Several years even before I transitioned to the views I hold now, I performed a simple thought experiment: what can the police do that I cannot? Obviously, anyone can protect someone’s right to life as well as stop someone from stealing from another person. Those are the easy ones. What about things like traffic laws? I wouldn’t chase someone down for running through a stop sign. But what if I did? Is there a crime that I could be charged with? Could I be charged with a crime for simply upholding the law?
After thinking about it, I came to realize that based on the way the law was supposed to be set up, the police had no more authority than I did.
We can easily see that in practice, this is certainly not the case. And there are many cases where the authority to coerce is only an illusion created by the state–there is no basis for authority other than the fact that some action is against the law. There has to be more to authority than that.
Think of yourself back to a time when people settled on new lands and formed new communities. There wasn’t too much division of labor yet, so you farmed your own food, built your own shelter, and made your own clothes. As the society progressed, different people developed skills in various fields, so people took jobs they were good at. If you could farm well but not build a decent house, then you’d be better off sticking to farming and trading your produce for shelter, clothes, and anything else you needed.
While you were working in the fields, though, you left your other property unprotected. Spending time patrolling your property and chasing down and recovering stolen goods meant you spent less time tending your farm. Just like it made sense to delegate the production of clothes, shelter, and other goods and services you desired, it would make sense to delegate the role of protecting your life and property to someone else.
If everyone in your community did this, then all of the “police” in the community were simply performing a job so that everyone else wouldn’t have to—and that’s no different from any other job.
Even as societies become more complex, the concept does not change. Unfortunately, over time, instead of only performing the job of protecting property, this idea has been lost and the police enjoy many state-granted rights and privileges that the private citizen does not. They started to wear uniforms and carry badges, which turned into symbols of some special authority, but it is incorrect to view them as such.
A police uniform and badge are only marks to identify those who perform a certain job for others and represent special authority as much as a uniform for a milkman does.
To put it another way, law/rights enforcement is the exclusive job of the police officer, but law/rights enforcement is not a job exclusive to police officers.
How should the actual authority of a police officer be determined? Since it is true that people can only delegate the rights they have themselves, the authority of the police is no different from the authority of anyone else. Would anyone feel uncomfortable about stopping a man who stole a woman’s purse? Would people let someone get away with defrauding others from their money? There is no question that intervention and retaliation is permissible in the cases of theft of life or property.
Now if someone committed a victimless “crime,” would you feel comfortable with violently responding? If you see someone smoking a plant, would you feel that it is warranted to lock them up in a cage? If you met someone who said he didn’t pay taxes, would it be okay for you to knock him down, put your knee between his shoulder blades, and put handcuffs on him?
To take it even further, do ordinary people have the authority to demand under the threat of violence that others pay their salary? Remember the exercise where you were the farmer? Did you earn your living by threatening people or did you earn it by providing a marketable good to others?
Remember, when the day ends and the shift is over, a police officer takes off his uniform and removes his badge. If he continued to act the way he did while on duty, would you consider him to be a good guy or a bully?