This summer has seen two major political crises, that of the virus and that of the police (and racism generally). From the surface, it doesn’t look like these have much in common but if one steps aback, they do. One of the great criticisms of the police is that they have become the primary social service to handle our society’s problems. This is true and needs to be fixed. And one of the things the police came to replace was the community services that were done more informally earlier. I am a strong believer in Jane Jacobs that communities should be interdependent, interconnected, and neighborly. It was the rise of suburbia and the internet, among other things, that caused the informal local institutions to collapse in the mid to late 20th century. The police didn’t replace mental health care, addiction services, interpersonal dispute resolution, and the other things. These things were mostly handled by neighbors and community leaders prior to the mid 20th century. In most cases, the police were the first government social service tasked with handling these things.
Now, as much a supporter of Jane Jacobs as I am, I believe in a hybrid system where scientific and official services and integrated with the older informal means to handle social problems. That said, I believe the police should have tiny role, if any, in any social services. The police were a Faustian Bargain, the feelings of independence and freedom associated with suburbia and the not owing love and responsibilities to a collective that is a part of living in a Jane Jacobs-style community was the reward we got for giving our social problems to a military force that ruins lives and hurts people as a routine part of their job. We had the choice of sacrificing independence to love each other and having the love handle the social problems or getting cheap freedom by using guns.
The police allowed the otherwise unsustainable state of suburbia. The crime rate exploded without the self-enforcement of traditionally-designed communities. They could go back or they could dump cops on the problems and by doing the latter they could keep their cheaply bought freedom without the fear of getting mugged monthly. However, in a society with mostly people independent of a local community, herding them is harder. Quarantine is easier when communities do their important functions together and the values, psychologically conditioned by living in that culture, are of sacrifice for the collective. It is the inability to herd people into quarantine and the values of careless independence that are causing the virus to explode as much as it is. A lot of it traces back to the police allowing suburbia to exist in its otherwise untenable state.
We need to recognize the laziness and selfishness of handing our problems to the police are and, for that matter, to social services. Social services are needed because sometimes problems are too technical for laypeople and experts are required. Yet, this call that we need more social services needs to be blended with the idea that we need to handle these problems ourselves, as laypeople, when they are simple enough for us to do so. The virus is killing people because our society values independence so much that it is willing to kill over it. When I talk about being bullied, I am often asked why I didn’t call the cops. The better question is why did their parents not even ground them and why didn’t their preacher know. In the Jane Jacobs system, they’d get shaken up a little, shamed a little, but then forgiven and not have their lives ruined because that is how communities used to handle their problems.
The Faustian Bargain aforementioned in this article is being played out. The devil is taking his due. The protests in the streets and the body count of the virus are the ultimate result of our collective selfishness and desire of a rugged euphoria of abandoning interdependence. We need to do penance for it and reform our ways. After this virus is over, we need to emphasize building interdependent communities and rebuild the informal institutions that kept society functioning for most of human history. If we don’t, we will likely relive different versions of this torture for decades to come, if not longer. As mentioned in earlier articles, people are statistically happier in more interdependent situations. For that and the myriad of other reasons, we need to include that in our reconstruction plans.