Do the wealthy benefit more from government-provided security than the rest of us? 


Who benefits most from government-provided security, the wealthy or the less well-to- do?  Professor Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University, raises that  interesting issue in a recent article about taxation debates.

Walden says one of the “notions” that “support[s] a progressive tax system” (that is, one that “takes a larger percentage from high-income earners than it does from low-income individuals”) is the belief that higher income individuals “benefit more from services (like national defense and security) provided by the government.”

But, when you really think about it, isn’t it really the less well-to-do in our society, not the affluent, who most count upon government-provided security – especially with respect to crime and terrorism?

These days the wealthy can afford to insulate themselves from many risks, and they do so with gusto – often bypassing government in the process.  Readers may recall when I argued that encrypted phones create a social justice issue because they, in effect, transfer more risk to those with fewer financial resources than those who benefit from the sales of encrypted devices.

The wealthy, to include Apple executives enriched in large part by IPhone sales, can afford costly security technology as well as expensive physical security measures to protect them from whatever havoc terrorists or criminals enabled by encrypted communications may be able to visit upon the less fortunate of our society.  Those killed and injured at San Bernardino were working class people, not Silicon Valley billionaires with squads of body guards.  The public at large must depend upon law enforcement for protection, and its effectiveness is obviously impaired when even court orders won’t get them access to high-tech encrypted devices used by terrorism and criminal suspects.

Few dispute that the poor are more often the victims of crime, but the issue isn’t confined to just vulnerability to traditional criminality.  Internationally, we see that wealthy Iraqis and Syrians are using their financial resources to escape the ideological and sectarian conflict plaguing their war-torn countries.  Moreover, it’s long been known that it is frequently the poor who suffer the most from terrorism.

We also should appreciate how rapidly the world has changed with respect to how security services are delivered in many places.  In a fascinating new article about the explosive growth in the global private security industry, The Guardian reports that at “least half the world’s population lives in countries where there are more private security workers than public police officers.”

The Guardian notes as well that the “universal declaration of human rights” states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Governments, The Guardian maintains, “are required to work progressively towards realising these rights.”  It then adds this sobering observation:

But when private security enables the rich and even the middle class to bypass the state, this can intensify a country’s inequalities.  Regarding the expansion of private security in Latin America, the UN Development Programme has warned: “This phenomenon further increases inequality, as social groups have different capacities to deal with crime.”

To be clear, none of my comments are meant to suggest that the rich should pay less taxes (because they are already caring for much of their own needs through private security); quite the opposite, I simply believe the argument for their taxation is more convincingly made when social justice and the long-term stability of the community writ large is included in the dialogue.   

Contending that the rich need publicly-funded security for their own, near-term personal safety more than other groups may not resonate in the way some apparently think.  Indeed, such an argument may induce the wealthy to conclude that for other than some high-end, nation-state threats (and maybe not even then), they can better and more efficiently buy their security privately than to contribute to the commonweal via taxes.

The truth is we all benefit from strong, well-resourced security services, but a just and honorable society must never forget that it’s the poor and defenseless among us who are most dependent upon government to protect them.



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