Saturday, August 9, 2008

Police Details and the Road to Serfdom

See this letter to the Boston Herald:

It provides a good illustration of what I have long seen as the key implication of Friedrich Hayek's argument in his best known book, The Road to Serfdom: that the restrictions on personal freedom imposed on ordinary citizens by the looting class beget further restrictions, which beget still further restrictions until there is no one left for the looters to loot. At some point, the motto, "We are all looters now," becomes apropos.

Massachusetts is the only state that requires public utilities and public works contractors to use paid uniformed police officers at work sites along public roads. Other states use civilian flaggers, who are paid far less.

The pay for the Massachusetts-style "police details" is almost $40 per hour, and the practice of using them is characterized by rampant featherbedding. Massachusetts drivers commonly see detail police ignoring the traffic they are supposed to direct while talking away on their cell phones or chatting with construction workers. The Beacon Hill Institute just conducted a poll showing that 86% of Massachusetts voters want to end this expensive perk.

The letter to which I provide a link here comes from a police union official who is trying to preserve the union monopoly that presides over the hiring of police details. The Governor of Massachusetts, thanks in large part to revelations from the Beacon Hill Institute, is considering a proposal to end this monopoly and to introduce the use of civilian flaggers on a limited basis.

I urge readers to take a number of lessons from this letter and from the comments that follow (of which I offer one). The first lesson is that no claim is too absurd to make when it might serve the goal of permitting the person making the claim to pick the pocket of someone else. Consider the claim that the state could not save money by hiring civilian flaggers since state laws would require the payment of a "prevailing wage" that is no less than the wage paid the police. That implies that state taxpayers and rate payers should have to pay something approaching $80,000 a year to do a job that could be performed by any functioning human being after a few hours of training. Suffolk University hires PhDs for less than that.

The second lesson goes back to my point that one form of looting begets another. Consider the argument that police details are a bargain because they don't require the health and pension benefits to which civilian flaggers would be "entitled." But, of course, there is no entitlement to such benefits traceable to the Constitution or any other founding document. What we have is a society in which entitlements of this kind are being imposed involuntarily on employers and, to a degree, the workers themselves. Suppose a retired police officer, who already has health and pension benefits wants to work as a civilian flagger -- a job for which he would be, by the union's own logic, supremely qualified. Under this logic he would be entitled to benefits he doesn't need and that he would happily forgo in order to make his services more competitive. Nevertheless, the union bosses use laws aimed at looting those employers who would prefer not to pay health and pension benefits as an argument for looting taxpayers who would prefer not to use grossly expensive police details.

And that isn't the end of it. An argument frequently used by the union bosses is that police details are important because police can make arrests and even respond opportunistically to crimes taking place near the work sites they are hired to work. By that logic, we should have a cop at every corner, inasmuch as the probabily of a crime taking place at a work site is immeasurably different from a crime taking place at any other point where traffic is flowing. For that matter, we should use cops everywhere that crimes can happen. No more mall cops or university cops. After all, they can't make arrests but can only detain suspects till the real cops arrive. Put a real cop everywhere, since the cost of doing that pales in comparison to the benefit.

This is but a small saga in the history of union looting, Massachusetts style. The prevailing wage law, the practice of using project labor agreements and others loom larger. But this one is worth following since it plays so heavily on our emotions. Some of us -- this writer included -- are "law and order" types who want to love the police. It saddens us to see people called to such an honorable profession embarrass themselves in this way by perpetuating a scam aimed only at fattening their wallets.

Update! The Herald published my letter this morning.

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