Guarding le Régime Moderne

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In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would lead to mass starvation. If things had continued as they did for thousands of years previously, he might have been right. Fortunately, the advent of the Industrial Revolution dramatically boosted productivity, and gains in productivity haven't let up since. In recent times, global productivity has increased by an estimated 1.8% per year between 1964 and 2014. With improvements in technology and know-how, a single worker today can typically produce what it would have taken dozens to produce a few hundred years ago in the same amount of time, resulting in much better standards of living for most people than were the norm in Malthus's era.

A worker in the United States today earns more in 10 minutes, in terms of buying power, than subsistence workers, such as the English mill workers that Fredrick Engels wrote about in 1844, earned in a 12-hour day. Or to put it another way, "each farmer (in the United States) in 2000 produced on average 12 times as much farm output per hour worked as a farmer did in 1950." In other words, to produce the same amount of output, less than 10% as many employees are needed in agriculture as was the case half a century ago. And that's only over the past 50 years. Go back 200 years or more, and the gains are even more dramatic. While agriculture, once the occupation of 90% of Americans, has particularly benefitted from technological changes that enhanced productivity, many other economic sectors have seen similar increases.

So how have gains in productivity affected government operations – law enforcement, for instance? How much more crime do today's police departments prevent, with how many fewer officers, compared to their pre-Industrial counterparts? In the mid 1700s, Europe was ruled by repressive monarchies, among them the decadent, corrupt, and widely despised regime of king Louis XVI in France and his Austrian queen Marie Antoinette. According to a documentary film about the Romantic poets that I've recently been watching, when the ancien regime was finally overthrown in the French Revolution in 1789, its capital of Paris had the largest police force in Europe relative to its civilian population, with one officer for every 545 civilian residents.

But lo and behold! Upon running the numbers, it seems that instead of one officer today doing what it would have taken many policemen to do in the 1780s, police efficiency, at least in San Francisco, has apparently regressed. With an estimated 2017 population of 874,227 and 1,971 full-duty officers in the SFPD, San Francisco has one cop for every 444 civilians. In other words, we are more policed than Paris was under the hated aristocracy in 1789!

Are today's police officers really less capable and competent than their 18th century counterparts even with modern forensics and so on to help them? That seems dubious. Perhaps we are burdened with so many more laws now, that it takes a bigger police force to keep us all compliant than it took to keep Marie Antoinette comfortably eating cake on the backs of the peasantry? Or perhaps cops and other government employees have indeed become more efficient, but rather than being channeled toward fighting crime, their greater productivity has made them more efficient at working the system – getting additional cops hired while inflating the salaries, benefits, and pensions of those on the force. Maybe a bit of both?