David R. Henderson  

Boston: Centralization vs. Friedrich Hayek and Jane Jacobs

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The Massachusetts' governor's response to one murderer being at large was to shut down an entire large city--de facto, martial law. Various commenters have said that he "asked" people to stay in their homes. That might be literally true. But then we need to ask ourselves: what if someone had gone out on the street, walking or driving? Would that person have been confident that he would not have treated pretty roughly by the cops, maybe even tackled to the ground or even shot? I think not. Look at what happened in southern California when cop-killer Chris Dorner was at large. Police shot innocent people because their vehicles looked like Dorner's. Many of the cops acted like a bunch of thugs. Can we really believe that many of the Boston cops would not have acted like a bunch of thugs?

And here's the irony: besides the fact that the authorities in Massachusetts delivered a body blow to freedom, IT DIDN'T WORK. They didn't find the suspect.

What did work? Citizens acting in a decentralized way, once the lockdown was lifted. Here's Boston.com:

By 6 p.m., frustrated officials relaxed the rule and allowed residents to leave their homes. The people of Watertown began to venture outside.

But within an hour, the crack of gunshots again blasted through the neighborhood. ­Sirens blared, and officers on foot scrambled down Franklin Street.

Police found Dzhokhar ­Tsarnaev hiding on a boat stored in a backyard on ­Franklin Street. Police ­exchanged gunfire with him before capturing him alive. Spontaneous celebrations erupted across the region, from the ­Boston Common to the Back Bay streets near the bombing.

The boat's owners, a couple, spent Friday hunkered down under the stay-at-home order. When it was lifted early in the evening, they ventured outside for some fresh air and the man noticed the tarp on his boat blowing in the wind, according to their his son, Robert Duffy.

The cords securing it had been cut and there was blood near the straps. Duffy's father called police, who swarmed the yard and had the couple evacuated, Duffy said.


This is not unusual. It illustrates the late Jane Jacobs' insight, in The Death and Life of American Cities, about "eyes on the street" being important for keeping crime in check and it illustrates Hayek's point, in "The Use of Knowledge in Society," about the importance of decentralized information. Although Hayek never used his insight to discuss these issues, I have. [See here and the links therein.]

Here's how blogger "Clark" put it succinctly:

[K]eeping citizens off the street meant that 99% of the eyes and brains that might solve a crime were being wasted. Eric S Raymond famously said that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". It was thousands of citizen photographs that helped break this case, and it was a citizen who found the second bomber. Yes, that's right - it wasn't until the stupid lock-down was ended that a citizen found the second murderer.

That's the irony. Here's the absurdity:
Law enforcement asked Dunkin' Donuts to keep restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide... food to police... including in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect.

This is NOT from the Onion, but, again, from Boston.com.

HT to Less Antman.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Anonymous writes:

I walked around Boston and Cambridge with my wife for several hours that day, and none of the police ever bothered us about it. In general, though, the "lockdown" seemed to be remarkably effective, as most of the other people still on the streets were either police or homeless.

Philo writes:

A great post. Too bad such thoughts are seldom expressed by the mainstream press.

John V writes:

Good article.

I agree with the spirit of the point. However, one must wonder if...IF...the lack of a lockdown would have created enough distraction for the bomber to escape. OTOH, the lack of a lockdown might have led to a quicker discovery of the young man in a crowded area...thereby risking further injury and death to innocent bystanders as the young man uses the crowds to his advantage in a stand off with authorities.

Again, it's all just speculation. There's no real way to know what would have happened depending on the circumstances of the boy's discovery.

Nick writes:

Interesting post. But there is one important thing here: benefits vs costs. If the costs are similar, I agree that "decentralization" would be better. But in the case of Boston, the 2nd suspect was highly dangerous. His elder brother had some explosive-triggering devices with him and we did not know whether it was also the case with the 2nd suspect. Ex ante, this could impose a huge cost (talking about people's lives) if we keep the "decentralization".

