Jason Stapleton’s error on property rights enforcement


I don’t listen to him often, but when I was flying to Tulsa earlier this month, I decided to listen to the latest episode of the Jason Stapleton Program.  The title of the episode was “Should Police be Required to Turn Over Body Cam Footage?” and was in response to a North Carolina bill that would deny public access to police body camera footage.  It’s a great topic for discussion and I was interested to hear what he thought about it.

Stapleton went over two differing libertarian arguments on the matter.  On one hand, if the police enter your home and record footage of the inside of your house, is it really anyone’s business to see that tape, especially if you were the one who called the police?  Where’s the privacy?  Burglars could comb through the public records and take inventory of what people have in their homes and then plan their robberies.  So while the intention of those who want the footage to be public is good since it is related to police accountability, the unintended consequences could definitely result in problems.

On the other hand, the police are paid through public funds, so any work they do and any property they have is communally owned.  The police do not earn the money to purchase and operate the cameras and pay the salaries of their employees; they take it by force from the surrounding communities.  Therefore, the proper owners of the footage would be the members of the community.  Stapleton then brings up a good point: doesn’t that mean that each police officer’s patrol car and service weapon are also actually owned by the members of the community?  The answer is yes and the community should therefore have access to them.

This ownership problem presents a catch-22 for government law enforcement—one of several.  The first argument regarding privacy is also both simultaneously correct and incorrect.  So what are we to do?  Does libertarianism not have an answer to this problem?

To his credit, Stapleton nailed it with his solution: privatize the police.  Private police forces would solve both of the above problems when the terms of the contract between the police force and the client are agreed upon.  And since a private police force is funded through voluntary market transactions, the money they use and the products they purchase with it are rightly their property.

But as well as Stapleton presented that argument, he subsequently made an error in as grand a fashion when he tried to answer the question: “If the government has the responsibility to protecting life, liberty, and property, wouldn’t policing fall under that?”

In his typical manner, he immediately uses this question as an opportunity to take a shot at anarchists, whom he says claim to have it all figured out.  He doesn’t bother to present any specific ideas on the matter by anarchists and put a rebuttal together, so I will argue in favor of a stateless solution to his example of when your neighbor doesn’t want to return to you the pig he stole even after the court (which he said could be a private arbitrator) ruled that it is your property.

Stapleton says:

There has to be some sort of element that is authorized by the community, by the group, to use force.  And if you’re going to live in that community, you have to agree—there has to be some sort of agreement—on who is going to have the ability to use force because somebody’s got to go to your neighbor’s house and take that pig back.  Whatever force, whatever framework, that takes, that is a government.  That is a state because now you have one group of people who have a monopoly of force.

The element that is authorized by the community to use force is the recognition of property rights.  This is an extremely basic idea of libertarianism.  When is it permissible to use force?  It is permissible when you or your property is aggressed against.  As Stapleton did agree, you would have the right to go to your neighbor and take your pig, but doing that yourself would more or less defeat the purpose of hiring a private police force in the first place.  So you can delegate the right to enforce the privileges of owning property to someone else; in this case, it is the private police force.

Why would a private police force be considered a state when they go to your neighbor to take back the pig that was ruled to be yours?  They are only carrying out the work that you have the right to perform.  If it is true it is a state, it would also make you a state but only in the affairs that pertain to you.  If you want to say this makes Stapleton correct since each individual is technically his own state over his own life and property, I suppose you could, except no one is arguing against that.  But even if you accept that the individual is his own state, it does not justify any states that claim to have the authority to rule over other individuals.  It only justifies that you have the right to use force to secure your property and the right to delegate that right.

Next, what monopoly of force is there?  When a single individual hires a private police force, it does not necessarily mean that specific company will be the only one in the community and therefore the only one administering force upon people.  But even if a community does decide to agree to use one company, any member could decide to discontinue the service by exiting the contract.  Private police forces simply do not depend on having a monopoly of force.

Stapleton seems to want something more from the community other than the acceptance of property rights.  If the right to your property is left to the whims of the community, then you don’t actually have that right.

In Stapleton’s view, where a state is permissible to exist, in order to enforce private property rights, you have to suspend private property rights.  It would be good to hear him explain this in more detail since it is a blatant contradiction.