Monday 23 February 2015

User Pays Policing?

Dave Armstrong offers a reductio ad absurdum considering what would happen if we took user pays for police services too far to argue against user pays for police vetting. I'm not sure where I stand on this one; I can see arguments both ways. But one example in Dave's reductio did not seem so absurd to me:
When you finally get home, you discover that you have been burgled. Two police turn up immediately. One brings out a glossy folder. "Would you like to pay for our beginner, `We'll Have a Go But Probably Won't Find the Burglar' plan or our slightly more comprehensive `We'll Raid a Fe Houses and Ask Around' plan, or our deluxe `We'll Nab the Bastard No Matter What' plan?"
Exactly this idea occurred to me a couple of years ago, when my house was comprehensively burgled. We had left the house for a couple of days and a night to have a floor relaid, leaving the key with the contractors. When we came back, the place had been done over with no sign of forcible entry. The police came and took fingerprints, and we gave them the names of the contractors, who had to be the prime suspects. After a few days, I called the police to see if any progress had been made. I was told on the phone that they hadn't followed up with the contractors yet as they were waiting for information to come back from the fingerprint matching. That day in the mail (posted the previous day) was a form letter saying that they had been unable to find the culprit and so had closed the case!

The truth of the matter is that in Christchurch,with so many people temporarily vacating their homes for EQC repairs, there are simply too many burglaries for the police to be able to undertake a serious investigation, even, apparently, when given the names of the prime suspects.

So, I wondered, why not have a two-tier police system, just as we do with health. The theory for two-tier funding in health goes something like this. We would like to have a publicly funded comprehensive system of health care, but given the high demand for health care in a wealthy society, coupled with the arrival of ever-more-expensive possibilities for care imply that public provision at high levels would require counter-productively high rates of tax. So instead, we offer a base level of care, and allow those with a greater preference for health or higher incomes to supplement their care out of their own pocket. This enables us to get more money into the health sector without raising marginal tax rates, and still providing a base level of care that we think consistent with the levels we consider a basic human right. Of course we can debate where that base level should be, what is the cost of increasing marginal tax rates, etc. but that doesn't change the logic of a two-tier system.

So imagine the same approach to police services. There is a minimum level of police protection that we all receive (e.g. violent crimes are investigated thoroughly), and then for petty burglaries w have the option of buying hte `We'll Nab the Bastard No Matter What' plan. I suspect that insurance companies might well be prepared to pay for that plan consistently, putting more money into policing without requiring increased taxation. Of course, many people will feel quite uncomfortable with something that looks like "one law for the rich and one for the poor", but against that consider two things: First, at the moment, we are pretty much all put on to the `We'll Have a Go but Probably Won't Find the Burglar' plan (actually, that sounds better than the plan we were forced onto after our burglary), so my scheme doesn't actually reduce the level of service for anyone. And second, there are massive negative externalities from allowing a social norm to develop in which petty crime goes uninvestigated. If even only a fraction of burglaries were investigated thoroughly, the apprehension of serial burglars would confer benefits on others, particularly if it helps petty crime become denormalised.

But that still leaves the question of why the police are devoting resources to evicting law-abiding spectators from cricket games in order to enforce the ticket issuers private terms and conditions. If ever there was a case for user pays for police time, this is it.

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