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Ferguson's government was run like a racket

- March 4, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates is combing through the Department of Justice report on racism in Ferguson and finding evidence that the local government saw its inhabitants, who were mostly African Americans as a cash cow to be milked through fines and tickets. Or, perhaps more precisely, bled through fines and tickets. When the police chief reported that revenue from fines “beat our next biggest month in the last four years,” the city manager replied, “Wonderful!” As Coates suggests, this is a kind of legalized plunder. His scathing analysis recalls Charles Tilly’s classic article on “War-Making and State-Making As Organized Crime.” Tilly notes:

If protection rackets represent organized crime at its smoothest, then war making and state making – quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy – qualify as our largest examples of organized crime…. Apologists for particular governments and for government in general
commonly argue, precisely, that they offer protection from local and external violence. They claim that the prices they charge barely cover the costs of protection. They call people who complain about the price of protection “anarchists,” “subversives,” or both at once. But consider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction. Governments’ provision of protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering.

Tilly wants to draw lessons from the early history of European states, whose behavior toward both their populations and their rivals was sanguinary in the extreme. His point is that early modern states were essentially indistinguishable from gangsterism. Yet even so, much of the argument travels. Tilly argues that over time the state was obliged to moderate its behavior. As it became more dependent on the goodwill of its population to raise revenues, it was obliged to behave in less exploitative ways, generating greater legitimacy. It conceded rights and representative institutions. Tilly – writing a few decades ago – worries that the Cold War has critically damaged many of the new states that emerged in the twentieth century. They didn’t have to rely on the goodwill of their citizens to raise money for their armies and state machineries, but instead could rely on military benefits provided by external powers.

There’s an important analogy to Ferguson. As Radley Balko has argued St. Louis is fragmented into a multitude of municipalities, many of which, bluntly put, appear to predate upon their citizens.

Fragmented governance make it hard for voters to hold officials responsible, and officials, who don’t expect to have to answer to voters, have no incentive to behave in legitimate ways. The new Department of Justice report depicts a system in Ferguson that is much closer to a racket aimed at squeezing revenue out of its population than a properly working democracy. Different municipalities appear to collaborate in running the system, and making it hard for voters to shut it down. This passage from Balko’s article is reminiscent of an argument made by Mancur Olson, the late public choice theorist:

Drive along an approximately 10-mile stretch along the east-west Route 115 (also known as the Natural Bridge Road), and you’ll cross through sixteen different municipalities. At some points along the route, you’ll find one town the right side of the road, and a separate town on the left. There are similar stretches along St. Charles Rock Road (also known as Route 180) to the south, along I-70, and along the I-170 bypass. The town boundaries are drawn in such a way that each municipality in the area gets a stretch of highway, which can be a lucrative source of revenue.

Olson failed to be charmed by the picturesque castles lining the German river Rhine, because he knew that each castle had been built by some local lord to threaten violence to traders going up and down the river if they didn’t pay him a tariff. Local government in St. Louis appears to have been constructed along similar lines, with the victims mostly being poor African Americans rather than wealthy traders.