Robert Reich: 'Defund the Police' Means Moving From Social Control to Social Investment | Opinion

Some societies center on social control, others on social investment.

Social-control societies put substantial resources into police, prisons, surveillance, immigration enforcement and the military. Their purpose is to utilize fear, punishment and violence to maintain what they consider order.

Social-investment societies put more resources into health care, education, affordable housing, jobless benefits and children. Their purpose is to free people from the risks and anxieties of daily life and give everyone a fair shot at making it.

Donald Trump epitomizes the former. He calls himself the "law and order" president. He even wants to sic the military on Americans protesting police brutality.

Trump is really the culmination of 40 years of increasing social control in the United States and decreasing social investment.

Spending on policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017.

America now locks away 2.2 million people in prisons and jails. That's a 500 percent increase from 40 years ago. The nation now has the largest incarcerated population in the world.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has exploded. More people are now in ICE detention than ever in its history.

Total military spending in the U.S. has soared from $437 billion in 2003 to $935.8 billion this fiscal year.

The more that societies spend on social controls, the less they have left for social investment. More police mean fewer social services. This year, American taxpayers will spend $107.5 billion more on police than on public housing.

More prisons mean fewer dollars for education. In fact, America is now spending more money on prisons than on public schools. Fifteen states now spend $27,000 more per prisoner than they do per student.

As spending on controls has increased, spending on public assistance has shrunk. Fewer people are receiving food stamps. Outlays for public health have declined.

America can't even seem to find money to extend unemployment benefits during this pandemic.

The direction of cause-and-effect works the other way, too. As societies skimp on social investment, they turn to social controls to contain the anger and desperation of people who are marginalized and excluded.

The United States began as a control society. Slavery—America's original sin—depended on the harshest conceivable controls. Jim Crow wasn't much better.

But in the decades following World War II, the nation began inching toward social investment.

In 1954, the Supreme Court barred segregated schools and began investing in better education for all children. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Fair Housing Act of 1968 advanced equal opportunity. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 moved America toward more equal political rights.

Throughout these years, spending on health care and public assistance expanded and poverty diminished. The middle class burgeoned and inequality declined.

Then a backlash set in. America swung backward, from social investment to social control.

Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" that criminalized possession of illicit drugs for personal use. Since then, four times as many people have been arrested for possessing drugs as for selling them, and half of those arrested for possession have been charged with possessing marijuana for their own use.

Bill Clinton's Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 put 88,000 additional police on the streets and mandated life sentences for criminals convicted of a felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. This so-called "three strikes, you're out" law was replicated by many states. Clinton also abolished welfare.

Police Trump rally
Police officers march toward a crowd of Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Donald Trump held a campaign rally earlier on June 20. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

Why did America swing so sharply backward toward social control?

Part of the answer has to do with widening inequality. As the middle class collapsed and the ranks of the poor grew, those in power viewed social controls as cheaper than social investment, which would require additional taxes and massive redistribution.

Meanwhile, politicians used racism—from Nixon's "law and order" and Reagan's "welfare queens" to Trump's more overt racist memes—to deflect the anxieties of an increasingly overwhelmed white working class.

But as we've witnessed over the last weeks of protests and demonstrations, social controls are not sustainable. They require more and more oppressive means of containing people who stand up against the oppression.

In any event, the core of America's identity is not the whiteness of our skin or the uniformity of our ethnicity. It is the ideals we share, however imperfectly achieved.

Moving toward those ideals requires that we relinquish social control and renew our commitment to social investment.

For starters, defund the police and invest in our communities.

Robert B. Reich is an American political commentator, professor and author. He served in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Reich's latest book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own