In the wake of George Floyd’s death and Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murder, the debate over whether and to what extent policing should be reformed in this country is, understandably, top-of-mind. However, the debate as currently framed shows little promise of being productive.
The debate in Congress right now centers around whether to abolish qualified police immunity. This is the immunity police now enjoy from being held personally liable for violations of constitutional rights like the right to be free from excessive police force. The issue is one of accountability. Proponents of that reform — Congressional Democrats — argue, reasonably enough, that the lack of accountability that qualified immunity bestows on them systemically enables those who are occasionally described as rogue police to brutalize and sometimes kill members of the policed public, particularly Blacks and other people of color, all too often. But consider the charged nature of the “debate.”
Opponents of such reform — Congressional Republicans — raise the specter of a landscape rife with lawlessness if the power of the police is weakened. Especially useful there is the phrase “defunding the police,” weaponized to characterize the majority of would-be reformers, inaccurately, as favoring the complete elimination of policing. Meanwhile the issue of race, especially in light of the police killings of George Floyd and, more recently, of Daunte Wright and Andrew Brown, Jr., is uppermost in the minds of reformers, though not surprisingly it is not mentioned in the arguments against reform.
These dynamics of the debate remind us that policy debate these days tends to be highly polarized. Not surprisingly, the current policing reform debate therefore shows signs that it is likely to result in legislation that is minor and cosmetic at best.
It can be helpful, then, to view the issue of policing reform from a wider and, as it were, deeper perspective, one that transcends the politics of the day.
The 19th Century social reformer Henry George saw crime and the entire edifice of societal systems that exist to combat it as attributes of poverty. As such, crime, and therefore the need for policing too, would be most radically reduced by the application of George’s insights on the core origins and accelerants of poverty.
Toward the end of his magnum opus Progress and Poverty, writing about the effects of the elimination of private land monopoly — the remedy he proposed for the eradication of poverty — he puts it this way:
“The rise of wages, the opening of opportunities for all to make an easy and comfortable living, would at once lessen and would soon eliminate from society the thieves, swindlers, and other classes of criminals who spring from the unequal distribution of wealth. Thus the administration of the criminal law, with all its paraphernalia of policemen, detectives, prisons, and penitentiaries, would, like the administration of the civil law, cease to make such a drain upon the vital force and attention of society. We should get rid not only of many judges, bailiffs, clerks, and prison keepers, but of the great host of lawyers who are now maintained at the expense of producers; and talent now wasted in legal subtleties would be turned to higher pursuits.”
Criminal justice reform has much in common with immigration reform. For one thing, you do not have to have been navigating the legal subtleties of immigration law for 27 years, as I have, to know that the greatest engine of migration is economic. Tremendous disparity between dire prospects for making a living in the place of one’s birth and much better opportunity to do so elsewhere is what most drives people, even at the risk of their lives, to migrate. George’s observations remind us that in order to meaningfully reform policing, we must significantly reduce crime and in order to do that we must alleviate poverty.
None of this is to say that the alleviation of our poverty problem will eradicate all crime. As an RSF colleague has rightly noted, we may always have among us rare and avaricious fraudsters like Bernie Madoff or Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now-defunct Theranos, or Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of the now-defunct Enron. But even there, economic improvement will help. As George observes, “the sting of want and the fear of want make men admire above all things the possession of riches, and to become wealthy is to become respected, and admired, and influential. Get money — honestly, if you can, but at any rate get money!… It is well to be honest and just, and men will commend it; but he who by fraud and injustice gets him a million dollars will have more respect, and admiration, and influence, more eye service and lip service, if not heart service, than he who refuses it…. The change I have proposed would destroy the conditions that distort impulses in themselves beneficent, and would transmute the forces which now tend to disintegrate society into forces which would tend to unite and purify it.”
Those unfamiliar with George’s writings will object that such projections are pie in the sky, that successful and sweeping economic reform is impossible. To those who have such objections, I would commend a reading not just of the later chapters of Progress and Poverty but of the earlier chapters wherein George lays out thinking that is both humane and clear-headed.
None of this is to say that the attempt at policing reform now being debated should be abandoned, difficult as it will be to achieve good-faith dialog let alone useful change. But in the long run, it is economic reform of the type that George envisioned that will most meaningfully address our policing problems. Without that more comprehensive approach, the odds are all too good that we will just end up rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.