Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bounty hunters

Dog The Bounty Hunter - Oakley Thump

Coming home from work, I was listening to a surprising interview on NPR. The show was about bounty hunters. This was not the surprising bit, however. Nor was what was said about the bounty hunters surprising to me personally. What I was surprised by was that they aired that on NPR.

The host of Freakonomics Radio explained that more than 25% of felony defendants don't show up on the court date. Which results in a loss of time/money for the police, lawyers, prosecutors and judges. (Well, the civil servants don't really lose money, unfortunately, but the "society" that pays them to show up for nothing loses money.)

The second statistics is that police has 50% success rate at catching the people who jump bail.

The third statistics is that private bounty hunters have 97% success rate.

The NPR guy asked the Freakonomics Radio guy: What's the difference? Is it that the bounty hunters are scary, muscular, tattooed, rude, long-haired men with dogs that make more impression on the criminals than the muscular, non-tattooed, rude, short-haired policemen without dogs? The FR host answered: first of all, most bounty hunters do not look that way at all. It's a stereotype created by the movies and television shows. They have to deal with police; they have to deal with judges, lawyers, families of the criminals, etc., and thus have to look presentable.

Second of all, what makes them different form the police is incentive. If a police officer does not catch a fugitive, nothing will happen to his job, as long as he does most of his duties passingly well (which is not much in most places) and is not too brutal. On the other hand, if he catches a fugitive, he gets no raise to his salary. After all, he is doing his job.

A bounty hunter who catches a fugitive gets 10% of the bail. If he doesn't catch him, he gets paid nothing. This also makes sure that the bounty hunters have more incentive to go after the more dangerous criminals (who have, presumably, more bail posted for them) and that different bounty hunters specialize in criminals of different caliber (just like car salesmen specialize in different cars: old used Fords vs. brand new BMWs).

I would also add that another reason is competition. Bounty hunters compete with each other, and good bounty hunters drive the bad ones out of the market. Now, even if you gave police officers incentive (e.g., if the officer catches the criminal, he gets 10% of the bounty) and even if you allowed them to compete (i.e., any officer could catch any given criminal), you would still have the people in charge of catching criminals limited to the pool of officers. Some of them may be good — but you just don't know how good until you allow them to compete with the rest of the market.

Another benefit is specialization. Cops are busy... well, they are mostly busy giving speeding tickets, looking for people driving cars with outdated inspection stickers, and playing solitaire on their laptops (as one of my colleagues observed one doing another day), and eating doughnuts, and tasering Black ladies, but presumably they are also involved in solving and preventing crimes. So, they may not have as much time to look for fugitives as the bounty hunters — the professionals who stick to one specific job in order to do it well.

The bottom line is: a job for whose performance by so-called "civil servants" you pay money out of your taxes is done better by private individuals. This, as I said, is not so surprising to me. What's surprising is that they aired it on NPR.

Now, think about all the other jobs that are paid for out of your taxes. Mail. Fire protection. Building roads. Directing traffic. Teaching. Dispersing your taxes to charity and welfare. Defending you, inside and outside the country? Running the government? Well, let's not touch the last two for now. But for all the rest — leaving aside the argument whether you should be forced to pay for those services (if you're not immediately receiving benefit from them), ask yourself this: even if we say you should be forced to pay for them, wouldn't your money work better if it paid private individuals and companies competing for it, in a free-market fashion?

In other words, ask yourselves this question. Let's say rich people should be forced to pay for the poor people's medical bills, housing, medical and education bills, etc. People should be forced to give charity. But a) why should the government be in charge of dispersing that charity?, and b) wouldn't the charity work better if taken care of by private, competing organizations, who would have real financial incentive to do their jobs well and who would compete with each other?

I.e., a person would have to pay certain amount of his money to charity, just like today. But instead of paying it to taxes, he would pay private charity organizations — and it would be his choice which organization to pay. And the organizations would compete with each other for the type of services they provide, as well as for the effectiveness and quality of the service. And the "tax payers" would vote with their money.

There would not have to be one single type of food stamps of public education program as today — whichever one the majority in the government voted for. They could be as many varieties as the market would sustain (just like today there is a number of companies providing cell phone service). I.e., if I think that kids in public schools should pray in the morning and say a stupid formula in allegiance to a piece of cloth and you don't, we don't have to try to win the majority in the government. We can donate money to different charities that fund different kinds of schools (or directly to the schools themselves), and both of our views will exist in the society  represented by privately provided services — as long as there is enough demand for providing that kind of service. Just like today, I don't have to convince you that AT&T is better than Cingular — we can agree to disagree and sign up for different versions of the cell phone service.

I've posted this 1999 video before, but I'd like to do it again:

And I ask the same question: who do you think will spend your money better — this guy, or a local pencil pusher, whose strong skills are in... umm... what is it that the politicians are skilled at again? Oh, right. "Policy". "Influencing education more than one classroom at a time". Right...