Category Archives: Community

Policing: A Job for the Public or Communities?

Is this how real communities achieve safety?

Two recent events in northern Idaho illustrate very well the downside of empowering police departments to act aggressively in their day-to-day activities. The first is an encounter over whether a young man uttered the words “nickel sack” or “Nickelback.” The second is the police shooting of a dog in a van. A brief scan of the articles’ comment sections yields no surprises; many people recognize that policing as we know it is deeply flawed. But beyond calls for lawsuits – which only punish taxpayers and therefore do nothing to fix the system – and “more training” for officers, there are few suggestions on what ought to be done.

As with any social or political problem – especially a relatively new one – the most crucial step is identifying the true causes. If the causal origin of the problem is misidentified or misunderstood, we are unlikely to find a genuine fix. Excellent work has been done regarding “the militarization of the police” – the names Radley Balko and William N. Grigg come readily to mind – and insofar as informing people is the first step to change, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this work. But once we have a clear enough picture of the problem, we should strive to address it in the most complete and sensible way possible.

To do this, I want to employ a distinction made by farmer/poet/essayist Wendell Berry between public and community. He writes:

As I understand the term, public means simply all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging…A community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, “We belong to our community,” but never “We belong to our public.”

Berry goes on to note the following characteristics of a public:

A public government, with public laws and a public system of justice, founded on democratic suffrage, is in principle a good thing. Ideally, it makes possible a just and peaceable settlement of contentions arising between communities. It also makes it possible for a mistreated member of a community to appeal for justice outside the community. But obviously such a government can fall short of its purpose.[i]

There is another important point, which is only implied in Berry’s remarks on a public system of justice; the use of force – i.e., physical coercion – should be within the public domain, where every person is equal in his rights before the law.

What has this to do with policing, which – I assume – almost everyone understands to be the job of the public rather than of communities? As always, we must keep in mind what policing is meant to accomplish. At the very least, its goals include (1) the equal treatment and pursuit of justice, and (2) ensuring safety.

The first leads us to designate policing as a public function, and (in this context) rightly so. We all recognize that communities have the potential to mistreat individuals, so we must insist on pursuing justice (i.e., using force) without partiality. The second has long been treated as a public matter, but since we are talking about responsibility to ensure mutual safety rather than enforcement[ii], it is properly the job of communities. What we have lumped together in contemporary policing, then, is at least two distinct functions that ought to be carried out by two distinct forms of human interaction.

In light of these somewhat abstract considerations, let us examine our current policing situation. As functionaries of the public, police agencies (at every level and jurisdiction) are expected to be impartial, objective, and protective of individuals against community biases. Yet, as Mr. Grigg tirelessly documents (albeit exclusively from an individualist-libertarian perspective), such agencies wield special privileges and powers in a monopolistic capacity. The tax-funded justice system has itself become a perverse sort of “community” in which special treatment of all kinds is routinely afforded to members. This condition is so widespread that equal treatment has become a newsworthy item.

Police agencies do maintain the most important aspects of public character – they are free from “any personal responsibility or belonging” and routinely employ force. “Qualified immunityinsulates officers from personal liability, and the Supreme Court has ruled that police have no legal responsibility or duty to protect anyone.

And yet so much of what police spend their time doing has less to do with objective public good than using force to uphold community standards. Noisy neighbors, loose dogs, and illicit drug use (to name a few) are issues best resolved by tacit neighborhood agreement and (especially in the case of drug use/addiction) moral encouragement or disapprobation. When actual damages against person or property are committed, it becomes a matter to be solved by an impartial judge.

Spontaneous community response to flooding in Nampa last year

Let us return to the pair of recent events. The “Nickelback” encounter is absurd because police attempted to enforce a community standard against using marijuana. Such community standards can be legitimate, but do not rightly sanction the use of force on behalf of the public. We can imagine a concerned neighbor politely confronting the young men about their suspected activities in the community, but we cannot imagine such a neighbor threatening them at gunpoint without coming to stark conclusions about his sanity and exercise of judgment.

The second story offers a similar lesson. No diligent citizen, investigating a suspicious van on behalf of his community, would be justified in approaching with his weapon drawn, instinctively shooting the moment he was startled. In fact, no person with the sense of belonging and responsibility to his community would even consider behaving in such a way.

What is particularly troubling is our toleration of aggressive police enforcement of community-level issues apart from any community (and often legal) responsibility. The rising outcry against this new norm is almost universally framed in terms of “rights violations,” and such violations abound to be sure. But the deeper problem, as I see it, is that something ostensibly public – policing specifically and the justice system generally – has supplanted the job of communities in numerous ways.

A real correction to abounding police abuse will be possible when individual responsibilities to community – in addition to individual rights – are recovered. In some places, it is already occurring. Dale Brown’s success story in Detroit is well worth a listen, and it confirms what advocates of healthy communities have long argued: It isn’t about money or equipment; it’s about self-sacrifice and devotion to a place you care about.

You can’t experience that through the public. But you can in a community.

[i] Berry, Wendell. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” in The Art of the Commonplace, ed. Norman Wirzba. Counterpoint Berkeley, 2002, pg. 161-162.

