Thursday, March 12, 2015

One for the libertarian reader

It seems to me that Jason Soon has taken an unfortunate turn into increased enthusiasm for libertarianism, and it has been noted before that he and other libertarian inclined people have a bit of a "thing" for Victorian England as an example of a society where matters such as drug use and prostitution were sort of self regulated and every one (at least with money) had a jolly old time and society trundled on and inventors invented and everything worked out for the best.

Well, this review of a book about the invention of the modern police force puts a bit of a different light on that - in particular, with the way some were using (for about 70 years before they lost!) a libertarian argument against even having a professional police force:
Despite this collection’s title, the earliest extracts were written in the 1750s, and highlight the theoretical positions that would underpin the decades-long debate about whether a paid, uniformed, hierarchical body of men should be created to replace the local, unpaid constables responsible for keeping order in public spaces and bringing criminals to justice. Henry Fielding’s Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) is accepted as the first noteworthy plea for the methodical prevention of crime, rather than solely an improvement in the arrest and punishment of criminals after the fact. Fielding envisaged a new body of crime-fighters as just one element in a new moral order in which the poor would be prevented from turning to vice and crime in the first place. He advised severe curbs on places of entertainment, on the selling of alcohol, on gambling and any aspect of modern life that would tempt the weak-willed into becoming “vicious”. An instant refutation, by the journalist Richard Rolt, pointed out that top-down attempts to “moralize” the lower orders would undermine their liberty and sense of independence. A nation of cringing, hypocritical slaves would emerge, Rolt wrote; better to allow the poor to exercise their own moral choices and accept whatever punishments might follow their wrong decisions.

Later eighteenth-century “moral reformists” wished the poor to be able to benefit from the order and stability that a professionalized police force would foster. Writing in 1780, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway pointed out that not having an effective police was “enslaving” British men and women – who were prey to villains of various kinds and were the most vulnerable part of the population whenever serious civil disorder took place. A body of paid and trained “civil soldiers” – men drawn from the citizenry, not from the Army – would protect against the “atrocious violence” visited on people during criminal acts or breakdowns in order. Such an organization would obviate the need for the local militia or the standing Army to be called in during unrest. Or, as the Solicitor-General put it in 1785: “To keep the bayonet out of employ, the power of the civil officer must be rendered efficacious”.
 Sir Robert Peel would reuse the slavery/liberty arguments during the passage of his 1829 Act; and as his Bill passed, the journalist Albany Fontblanque, a supporter of Peel’s legislation, wrote of “the liberty we have hitherto enjoyed of being robbed and knocked on the head at the discretion of their honours, the thieves”. Legislation similar to Peel’s had failed in 1785 because of outrage at the attempt to centralize London’s policing – wresting control away from the parishes, and especially from the City of London, and handing it to government. Peel cleverly left the City out of his 1829 draft Bill, circumventing that particular vested interest; and he overcame the fears that the new force was to be a militarized body imposed from above by insisting that the Metropolitan Police would bear firearms only in exceptional circumstances and would wear uniform that was as close to civilian clothing as possible. Nevertheless, “Peel’s Private Army” was one of the many slang names Londoners gave to the new force, while the Weekly Despatch newspaper routinely referred to them as “police soldiers”.
 Well, the libertarians of 1750 to 1820 look rather like gooses now, don't they?   Just like Leyonhjelm.  (Although, the article does go on to give examples of some excessive powers of Victorian police, I must admit.)

Update:   when you look at things like this list of English legislation brought in during the Victorian era, it seems to me that the period is actually a good argument for sensible government regulation and intervention in matters relating to labour, public health and eduction, as against the libertarian inclination to be against regulation.  With few exceptions, the period serves as an example of the inadequacy and failure of libertarian philosophy to improve society, doesn't it?

Update 2this website appears to have reliable, and rather fascinating, information regarding the English criminal justice system  in the 18th century, including its gradual transition into something more recognisable as modern.  The section regarding the push for professional, government controlled, policing is here:
Policing, such as it was, was rather inefficient in this new urban context. The old system was a mixture of Night Watchmen and 'Thief takers' who were private individuals employed by the wealthy and by magistrates. The system was certainly vulnerable to corruption: thief takers on occasion entered into alliances with thieves to share rewards for the return of stolen property (one is reminded of the old saying: 'set a thief to catch a thief') The bad reputation thief takers is in no small measure due to the exploits of the notorious Jonathan Wild who styled himself as  'Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland'. He was exposed in 1725 as a leading reciever of stolen goods. 
The wealthy themselves were frequently reluctant to be magistrates in urban areas. Many lower middle class magistrates, during the latter part of the century, accepted payment for executing warrants for the arrest of offenders. The quality of these 'trading justices' was regarded as low and the Conservative writer Edmund Burke denounced them as 'scum of the earth'  It is as well to remember, however, that payment for services can be seen as a continuation the older tradition in which personal relations predominated over any notion of the impartial application of law.

There was much talk in the latter part of the century about the establishment of a New Police at the turn of the century Robert Peel who became Tory Prime Minister made several attempts in parliament to set up a professional full time police force. He was thwarted (until he finally suceeded in 1829) by country landowners, still powerful in parliament before 1832. 

Their resistance was quite rational. As we have already seen, their control over the local criminal justice system enhanced their rule and status. If it came to tracking offenders then they had plenty of gamekeepers and retainers at their disposal. The traditional fear of the French model of a powerful centralised national police was anathema to the English gentry and their notion of liberty. But the urban middle and lower middle classes had quite a different problem of security. As Philips comments
"The squirearchy might treasure the discretion which the old system allowed them, to choose among a variety of punishments ranging from an informal reprimand to death; but the urban shopkeeper wanted something which would efficiently protect his commercial property." (Philips 1980: 126) 
In the early years of the nineteenth century it was the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the growing fear of the urban masses becoming revolutionary which finally tipped the balance in Peel's favour. But at that point the issue was public order and rebellion rather than tracking down criminal offenders. Indeed during the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780 a mob had taken over the centre of London for 5 successive days. This concentrated the minds of those who resisted the idea of a new police, again not so much from the perspective of effective thieftaking but the more general issue of public order. We shall discuss this in a future lecture.
 As for the attempt to crack down on crime by making hanging the punishment for all sorts of things, the section begins:
 As theft was becoming more of an issue as we have described above, so the authorities did the only thing they knew and intensified the penalties. It would be some time before it was generally understood that the best way to deal with crime is to increase the certainty of detection rather than simply impose more severe penalties. The ruling elites hung on to the law and the gallows as the main mechanism of rule at their disposal. The expansion of crimes which carry capital punishment (the death penalty) is a major feature of the period. Not only murderers but thieves, rapists, forgers, were hung. In 1688 there were 50 offences which carried the death penalty. This is amazing by modern standards when even murder gets only imprisonment, but by 1800 there were 200 offences punishable by hanging. The eighteenth century was thus a period of expanding use of capital punishment. People were being hung for all manner of petty crimes. Some court records show that during the two years 1774-6  people were hung for arson, cattle stealing, 'destroying silk on a loom', 'wilfully wounding a horse', sheep stealing, swearing false oathes, 'impersonating another to receive a seaman's wage', and similar.

1 comment:

Not Trampis said...

very interesting.

good one steve.