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The sometimes surprising move to privatize

Razor wire has been in the news recently.

In early November, it was installed to great fanfare by active-duty troops deployed along the Mexican border. Just a few weeks earlier, Albuquerque business owners were granted a two-year reprieve from an ordinance prohibiting its use in non-industrial areas.

Robert Vick, owner of the Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen on East Central, explained to a Journal reporter that businesses need to protect their property “when the city can’t do that at this point.”

Business owners in the corridor just east of Nob Hill have formed the Highland United Business district, or HUB66, in an attempt to organize a concerted response to problems ranging from the setting of fires to the theft of electricity. Attorney Elizabeth Vencill, who once found a blue tent set up by the people camping on her office roof, told ABQReport: “We have to face the fact that there are not enough police officers” to protect the property of business owners.

I suspect there are few business owners anywhere in Albuquerque who rely entirely on public services for protection. Despite recent encouraging trends, Albuquerque remains the crime leader of the urban Southwest. Commentator Bruce Schneier famously said, “Security is a tax on the honest,” and the reality is that business owners all across Albuquerque pay the tax, some with military-grade perimeter barriers and others with more discreet alarm systems and other forms of target hardening.

But more is going on than property owners spending money to protect their property. Money spent on security is a precise dollar measure of the extent to which our government fails to provide an essential public service – indeed, the most essential service of all, the one on which everything else that is good in life depends.

Sometimes, changes happen so gradually they’re almost impossible to notice. That’s true of the privatization of public safety. Over time, we’ve simply gotten used to the idea that if you want to be safe in Albuquerque, you need to spend money to fortify your business. Keypad entries, surveillance cameras, automatic gates, alarm systems, private security guards – how ordinary it all seems.

The blunt truth is that if you have the money to live in a gated community behind stout doors with active security measures, you can be safe in Albuquerque. But the burden – the extra security tax – is paid by the individual, above and beyond the ordinary taxes we all pay. That’s a major reason why the risk of criminal victimization is inversely related to income. In Albuquerque, safety is something you have to buy.

It’s not only with respect to crime that the provision of justice has become surprisingly privatized. The number of alternative dispute resolution, or ADR, systems continues to proliferate. All of them promise speedier, cheaper and more reliable services than our courts. It’s difficult to keep track of all the options out there, all of them paid for by private funds, above and beyond the tax burden.

When I started in the profession, ADR came in only two flavors, mediation (which is a bit like therapy, in which a mediator allows the disputants to vent and then coaxes them to settle their differences) and arbitration (in which a private judge hears evidence and imposes a settlement).

Now, a hot new thing is “mandatory mediation,” a hybrid in which the disputants are allowed to vent, but if they remain stubborn the mediator undergoes a transformation and turns into an arbitrator, imposing a settlement. Kind of “be reasonable… or else.”

A recent article in a State Bar publication extolled mandatory mediation’s freedom from rules. “The mediator is not governed by” the rules that regulate ordinary mediation, and instead “is free to follow whatever process he/she chooses…”

Despite the novelty of the moniker, it’s a time-tested method for dispute resolution. Our ancestors used it for thousands of years, as they took their quarrels to the clan elder in the back of the cave. “Pre-law” is usually used to describe a course of undergraduate study, but it also describes mandatory mediation.

Some industries are sufficiently large and organized to provide what amounts to in-house ADR. The Greater Albuquerque Association of Realtors offers a variety of services, ranging from ethics complaints to arbitration, without charge to the consumer. (Well, without direct charge.)

You have to file within 180 days, and you have to trust in the procedure’s fairness before committing to arbitration, but as reader Steve Quintana points out, an ethics complaint provides a useful and inexpensive way to gather information about a potential claim before filing a lawsuit.