There’s been a lot of talk in some political circles as to whether or not America is creeping toward a police state. Before we go any further with this discussion, it would be helpful to lay out a definition of what a police state is. Let’s define a police state as thus: A nation in which the police, especially a secret police, summarily suppresses any social, economic, or political act that conflicts with governmental policy. With that definition in mind, it might seem strange to equate the United States with a police state. When one thinks of a police state, one typically thinks of the USSR or China or Cuba, not America. However, to be fair, I said there are some who speak of whether or not America is creeping toward a police state. Inherent in that statement is the understanding that America is not quite yet a police state, but is exhibiting signs of approaching one.
Now it is not my intention to debate the pros and cons of such a position. I am neither informed enough nor qualified enough to debate whether or not America is approaching the qualities of a police state. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that America is indeed creeping toward a totalitarian police state. However, most of us live our lives without running foul of the authorities; therefore, we generally treat such stories as the fruit of conspiratorial minds.
What I do want to do is look at the police from a philosophical perspective. Most of us have grown up knowing the slogan that is found on the side of most police cars — to serve and protect. This is, as it were, a slogan meant to reassure the people that the duty of the police is to serve and protect the community in which they live and work. There may be some of you who remember Officer Friendly, a fictitious name used for the police to teach kids that the police are friendly and only wish to serve and protect them. Many of us may even know some police officers personally. I’m sure there are many decent and honorable police officers across the country at all levels of law enforcement. However, is the goal and function of the police to serve and protect (as the slogan says) the community or the state?
Throughout history, police forces have been established by government bodies to enforce the laws of a particular jurisdiction. They are not only established by the state, but they have been granted by the state the authority of the legitimate use of force to carry out their duties. Given this charter, it is safe to assume that the first duty of the police is to the state which formed it and employs it, not to the general public. This may not be as big a deal in monarchies or dictatorships where the people have no power vested to them, but here in America, we are a constitutional republic. The United States was formed as the antithesis of a totalitarian state. In America, the state governs by and with the consent of the governed! Our country was founded on the libertarian (Classical Liberal) principle of non-aggression; i.e., no one is allowed to use force to infringe against another person’s life, liberty or property. Surely, what applies to individuals must also apply to the state, and therefore, the state (through the agency of the police) should not have the power to use force to infringe upon another person’s life, liberty or property. Yet that is what the state does (through the agency of the police) on a daily basis.
Now flip open any newspaper in the country or turn on any newscast and you will see plenty of examples of the police doing just that: Infringing upon a person’s right to life, liberty and property. Some of you may say, “Well, it’s good and proper for the police to stop and arrest murderers and rapists and thieves.” There are two things one can say in response to that. First, just how many murders, rapes and thefts do the police actually prevent? Isn’t it more often the case that the police are called in after the fact and have to hunt down the perpetrator? The police are almost always called in after something has happened. Very rare is the instance where the police are actually present to prevent a crime taking place.
Secondly, how many crimes do the police actually arrest or detain people for that aren’t actually real crimes? Consider drug possession and/or use. Is this a crime? Note, I’m not asking whether or not it is wise or morally right to possess or use drugs. I am asking whether or not this is a crime? I would argue no, it is not a crime. As a Christian, I would say that a person should avoid drugs as a wise course of action based upon the addictive quality of many drugs. That’s a far different thing to say than to say that possession and use of drugs is a crime. Not only that, it’s a crime that results in a person forfeiting their liberty to incarceration and their property to seizure by the state. The police spends an inordinate amount of time tracking, pursuing, arresting and incarcerating non-violent offenders oftentimes engaging in practices that skate the line of appropriate use of force and oftentimes violating the civil rights of people in the process. What can be said of drug use can be said for all other ‘vice’ crimes. The state, through its armed police force, expend a lot of resources to regulate and control the public in areas which, for most, would be considered areas of personal choice and liberty.
How about other ‘crimes’ for which the police often abuse the civil liberties of those they are purportedly supposed to ‘serve and protect?’ For instance, traffic violations. Exceeding the speed limit, driving without your seatbelt fastened, driving without insurance, driving without a license, driving with a broken tail light, the list is endless. The state uses these, for the most part, arbitrary regulations to legally extort money from its citizens for failing to comply with a whole boatload of rules. Add to this the fact that the police routinely use such ‘innocent’ traffic stops to induct illegal searches of private property (i.e., your car). Why is driving without my seatbelt worthy of a hefty fine? Why is driving without state sanctioned permission (i.e., a driver’s license) worthy of being detained? Most traffic laws are arbitrary and most are means for the state to extract money from the citizenry literally at the point of a gun (my personal ‘favorite’ are the red light cameras that automatically send you a ticket for a violation).
I think it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that the police serve the wishes of the state and that any pretense of serving and protecting the community is just that — a pretense. It begs the question that if the police serve the wishes of the state, just what are the wishes of the state? I think it is apparent that throughout all of human history, governments exist to perpetuate their own power and control. It’s almost never explicitly stated as such — usually it’s stated that the government exists to serve the people — but that always ends up being the case. Governments want to remain in power, and the police force ultimately serves that greater goal. It accomplishes this goal by maintaining order within its jurisdiction by threat of force.
Does this mean America is creeping toward a police state, one in which the police exert a near totalitarian control over the populace? Based on everything I’ve been reading and studying, I would say a qualified yes. I say a “qualified” because given recent political trends our country has been shifting away from a constitutional republic for decades. What we have been moving toward appears to be a total socialist state. Whether that socialist state becomes a more nationalistic socialist state (e.g., Germany or Italy circa 1930) or a communistic state (e.g., Russia or China) largely depends on which party is in power — republicans or democrats. Both parties seem to desire Big Government, they just differ on the flavor of Big Government. Neither party seems all too interested in reducing the size of government or the power and control over the populace that comes with it. Given these trends, I see no way of avoiding a police state as we have defined it above because the more totalitarian the state becomes, the more aggressive the police have to become to maintain order. That’s why it is vitally important that we — the citizens of these United States — wake up and begin working toward the reversal of this slide into tyranny. It won’t be easy and it can’t be done overnight, but it is possible if enough people rise up to reclaim the country our founding fathers gave to us.