Call it the Comcast Effect. Once one organization controls all internet connections, or all computer operating systems, or all America’s heating oil, market forces stop working. The monopolist need no longer fear the scythe of the creative destruction, of a competitor offering a product that’s ten times better.
Innovation is uncomfortable for an organization. It requires shaking up established processes, overruling cozy middle managers, threatening important sales channels, and disrupting internal fiefdoms. A monopoly that doesn’t face market pressure to do so generally won’t.
And not only does innovation peter out in a monopoly, even hygiene may erode. Hold times increase. Connection speeds drop. The organization can get away with whatever it wants, because what are you going to do, go elsewhere?
So why is anyone surprised that a public sector monopoly like a municipal police department is routinely caught abusing and occasionally killing the citizens it’s supposed to protect and serve?
The public sector, the theory goes, is different because it’s accountable to the citizens. The chief of police works for the mayor, and every few years we can vote out one mayor and vote in another. We citizens thereby control public services and can reform them to meet our needs.
But can we really?
Ten years ago we San Franciscans were frustrated with the city’s moribund taxi monopoly. We knew it was bad, but until Uber disrupted the industry we had no idea how much better it could be.
Which mayoral candidate could we have voted for back then to modernize taxis? None, of course. City Hall considered allowing 3% more cabs on the streets a bold reform, one that drivers would fight bitterly. And taxis are just one of a hundred matters voters want a mayor to fix. No mayor was offering us a taxi overhaul for the same reasons no mayor had offered it before: it’s a losing strategy for them politically.
In other words, there was no political lever citizens could pull for a modern, customer-centric taxi service. The industry became dramatically more responsive to citizens once we were able to vote with our dollars.
Likewise there’s no way to vote for significant police reforms, or even to build a shared vision for what Police 2.0 might look like, as long as the service is a government monopoly. It’s too easy for incumbents to squash any disruptive idea.
When to defund the police
Defunding the police is an excellent idea, just one before its time. People reasonably ask how we’ll preserve public order, and answers are inevitably hypothetical. We’re not likely to pull the plug until we have convincing alternatives.
And we can’t get alternatives until we break free of the idea that police must be a government-run monopoly. Monopolies not only don’t improve on their own, they’ll thwart any competing effort to discover what “better” might look like. We couldn’t imagine alternatives to radio-dispatched taxis until Uber and Lyft showed them to us.
Our priority, therefore, should be creating space for alternatives to bloom. Private security firms are already a thing. They ought to be able to operate on legal parity with municipal police departments. We ought to invest more in county sheriffs — elected directly by the people — to act as checks against appointed city police commissioners.
We’re not going to get any change at all unless we’re willing to try new ideas, which means giving up enough control for new ideas to emerge. People who favor centralized over distributed decision-making — government-run schools over charters, federally-mandated policies rather than state or local ones, gun bans rather than armed citizens — may have trouble reconciling the desire to reform with their instincts.
Though the Minneapolis PD was theoretically answerable to George Floyd at the ballot box, in practice he had no control at all, even over his personal safety. How many more out-of-control police officers do we need to watch before we give up our faith in centralization?