Is Police Force a Concentrated Resource?

A common problem in development economics is that a poor country will be rich in some concentrated resource, like diamonds or oil: a dictator will take control of the resource and use it to fund his own military, which in turn keeps the populace from revolting. The basic problem is that when a valuable resource becomes concentrated, a relatively small group can control it and use it to gain leverage elsewhere. (This strategy, by the way, is central to the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune.)

I’m wondering if it would make sense to think about the police’s monopoly on violence in an analogous way. Once upon a time, if some kind of violence was going down in your village, you and your friends had to find a way to deal with it because there was no formal police or guards coming to help you. Before the rise of modern technology and state apparatus, there was simply no way for most people to outsource force. In contemporary America, on the other hand, the police are always there: maybe not when you’d like or as fast as you’d like, but there’s basically nowhere within our borders that police or military can’t reach within minutes (or, in extremely rural areas, an hour or two).

I suggest that the rise of police has led to the decline of citizens’ ability to use force and negotiate violence on their own, just as the rise of sewing machines led to a decline in sewing-ability among layfolk. I also suggest that over past century or so, we’ve seen an ever-increasing centralization between police agencies, so that today it’s taken for granted that a rural North Dakota Sheriff will–nay, must–coordinate with and defer to national police if they tell him to.

So police have a monopoly on force (both because citizens have forgotten how to use force, and because non-police use of force is generally punished) and police are highly centralized. This seems to fit the criteria of a concentrated resource which I described above.

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2 comments

  1. And then what, honey?

    1. I’m interested in this thesis about concentrated resources in poor countries. First, who coined the term; second, how does this fit with another common thesis that attributes the poverty of poor countries to scant resource endowments?

    2. I follow (and appreciate) your insights on police force, but the purpose of using the term “concentrated resource” is not made clear. Is there meant to be the implication that, like dictator-monopolized oil, police force is now more liable to abuse?

    1. I believe I first heard about the poor-country-resources thesis in Jefferey Sachs’ *The End of Poverty.* Or it might have been William Hastings’ *The White Man’s Burden.*

      So far as scant resources to economic success goes, I’d consider Scandenavia as a counter example to the claim that countries with few natural resources are destined to poverty. On the other hand, it’s surely true that much (most?) of the time, rich natural resources are a pillar of a country’s success (e.g. the US). So I guess it’s complicated.

      Yes, that is exactly what I am saying: “…like dictator-monopolized oil, police force is now more liable to abuse.” In general, it seems to me that any concentration of power over resources sets the stage for political power derived thereof. In that sense, I’m sympathetic to libertarian mistrust of the national government–though unlike libertarians, I think that the threat of private corporate power so vastly outweighs the threat of totalitarian government-per-se that it’s reasonable for us to use Big Government as a tool to mitigate their influence while still working toward a kind of decentralized federation of (responsible) direct-democracy-type states or regions. Still, we wouldn’t need nearly as much in the way of police to run that kind of government (“government”?), since much of the police’s job consists of holding back the poor from relieving the rich of their riches and enforcing other insane laws (e.g. drug felonies) that only make sense if you assume that they’re weapons of oppression.

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