On Policing

On Policing
Serve and protect.

What do we do with the police? Despite efforts from both liberals and conservatives to bury the George Floyd movement, there's a new story of police brutality virtually every day, and the question keeps bubbling. I've been meaning to set down some basic thoughts on the question, and some tweets I saw accusing the EPA and IRS of being cops have finally got me to do it.

Here goes: I don't think any left-wing government can do without some kind of police force. The argument is simple. I'm a big government socialism type of guy, and that is always going to involve some kind of coercive apparatus. Rich conservatives do not want to pay higher taxes, big corporations want to pollute the environment and oppress their workers, and in general beneficiaries of the status quo will resist any effort to change it. The lesson of history is that if the left or even milquetoast liberals want anything good they are going to have to be ready to use police, courts, or even the army to get it.

Second, if a left-wing government were to get rid of all police structures, it would leave itself vulnerable to fascist assault. The fact that the Capitol Police and the Secret Service failed to prepare for the January 6 putsch only underlines the need to have an agency that will actually defend Congress in case of emergency.

Third, I also think as a bedrock political matter that political coercion is simply impossible to avoid in any kind of society. Resources are not infinite, and therefore there will have to be some way of determining who gets what that will have to rest on coercion as a last resort. In discussions I've read about the possibilities of a no-police utopian future, advocates tend to be vague if not downright slippery about this point. Frankly it smacks somewhat of internalized neoliberalism, thinking that we can do without the state somehow.

Finally, I believe that police can in theory play a role in controlling crime. Both historical work and specific studies find that when there is no widely-accepted state authority responsible for holding perpetrators of violence accountable, common day-to-day disputes tend to escalate into tit-for-tat feuds that can persist for generations. That kind of thing is practically a daily occurrence in my home city of Philadelphia today. One could make a similar point about the recent drastic cutback in traffic enforcement in many cities and the associated explosion of reckless driving, illegal registrations, etc. (More on this later.)


Believing in the inevitability of some kind of organized coercion in general is not at all to endorse the current reality of American police. If a democratic government must rely, at bottom, on some kind of police apparatus, then it is all the more important that such a coercive power be legitimately empowered and carefully controlled.

As a rule, American police departments are more like the militaries of tutelary democracies like Ataturk's Turkey, where elected leaders were subordinated to the army and generals meddled extensively in politics. For instance, the New York Police Department is not even close to the worst in the country and yet during the George Floyd protests they kidnapped the mayor's daughter, and a police union published her arrest record (including many sensitive personal details) online. One hour later the mayor told protesters they needed to go home. In other cities across the country, cop overtime scams or other egregious featherbedding schemes are common, and in the worst ones, lawless cops and courts conspire to systematically extort money from the civilian population through fraudulent fines and fees.

This is not just unacceptable for any kind of even moderately progressive government, it is a threat to democracy itself. Allowing armed agents of the state to subjugate the elected government is practically the dictionary definition of political tyranny.

On the crime question, police departments across the country are not only failing to solve crime—the national murder clearance rate, itself a dubious and probably-inflated metric, has been falling for decades—but also in many cities they plainly welcome crime as a way to incite a febrile "law and order" panic and thus discipline reformist elected officials. When San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin busted a burglary ring, he had to rent a U-Haul to transport the stolen goods because cops refused to help him. It worked, too: Boudin has since been removed in a recall campaign backed heavily by police unions, and the new DA has done what she can to restore de facto legal impunity for San Francisco cops.

What's the alternative? I think Norway provides a decent working example of a democratic system of police and courts. On the one hand, Norwegian cops do not carry guns in their normal equipment, and almost never kill people. There is also only one single national police department, rather than the thousands of overlapping American ones, which makes lines of accountability much clearer. Investigative functions get top priority in funding, and partly as a result, the murder clearance rate is about 97 percent.

On the other hand, prison sentences are relatively light, even for murder—Norway has no death penalty and not even a life sentence. (They've internalized the demonstrable fact that in terms of deterrence, the swiftness and certainty of punishment matters far, far more than its severity.) Prison conditions are also more like a decent hotel, complete with libraries, schools, cooking facilities, and so forth—even maximum-security ones.

Effective police and decent prisons aren't cheap. Norway spends about three times as much on its prisons per occupant than the U.S. does, though its low incarceration rate means it still spends much less per capita.

Obviously it would be quite hard to replicate Norwegian conditions across the board. They have few guns in civilian hands, stiff taxation (especially on the rich), a hugely generous welfare state, and wraparound social services. Such policies play an important role in keeping crime down—the activist demand for police budgets to be reduced and transferred to social services is directionally correct (Norway spends about half a percentage point of GDP less than America on its police), though even bloated American police departments are not nearly enough to fund a proper welfare state.

At any rate, Norway is still a good general target and proof of concept. If it can do it with such evident success, then there's no reason why we can't try to replicate what they do and get as close as possible.

Trying to copy the Norway model, however, actually would require abolishing American police departments. You'd replace them later, but in most departments there is very obviously an entrenched culture of sneering contempt for elected officials and the rule of law, and in some, terrorist infestations or actual criminal conspiracies. (Related is the cop culture of quaking terror of the citizenry and the associated combination of itchy trigger fingers and unwillingness to put their own lives at risk, like at Uvalde.)

All this makes pro-police analysis from centrists who would supposedly fight crime by stuffing more money into the same broken departments who already aren't doing their jobs, if not conspiring to overthrow the government, a complete joke. So while I have my disagreements with the abolition crowd I generally don't start fights with them. In terms of where we currently stand relative to where we need to be, they are basically on the right track.

Reminder that you can still order my book here—I'm just a few copies away from earning out my advance and getting an actual royalty check! On to some articles.

I got my updated Covid booster shot, and you should too:

Thanks to vaccines and all the prior infections building up Americans’ immunity, COVID is no longer the monster killer that it was at the start of the pandemic. But even if it actually does settle down into being about as bad as the flu, that is no reason to let your guard down. Get your updated booster, and flu shot while you’re at it, and you might just save your life, or the life of someone you love.

The Inflation Reduction Act has an excellent investment in public power:

In some ways, the IRA approach is unfortunately typical of American policy habits, where instead of the government just doing what needs to be done, it provides tax incentives for private companies to do it instead. But the direct-pay program is actually a major shift from this tradition. Despite its pose as yet another tax credit, it is really more like a New Deal social-democratic policy: direct investment of public cash into publicly owned power generation.

The case for using propane as a refrigerant:

The best refrigerant for any particular setting will depend on the amount of heating or cooling needed, the difference between outdoor and indoor temperature, the available space, the global warming potential of each option, and numerous other factors. But propane certainly deserves a much larger share of the refrigerant market than it currently has, particularly for domestic uses. With just a little attention from regulators, the global heating and cooling industry could be tipped into a more efficient, more climate-friendly status.

We need tuition price caps:

But the new IDR system does create a bad incentive for colleges and universities. If students can take out loans of any size and not have to worry about actually paying them back, then there is every reason for schools to hike their prices to the moon. This was a conservative argument about the student loan program more broadly, but it’s more acute if the burdens of student debt are not as onerous.

The big bet on natural gas is blowing up in the world's face:

A decade later, the supposed dream of natural gas has become a nightmare. Making energy cheaper? Utility and heating bills are skyrocketing. Providing abundant clean fuel? Shortages are causing a stampede back to coal. It’s a disaster.

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