The Thin Line Between Service and Threat

Jeffrey Tucker
Aug. 25, 2013

It was 2:00am and I was sound asleep when the doorbell rang. I thought I had dreamed it. But then it was followed by a knock and another ring. So I got up and went to the door.

Standing there were two policemen decked out in all their contemporary regalia: jack boots, bullet-proof vests, heavy arms, clubs, tasers, and so on. One put a flashlight on my face. I was confused and alarmed, obviously. They explained that there was truck parked in front of my house, with license tags that were not from my neighborhood. Did I know anything about this truck, one †asked?

I explained that this belonged to a friend, who had gotten off work late and asked to crash at my house. No problem, I said. So, yes, I know this truck and I know its owner.

They were glad to hear it, and explained that they were asking because of a recent string of burglaries in my neighborhood. They were just checking on anything suspicious. They apologized for waking me.

At this point, Iím quite certain that 9 in 10 people would have said something like: ďitís ok, officers. I really appreciate how you are keeping us safe and keeping a look out. Thank you for the service to this community.Ē

Instead, I said nothing and said goodnight and closed the door.

In the days since then, Iíve thought about this little incident a number of times. It wasnít exactly a case of abuse, tyranny, imposition, or anything like that. It felt a bit like what police work is supposed to be about, just making sure we are all safe. And yet, there was something strange about it too. This was not exactly a case of where thereís smoke, thereís fire. This was just a truck parked there, suspicious only because the tags were from elsewhere in town (and Iím not even sure I knew that tags were so easily identified).

So is it just my libertarian paranoia that causes me to feel uneasy about this incident? Well, hereís a test. If a policeman in the course of his routine does something that if you and I did it would be considered menacing, it is a problem. So here was my mental experiment. Letís say I ventured down the street and rang someoneís doorbell at 2am, introduced myself, and asked about a truck parked in front of the house. I explained that Iíve been concerned about the safety of the community so it is natural for me to seek out answers.

Iím pretty that in this case, my neighbor would have been more than a bit annoyed. The response might have been something like: ďwho the eff do you think you are scoping out my house in the middle of the night? Who or what is parked at my house is none of your g-d business. Get out of here and donít come back.Ē

Or maybe people would be too polite to say that but surely everyone would think it. Some might have even called the cops to report a creeper wandering around the neighborhood. I myself might have been visited by the cops to account for my actions!

And yet, we put up with this nonsense solely because of their official status. The police believe that their status confers upon them some kind of ownership over my property, my person, and the whole community. Everything that goes on there is their business.

To be sure, Iím not saying that neighborhood watch people are totally useless. But it would be nice to have some say over what they do and how they go about their job. If this were a private service, they would be serving me as a consumer and not seeking to establish their control and ownership over my life, feeling free to intrude anytime.

Iím quite certain that the police donít see it this way. They believe they are just doing what the community wants, and maybe this indeed is what the community wants. But it is also mixed with a threat: we are watching you, always, so you had better not step out of line. The consequences for disobedience should be apparent. Look at the weapons I carry.

Sometimes there is a thin line between a service and a threat ó and where one become the other is precisely when a contractual service becomes an inherently coercive one.
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo, It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, and A Beautiful Anarchy: How to Build Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him: [email protected] | Facebook | Twitter | Google

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