Defending the Gunslinger

by Gareth Brickman

“Gunslinger” typically refers to the men of the Old West who gained a reputation for being skilled and dangerous with a gun. Among the ranks of these popular legends are outlaws and lawmen alike, although we know today that the line was often blurred, hence the enduring reputation of the gunslinger as an unpredictable and wily opportunist.

For the purposes of this article, however, I use “gunslinger” to refer to an armed man who offers the service of his presence and skills to protect a client’s material interests.

The Old West was no country for unarmed men, if Hollywood is to be believed. All manner of disputes, from accusations of cattle rustling and cardsharping to infidelity and the simple bar brawl, would be settled in the street with a guns-drawn duel. Reality, however, is far more banal and the “Wild” West was as orderly, if not more so, than contemporary society. The myth of anarchic chaos prevailing during this period of history most likely arises from popular legends surrounding the gunslingers of folklore rather than the way societies really functioned in places where state power was diluted or nonexistent.

In the Old West it was not out of place for most men to be heavily armed at all times. But even if most men were armed and state law enforcement existed, why would there be a demand for gunslingers as providers of security and protection? The gunslinger provides solutions to several problems:

First, he is willing to absorb the risks his employer would take trying to protect his material interests personally. He is more than a mere scarecrow; he is actively placing himself in the way of physical harm as a service to others. Yet the common revulsion against self-interest and the profit motive means he will not be called a hero for doing so, unlike his badge-bearing contemporaries in government.

Second, he is a specialist. The gunslinger, as his name implies, will probably be more skilled and accurate with a firearm than you are. From experience he will be more aware of, and more prepared to respond to, potentially dangerous people or situations. He spends his time focusing on security so his employer doesn’t have to. In these ways the gunslinger’s presence provides his employer with the peace of mind to focus his energies and attentions on other more desirable and productive endeavors.

Finally, the gunslinger actually acts in part for the broader, law-abiding community. By deterring criminal actions, or engaging against and halting criminal activity, he is defending the interests of the community as a whole at no additional expense to the people within it. Conversely, the government can only attempt to provide such services by requisitioning resources from the community forcefully.

But is there a place for gunslingers in modern society?

Few countries and places in the world have gun laws relaxed enough to even allow their own citizens to own weapons, let alone brandish them in public. Fortunately there is still private provision of security services, even in countries where the police are exceptionally well funded and crime rates are relatively low. Clearly then the market not only demands private security provision, but actually needs it to function.

The common reasons given for the failure of socialized policing to effectively protect citizens and property from criminals, and to apprehend said criminals, is that there is a dire lack of resources, training, and personnel. More funds and voluntary help from the public are constantly proposed as the means to fighting the scourge of crime.

Yet these same labor and resource factors hardly seem to hamper provision of services by the private security industry. In the United States, well over a million people are employed by it, and the industry has been steadily growing since the 1980s. In contrast, there are approximately 800,000 government police officers and their pay scales are more than double that of their private-sector counterparts. Lack of resources and trained personnel is a hollow excuse for why government policing is a failure. We must look at allocation of these factors to discover the problem.

The Austrian School of economics explains that one of the fundamental reasons why socialized provision of goods and services cannot compare with market provision is that governments are simply not capable of efficiently coordinating and allocating capital, labor, and resources.

Governments lack the incentives of market providers to control costs, meet the needs of clients, and keep track of what the competition is doing in order to maintain profitability. Failure to manage these matters in the private sector leads to losses and, ultimately, insolvency.

Governmental bureaucracies, on the other hand, are prone to waste and graft and only have political edicts as incentive to be efficient. The operators of socialized agencies only have their superiors’ requirements to meet, not the consumers’, and never have to be concerned with competition, making a profit, or performing under budget, all in the face of insolvency.

In short, because the revenue of bureaucracy is a matter of political allocation rather than customer allocation the incentives simply do not exist for government providers to perform nearly as efficiently and successfully as market providers.

Private providers offer a myriad of services and personnel to cater to the needs of clients and always have to be mindful of the quality of their service and the effectiveness of their pricing. From armed guards escorting valuables to unarmed guards patrolling property to armed responders who will reach your location in times of need within minutes, the private provision of protection is a vast network of specialized services that the government, even in wealthy nations, can scarcely compete with. And that is one of the secrets for success.

As Ludwig von Mises relates, “The only source from which an entrepreneur’s profits stem is his ability to anticipate better than other people the future demand of the consumers.” It is simply amazing then that, even in the face of vastly superior resources and a collective presupposition that a primary role of government is protection, the private sector not only manages to outperform but constantly outwit and outcompete the most formidable of competitors.

But where does all this leave the lone gunslinger? Things are looking up for him. Following the 2008 recession, employment in the private security industry has picked up again. The police state, having expanded ostensibly to thwart specters like drugs and terrorism, can no longer adequately meet the market’s needs for protection of person and property. And now that many indebted state and local governments are facing budget constraints, services are being cut back, basic policing among them. While government cops spend their time chasing ghosts and babysitting unarmed protesters, the market for protection slowly moves back into more capable hands.

In the classic Charles Portis western novel True Grit, a character observes, “The civilized arts of commerce do not flourish there.” He was referring to territories outside the authority of the government. Contrary to this opinion, it is a miracle that commerce flourishes anywhere near where the government has influence, but it’s thanks in part to the likes of the gunslinger that property rights are respected and the gears of commerce able to turn.

Gareth Brickman writes for the Ludwig von Mises Institute South Africa.