which has been dogged by controversy and lack of public confidence, with a cheaper, private alternative. The savings could be immense for the city, which suffers from a massive budget deficit.
Of course, a full transition to private security and protection is unlikely to happen overnight in Ireland. It is worth noting though that governments elsewhere are considering new ways of tackling crime, by opening up the security market to the competitive forces that have provided so much benefit in other areas.
In the meantime, it is worth questioning the monopoly that the Gardaí have on law enforcement in Ireland. There is no reason to think that traffic regulation, crowd control at public events, and many other tasks necessarily require the involvement of a fully-trained Garda.
If specific constituencies were responsible for auctioning contracts to private law enforcement firms, there is strong reason to believe that law enforcement would be far more efficient. What about abuses? It is true that many powers are granted to the Gardaí, but any firm that could not reign in abuses where they developed would simply not get their contract renewed at the end of their term.
Given that bad performance tarnishes the reputation of the entire firm and puts everyone’s job in jeopardy, abuses are more likely to be stamped out, instead of tacitly tolerated. Also, private firms—with oversight by the public and media—are less capable of covering up abuses institutionally.
Competition between service providers would precipitate greater transparency in any case, and create incentives for firms to find innovative ways of eliminating abuses. While public law enforcement is based on simple wages, private firms in competition are more likely to create nuanced payment schemes to encourage proper behavior in their employees.
Employees can only block new workplace measures to improve efficiency when they have monopoly power. If many law enforcement firms are competing to provide the service, employees must change with the times, otherwise they will either lose their jobs or remain employed by a firm with no customers.
How exactly do competitive forces ensure better quality of service? If you’re not doing well in one area, it affects the firm’s reputation nationwide and you lose business. As long as different jurisdictions are renewing contracts at different times, companies must either produce timely results or persuade the public that their program will pay off in the long-term. Otherwise, they risk being replaced by a competitor.
Individuals are right to be anxious about granting the power of law enforcement to private firms, yet experience shows that governments are no less inclined to misuse this power. Private law enforcement, even in very limited forms and for specific purposes, would increase the efficiency of service provision by lowering costs and increasing quality. Market competition has been proven to yield better results in every other sphere of the economy. Why not expand it to traffic regulation, crowd control and dispute resolution? Then, instead of having to deal with a strike, Ireland could simply take its business elsewhere.
Jonathan Wyse is a graduate student of economics at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and a former intern at the Independent Institute.