“Abolish all police.”
That was a chant in Portland a few weeks ago. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Maine to discuss the opiate crisis. The proposals he offered were criticized — fairly — for overemphasis on enforcement and a lack of consideration on how other variables play into the challenge, such as marijuana legalization. He was met with that well-considered policy argument — “abolish all police” — from a small number of protestors.
Protesters included Zak Ringelstein, the Maine Democratic candidate challenging Sen. Angus King. Ringelstein also made news recently by becoming a dues-paying member of the “Democratic Socialists of America.” Of course, leaders of that organization have put forward long pieces explaining their policy ideas. Like “abolish all police.”
It is a happy sentiment. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where police are unnecessary? Where everyone just gets along and nothing bad ever happens. Sign me up!
Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way. Another headline this week dealt with something everyone — Republican, Democrat, Green, Socialist — should agree on: recycling. But it was a bad news story. Municipalities across Maine all pay to have EcoMaine manage their recycling programs, often without additional cost to the taxpayer. It is good for the environment, good for towns, good for families.
Yet, it turns out that some people have a hard time following rules. They are “wish-cycling” things that are realistically trash. This not only increases EcoMaine’s costs, but it reduces their ability to sell bulk materials along the recycling stream because there is too much contamination. This has led to warnings that prices paid by towns — and thus taxpayers — could be going up.
In economic terms, this is known as the “tragedy of the commons.” It is a concept that suggests people will generally use shared, natural, or public resources in ways that further their own interest. Ultimately, this has the effect of depleting whatever the resource is, whether shared grazing land or a recycling system.
There are a few ways to end the tragedy. One is private ownership; if the resource is “yours,” you are more apt to conserve it. Think forestland: paper companies have an interest in managing the growth and harvesting responsibly to generate future returns. Another option is limiting the “common” to a smaller, tightly-knit group. For example, an extended family or small commune may work to the benefit of the group rather than the individual, due to social bonds. But they will exclude “others,” whoever they are.
The third way to end the tragedy is regulation. I know it sounds like a bad word, but sometimes it is necessary. Our lobster fishery is a good example. Maine has a robust and strong structure governing how lobsters are taken. People follow those rules in part because they will lose their ability to trap if they do not do so. The result is a strong, healthy population, economically and ecologically sustainable.
But guess what? We’ve got police to hold people to those rules. And they defend private ownership rights of other things, whether they are large tracts in the woods or the horse your commune uses to run the farm.
This exposes one of the major fracture lines in the modern Democratic Party. I’m certain Mark Dion and Janet Mills do not share the desire to “abolish all police.” After all, Dion was Cumberland County Sheriff and Mills was a district attorney in Franklin County. But Ringelstein is affiliating himself with groups whose members are calling for just that, along with getting rid of a raison d’etre for law enforcement: private property.
The reality is that, while the term “capitalism” gets looked down upon, the free enterprise model it embodies has done more to improve the material wellbeing of humanity than any other. Globally, absolute poverty has decreased markedly. In 1981, 42 percent of the world’s population was considered “extremely poor.” In 2016, it was estimated at 9 percent, according to the World Bank.That has taken place by enabling private ownership, protecting these interests, and empowering individuals to better their lot in life.
But it requires police. Because some people can’t accept the fact that lobster shells don’t go in the recycling, and others don’t want to play by the rules set in place to protect naturals assets, like lobsters. So keep your hands to yourself and leave other people’s things alone. And say thanks to the police.