David N writes:

I'm sympathetic to this argument and agree there was some overreaction (closing the airspace?) but there's some hindsight bias at play here. The police expected to encounter a suspect armed with guns and explosives, to possibly have access to a cache of bombs in the area, etc. More than just a typical "murderer at large." I can't sit in my armchair and say that keeping citizens off the field during the search was the wrong call. Yes, it didn't work, this time.

There was wide public acceptance of the extraordinary calls to "shelter in place," but we both don't know what the level of noncompliance was. There were reports of people "sneaking out" to get food, coffee, etc. And apparently no residents were injured by police. so perhaps we shouldn't tar Massachusetts police with the LAPD brush.

Ken B writes:

I cannot quite believe how many of my friends thought the lockdown justified and prudent. To me it is insane, and it fails even on its own terms: it impeded catching the guy, and by creating an incentive -- cripple a whole city -- fails as a safety measure. As a cherry on top no Miranda.

I thought the lefties at Salon were crying wolf when they warned of the reaction should this prove to be a jihadist attack. They were not; mea culpa.

Daublin writes:

Continuing the Hayek insights, there's a seen and unseen aspect to this episode.

What is seen is the two criminals, the police activity, and--for any one citizen--what goes on in one's own home. What goes unseen is what happens with the millions of other people living in the Boston region.

As a result, the costs and benefits we mentally balance are those of the danger of those criminals, versus the loss to one single household for staying home. On those terms, the tradeoff looks reasonable.

Factor in the unseen, and it's not reasonable at all. You have to multiply the loss to a household by the number of affected households. If the tradeoff was close for one household, it must be wildly out of balance when you multiply by the thousands of households affected.

F. Lnyx Pardinus writes:

"Eric S Raymond famously said that 'given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow'."

Djokhar Tsarnaev was armed with guns, bombs, and a willingness to kill civilians. It's only with hindsight that we know that he had been gravely injured. It was (justifiably) feared that a distributed civilian search would look less like computer bug finding and more like the scene in 2008's Rambo where Burmese soldiers make the Karen tribesmen run through a landmine-filled paddy.

BC writes:

"But then we need to ask ourselves: what if someone had gone out on the street, walking or driving? Would that person have been confident that he would not have treated pretty roughly by the cops, maybe even tackled to the ground or even shot?"

Actually, there were some people walking around (not in the immediate vicinity of the search, in the rest of the city that was part of the "shelter-in-place advisory"). They were interviewed on the TV news and were not harassed by police. As someone who lives in Boston, I can say that the overwhelming sentiment among residents was to try to help police in anyway that we could. The governor asked us to help by staying in our homes --- asked in the true sense, not in the Obama-sense of "asking" the wealthy to pay more in taxes, for example --- and we for the most part complied, voluntarily. The city-wide "shutdown" was, in fact, the result of decentralized decision-making at the individual level, and the near-100% compliance is evidence that such decentralized decision-making need not lead to chaos, contrary to what proponents of a compulsory shutdown, for example, might assert.

Your point that Suspect 2 might have been found earlier had residents in the search area been free to roam about may have some merit, although I think that needs to be balanced against the possibility that those same residents could inadvertently interfere with law enforcement's efforts.

The idea, though, that the entire city was under some sort of defacto martial law is incorrect. Before we can ask whether the "shutdown" was an over-reaction, we must first ask who was reacting. In this case, individual residents were the ones reacting, through their decisions about whether to stay indoors. The government simply informed us about the actions that they thought would help them. "Over-reaction" in this case would mean "too willing to voluntarily sacrifice one's own convenience to help law enforcement", hardly a sin. That's a quite different form of over-reaction than, say, being too willing to sacrifice one's neighbor's convenience and freedom of movement by supporting legislation to grant the governor standing authority to order a compulsory shutdown, for example. It's like the difference between spending one's own money to help the poor vs. spending someone else's money to help the poor.

