All Commentary
Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How Markets and Technology Made Us Safer

Where there's demand, the market will supply

“With the watch I feel like I could easily make an emergency phone call if I felt threatened on the street,” writes a woman in praise of the new Apple Watch. There’s no more digging around in her purse and coming up with a bottle of lotion instead. If she needs directions, she doesn’t need to walk staring at a device. This watch provides directions through left and right buzzes to the wrist.

Further, she writes, she can call for a ride in an instant in late-night situations if she is worried about the sobriety of her scheduled driver.

All of this is more helpful than mace — which is illegal in some states, anyway — and amounts to a much safer life.

There were two takeaways for me from her comments. First, women have a special reason to be concerned for their own safety and there is very little that government can do to help them on a practical level, as women well know. Second, technology is providing the answers to the demand for security, one device at a time.

People do not often think about the many ways in which private markets and entrepreneurial innovation are actually achieving what government fundamentally promises to give us. Alarm systems, security guards, retail locks, monitoring devices, mobile applications, localized video, and constant connectivity — on the margins, these have done more than more cops, courts, and jails could ever do to make the world safer for all of us.

And there is no question that violence of all sorts is falling dramatically. Homicides are down. Assault is down. Rape is down. Property crimes are down. Also, this is a global trend.

People have all kinds of theories. More people in prison. Aging population. More cops. Better cops. Better data. More guns. More abortions. Falling drug use. Growing economies. Fewer gangs. Psychiatric meds. Unleaded gasoline. And so on. Determining cause and effect here is darn near impossible.

But let’s reflect on our own lives. Many of these theories overlook the incredibly obvious. In the twenty years of this trend, technology has made stealing, mugging, and killing far more difficult.

We all walk around these days with an instant connection to the world. Our whereabouts can be known with a click. We have car alarms, house alarms, surveillance on commercial property and residences. Lots of new apartment complexes — not just for the rich — are hypersensitive on security, requiring layers upon layers to get in. The typical urban apartment these days would be a great spot for the Hope Diamond.

Smartphones have been a security boom. We all carry real-time, globally-broadcasting movie makers in our pockets. It’s pretty much true that nothing can happen anymore, anywhere that can’t potentially be instantly seen by the whole world. All of life, and every corner of it, can be a motion picture for the world to see. A location device permits anyone to find us in minutes.

The Economist notes in passing:

Jan van Dijk, a criminologist based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, points out that in the 1950s and 1960s millions of people across the Western world acquired cars, televisions, record players, jewellery and so on for the first time; rich pickins for those who would steal them.

In the decades since, those same people have added burglar alarms, window locks and safe deposit boxes. Between 1995 and 2011, the proportion of British households with burglar alarms increased by half, to 29%. And some things once worth stealing from people’s homes have become less valuable. There is little point in burgling a house to steal a DVD player worth $30.

Shops have invested heavily in security, installing clever gates and tags to deter shoplifters and employing ever more guards.

In fact, private security is booming in many places. The number of guards employed in Europe has increased by 90% over the past decade, and they now outnumber police officers. Security vans are now harder to knock off and are often followed by police cars. Fewer businesses handle lots of cash. Those that do keep less on the premises.

It’s not just that the technology makes crime more difficult. It’s that it enhances the likelihood of being caught due to the technology, and hence being shamed forever. Crowed-sourced crime solving is all the rage, as independent reporters investigate every scrap of social media available. Restaurant owners regularly use social media warn each other about scam artists and dine-and-dashers.

The frenzy surrounding the kayak-hacking bride-to-be is another great example. There is nothing private about the accused’s life. That she posted an image of herself doing a cartwheel after her fiance’s death was a clue.

Social media in general has dramatically enhanced the sense of personal accountability, and we all know this.

In movies in the 1950s, criminals would drive across state lines and disappear. This is laughable now. A big nose and glasses mean nothing when it becomes impossible to eat, use a cash machine, or find a place to stay without coughing up a traceable identity. Forget taking a flight. And the instant anyone is caught in a crime, the whole world of the press has access to everything from Instagram to LinkedIn. Even ancient MySpace accounts never go away.

All these features of privately-provided technological advance have create a world in which crime is either extremely difficult, extremely risky, or extremely costly. All of this adds up to a force far more powerful than police: the free market bringing to people the security they desire and are willing to pay for.

Yes, the state is ultimately the backstop for prosecuting (a fraction of) criminals, and it often employs these innovations itself. But consider where this technology came from. It is generated out of the free space of entrepreneurial creativity, a sphere of invention that can constantly adapt to better ways of doing things, and do so not through central planning but through the process of social learning.

Are we really supposed to believe, even in our own time, that the state is the best provider of security and that the market fails in this respect? Please.

The old wisdom contrasted the demands for security vs. the need for freedom. We have to make a tradeoff, we’ve always been told. We need to give up some freedom in order to be more secure. Or, if we want freedom, we have to live with a kind of pervasive fear — a jungle, a war of all against all.

This is a false choice. What we are learning is that freedom and security go hand in hand. It’s freedom that allows the market to work to our benefit in all areas of life, including that which makes us safer and more mobile in a society that is as nonviolent as possible.

Just a few weeks ago, the world was introduced to a wrist-based device that allows us to instantly order a burrito, call a cab, check your pulse, and even sent it peer-to-peer to anyone, post on Facebook or Instagram, or tweet a note to the globe. Yes, such things make us all much safer, and happier.

Security is a universal human demand, and where’s there’s demand, there is a market to supply.