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Before the nineteenth century, police weren’t really a thing. So why did cities start police departments when they did? Economists Douglas W. Allen and Yoram Barzel argue that we should give much of the credit, or blame, to the industrial revolution.

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Prior to the rise of factories, Allen and Barzel write, theft victims normally handled the issue privately. Under a centuries-old civil court system, an injured party normally found the alleged thieves themself and brought them before a privately owned court, which might require the offenders to pay restitution and court expenses.

To understand why law enforcement changed, Allen and Barzel point to transformation in commerce. As late as the early eighteenth century, manufacturers tended to bring their own products to markets. They relied on their reputations as artisans and customers’ ability to check out the merchandise.

The increased use of machines and the division of labor allowed for the production of standardized goods. Now, two or more parties could organize deals based on fairly objective information rather than relying on knowing each other’s reputations. At the same time, improvements in ships and roads made it easier to transport goods, which made standardization more desirable since it reduced the friction involved in long-distance transactions involving multiple parties.

Allen and Barzel write that this shift also radically enhanced opportunities for theft. For one thing, it got easier to sell fenced goods with relative anonymity. For another, it became much harder for producers to track down and identify a particular item of theirs that had been stolen.

Allen and Barzel argue that the legal system changed in response to property owners’ new needs. Generally, this meant turning things that were previously permissible, or merely civil offenses, into crimes. For example, in the early eighteenth century, it was a common and accepted practice for workers to “glean” scrap material from production sites and sell them elsewhere. But, over the course of the century, new laws redefined this as pilfering and allowed offenders to be sent to prison. Until 1799, a servant who took items received on behalf of their owner for their own use could be civilly prosecuted for breach of trust. But that year, it became a crime. And, over the course of the eighteenth century, possessing stolen goods went from no crime at all to an increasingly serious one.

The creation of so many new crimes required ramping up the public system for dealing with them. First, the small number of existing officials—constables, justices of the peace, and watchmen—were given increased authority. Then, in the nineteenth century, cities began setting up the first public police departments, which functioned largely to stop the theft of goods from factories, docks, and other sites of the new industrial economy.

By Allen and Barzel’s estimation, it was only with the rise of public police that this new economic system was able to emerge.

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Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, Vol. 27, No. 3 (October 2011), pp. 540–567
Oxford University Press