Ireland’s police force, an Garda Síochána, are threatening to take action in light of public pay cuts. Although not legal according to the constitution, past examples of disobedience amongst law enforcement in Ireland include the ‘Blue Flu’ of 1998.
The reality is that no government can properly negotiate with a national police force on even footing, as long as no real alternative exists. Could private security provide the answer? 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.
The ‘Blue Flu’ of 1998 was described as a “black day” by the Garda Commissioner of the time. Despite not being endorsed by any leaders in the Gardaí, low-ranking officers and staff called in sick ubiquitously. The army was called in to defend government buildings, 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, which creates incentives to collude over pay and conditions. For this reason, public forces are likely to receive better pay and less arduous schedules than the private alternative.
The Wall Street Journal reported during the summer on movements by the city of Oakland in California to replace their public force (dogged in controversy, abuse and lack of public confidence) with a cheaper, private alternative. The savings could be immense for the city, which continues to suffer from a massive budget deficit.
Of course, private security is unlikely to be introduced any time soon in Ireland. It is worth noting though that governments elsewhere are considering new ways of tackling crime, by exploiting the competitive forces that have made our lives so much better elsewhere.
In the mean-time, it is worth questioning the monopoly that the Gardaí have over law enforcement in Ireland. There is no reason to think that traffic regulation, crowd control at public events, and many other functions, require the consideration 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 we grant many powers 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 (say, three years).
Given that bad performance tarnishes the reputation of the entire firm and put everyone’s job in jeopardy, they are more likely to be stamped out and not tacitly tolerated. Also, private firms – with public oversight – are less capable of covering up abuses institutionally.
Competition between service providers would precipitate greater transparency over abuses in any case, and create incentives for firms to find innovative ways of eliminating it. While public law enforcement is based on simple wages, private firms in competition are more likely to create more nuanced payment schemes to alter the behaviour of their employees.
Employees can only block new work-place 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, lose their job or remain employed by a firm with no customers.
How exactly does the competitive forces ensure better quality of service? If you’re not doing well in an area, this affects the firm’s reputation nationwide and you lose business. As long as different jurisdictions are renewing contracts at different times, companies must get results today or persuade the public that their program will pay off in the long-term.
Private law enforcement, even in very limited form and for specific purposes, would increase the efficiency of service provision by lowering costs and increasing quality. We have seen the competitive market forces yield results in every other sphere of our lives. Why not traffic regulation, crowd control and dispute resolution? And if they strike, we can take our custom elsewhere.
Republished as “Guardians of the Peace” by the Independent Institute (17th of December, 2009).
© The Free Marketeer 2009