[ii] Safety, after all, is not a law but a general condition, and so cannot be “enforced.”


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TNP Podcast 7: Militarization of Police


Floyd Noel joins us in a talk about militarized police departments, their negative effects, and what more humane, local solutions have to offer.

The Salon article mentioned can be found here.

(If you have trouble with the embedded player, click here to download the file.)

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Secession: Ideology and Common Life

Note: This article is the fourth of a series on the political concept of secession. The series will explore some historical aspects, and we certainly welcome comments on the historical record. But it will largely focus on contemporary questions of a theoretical and practical nature, striving to shed light on how the principle of secession relates to political life today.

Blue counties have every right to protect their inherited values and way of life through secession.

Secessionist of all stripes – yes, they exist across the entire political continuum – are sometimes thought of as (or accused of) having a “secessionist ideology.” But to defend secession in principle and to hold a secessionist ideology are two very different things. Principles are the reasonable, meaningful general ideas that guide action, but ideologies should be recognized as corrupted principles detached from reality.


The distinction is a meaningful one. Principle and ideology are meaningfully distinguished, and we ignore the difference at our own political peril. Continue reading


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Does Majority Rule Make Us Impotent?

I wanted to share this insightful piece by Michael Munger, originally published in the Freeman magazine and addressed to libertarians, explaining how democracy can destroy democratic values. What do I mean by this? Well, I think we can define democratic values as those that empower the individual to self-govern. I don’t think anyone who speaks of “democratic values” favorably thinks literally of what democracy often ends up being in practice: a tyrannical majority voting for someone so that he or she can tell us all how to live.

I <3 Majority Rule ShirtAlexis de Tocqueville wrote about this problem in Democracy in America, where the problem he saw in French democracy was that people were so isolated and therefore ineffective because they had few intermediary institutions between themselves and the state. Most French came to see the government as the only organization that could affect change.

Here is the money quote by Munger:

Tocqueville criticizes his countrymen in France. He had seen, in the legacy of the French Revolution, the damage that political democracy and a reliance on majority rule could do.
But when I read his critique today, I get a sick feeling. His criticism of France in 1831 is an even more scathing indictment of American society today. We have become a political democracy: Voting is the extent of civic action, and interest-group lobbying for power and wealth is the only route open to solve civic problems.
The American spirit does not allow for sitting back and waiting for the State do it. If you are my neighbor, I’ll help you, and you’ll help me. We have direct, powerful, voluntary connections based on a thickly woven moral fabric of reciprocal obligations, complex organizations, and intricate relationships voluntarily negotiated and voluntarily ended.
Democracy, to the extent that it substitutes votes for action and taxes for charity, enfeebles the natural impulse people have to help each other. State action crowds out voluntary private associations. If the government is supposed to take care of all of us, then I have no moral obligation to pitch in, to help out. I see you attacked, and I look up and down the street and cluck to myself, “Why don’t the police do something?” If I see a bad school, I wonder why the state doesn’t improve it. If I see a broken pump, I wait with my neighbors, and we watch our children play in the dust. The great Murray Rothbard diagnosed the problem perfectly when he said that leaping from the necessity of social connection to claims about the necessity of State action is the world’s greatest non sequitur.
This is why in addition to advocating freedom, The New Polis also supports community, by which we refer to families, churches, fraternal organizations, and any other private association. The state attempts to crowd out and supplant these layers of community and reduce us to atomistic individuals unable to undertake any collective action not under its auspices. By strengthening community we strengthen our personal autonomy and decide for ourselves how we want to live.


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Guest Post: The Social Aspect of Localism

By Chris Felt

small is beautifulIn their post Why Localism?, Archer and Fegley argue that the size of the United States government has grown to such an extent that it has now become too large. The government is too large because it cannot adequately represent and serve the 300 million citizens that reside within its jurisdiction. Archer and Fegley suggest that the government inadequacies are readily apparent in two key areas: education and environmental conservation. In education, the federal government attempts to satisfy the unique educational needs of localities by enacting a general education policy that produces only frustration and inefficiencies. The EPA also seeks to solve the local environmental issues which would be better handled by local departments such as the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Local departments have greater insight into what is necessary for environmental protection for their local areas. Archer and Fegley claim that centralization of power in the federal government is not only ineffective but also potentially dangerous. Archer and Fegley state that atrocities such as those that occurred during the regimes of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism are logical outcomes of the centralization of power.

The views expressed by Archer and Fegley are those that are easily accepted by the other well known localism movement which is built upon the works of E.F. Schumacher. However, Archer and Fegley have only expressed agreement with the political aspect of this movement. This movement also emphasizes a social aspect. The social aspect includes many ideas but the basic ones are buying local, human scale technology, and simple living. Archer asserted in the June 19 podcast that in order for personal relationships and a sense of community to flourish, the proper size for a political unit needs to be the city. I argue that not only is a city-size political unit important for personal relationships and community, the acceptance of the social aspect is also necessary. Continue reading


Filed under Community, Economy, Food Production, Localism, Reader Contributions