A similar issue arose when the governor lifted the shutdown in the evening. Some reporters questioned the wisdom, from a safety standpoint, of lifting the shutdown, given that Suspect 2 had not yet been captured at the time. However, no one was ordering residents to leave their homes. Anyone that felt unsafe was free to stay indoors. The governor was simply informing us that it was no longer necessary to stay indoors to stay out of law enforcement's way. They also informed us that Suspect 2 was still at-large, so that residents could make an informed decision about whether or not to stay indoors.

These active-vs-passive voice distinctions around who was making decisions vs. being ordered are subtle yet significant. In fact, it's usually those that advocate or are less sensitive to government overreach that are the ones that blur the lines. Those of us that appreciate the dangers of over-reaction, over-centralization, and granting government too much power in the name of security should be careful to not blur the lines ourselves.

Jeff writes:

To echo some other people above, it's also possible that having more people on the street would have led to an increased likelihood of a hostage situation developing. I'm inclined to cut the authorities a bit of slack on this one.

Jon writes:

This is a continuation on a city-wide scale of the lock-down mentality that goes on in our schools and leads to such horrific scenes of slaughter as students, boxed into closed spaces and cut off from everyone else hiding behind their door, get mowed down by gun men.

Compare this to giving teachers a duty of care and the training to don a bulletproof vest and take down the assailant--history has shown that first responders take long enough that 30 or more kids will be shot before the slaughter stops.

Isn't this a similar lesson we learned on. 9/11 and with the shoe bomber?

Tom West writes:

Compare this to giving teachers a duty of care and the training to don a bulletproof vest and take down the assailant

Wow. Just wow.

Strange that the rest of the industrialized world favors gun control when we could just militarize all our public servants.

David R. Henderson writes:

@BC,
Thanks for your information. I had assumed that people would be putting themselves at risk from the cops. I'm still not sure I'm wrong, especially for Watertown, but if I am, then much of my analysis falls apart.

BC writes:

@DH, you might be right with respect to the search area in Watertown. I was talking about the broader city-wide area, far from the search area.

WT writes:

And here's the irony: besides the fact that the authorities in Massachusetts delivered a body blow to freedom, IT DIDN'T WORK. They didn't find the suspect. What did work? Citizens acting in a decentralized way, once the lockdown was lifted.

Yes . . . , but, if there hadn't been a lockdown, he could have just driven out of Boston, down to New York, and disappeared. probably for good.

David Friedman writes:

I could be mistaken, but I am pretty sure that the quote attributed to Eric Raymond is actually one he attributed to Linus Torvalds.

As someone noted, they ignore the "unseen" tradeoffs. This may have lead to deaths since it kept people from seeing doctors who didn't feel their minor symptoms warranted the risk (or their doctor was closed). Some may have died because their problem was more serious than they realized (my sister died at few years ago of something she and her husband dismissed as not being worth going to a hospital for, even without a city lockdown to discourage it).

Someone poor who was prevented from working that day for hourly wages similarly might put off a doctor visit since they are short of cash.. and might wind up dying because of it.

Russell Hanneken writes:

@David Friedman, re the quote "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

Eric Raymond said it, and he did not attribute it to Linus Torvalds. However, he offered it as a way of characterizing Linus Torvalds' approach to software development, and he even went so far as to name the principle "Linus' Law."

Arthur_500 writes:

To be fair our police act the same way the world over. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A number of years ago our local police department had a study done, the conclusion of which stated that the police could be more effective if they worked with the community. the Police Chief stated that all his career the attitude was to get out of the way so they could do their job and this was "new."

Utilizing the assets available to you is not new or earth-shattering. We decry discrimination as it cuts out human assets that can be useful. However, Police feel that if everyone were in jail then only the bad guys would be on the street.

One person interviewed that day on NPR stated that he was going to go for his daily run but decided that with all the police toting automatic weapons he had better not.

Obviously there was concern that this individual was dangerous. he hit his brother with a car and had sustained wounds in a gunfight. Who knows what someone dangerous might have done. It is nice to ask people for their cooperation and prudent for people to stay out of the way but what I saw on TV was what scares the living daylights out of me. Gestapo with unlimited funds.

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