There is No Police Like Holmes: Sherlock Holmes, Libertarian Hero.
Free Market Justice by Gaslight.
It is axiomatic that whatever the state can do the private sector can do better, and this lesson is rarely illustrated better in literature than in the stories of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As it was said by Doyle’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, there is no police like Holmes. With the new Sherlock Holmes movie set to be released on Christmas day, we will no doubt see a resurgence of interest in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, movies and television programs. Viewers and fans would do well to note the prevalent anti-state themes that course through these stories like the famous cocaine through the veins of Holmes himself.
The relationship between Holmes and the official London police force showed the marked contrast between a skilled master and a team of public investigators usually barely maintaining the status quo at least a few steps behind the criminals. Scotland Yard reeked of a smug incompetence that amused Holmes, even as he gave them the credit in most cases. They were frequently on the wrong path, lecturing Holmes about him wasting time chasing his fancy theories which ended up being correct. While Inspector Lestrade and the rest were so easily duped by the scheming criminals, Holmes did what the police should have done, what they were getting paid tax payer money to do. In “The Case of the Red Circle” we even see that a constable on duty at a murder scene is easily manipulated by a housewife. Like so many other instances in real life, the private market yielded results where the public option brought errors, gridlock and confusion.
Holmes was a private consulting detective and the antithesis of a police officer, both then and now. His attitude and personality was that of a punk rock, bohemian, displaced country squire with artistic French blood as we learn in “The Case of the Greek Interpreter.”
Holmes’ clients came to him because they had no faith in the official police. They had no confidence in the system so they chose to enlist the services of a private consulting detective, the world’s first as he told Watson (though we do know that Holmes had his free market competitors, his “rivals” as they later came to be known).
Even the British Crown itself at the height of their wealth, power and international prowess sought out Holmes to have him sort out their problems when dealing with spies, thieves and others who had managed to outwit the entire public English establishment.
Indeed, it was Holmes the amateur who was able to, on his own accord, topple the international kingpin of crime Professor James Mortiarty whom the official state police force did not even know existed. But for Holmes “the work is it’s own reward,” and accolades from the government meant little to him. We know that in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” Holmes was offered a knighthood and refused it.
As one who strove for justice and peace, Holmes never let the state define what was right and wrong. He was led by his own inner conscience that was much more in touch with the reality of good and evil than any legislative bureaucrat or law enforcement office who always played by the book that the state itself wrote. Though he felt no greater joy than when triumphing over a wicked criminal, he also took the time to free those whom posed no threat to society, regardless of what the state would dictate. As Holmes reminds us in “The Adventures of the Three Gables” he represented not the law but justice.
Holmes let go numerous “criminals” because the state’s bureaucratic automatic policy of incarceration and punishment was antithetical to his vision of justice. For example we can look to Holmes freeing the killer Dr. Leon Sterndale from “The Devil’s Foot” as he reminds Watson that he acts independently from the police, and that their punishments are not his own. Holmes also refuses to prosecute a killer in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” because of the circumstances of the attack and the old age of the killer. In “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” Holmes lets a killer go free because of who the deceased was and the ways in which he had tormented his eventual killer. In “The Crooked Man” he releases a con artist on the grounds that he get a respectable job and scheme no more. We also see Holmes release the perpetrators in “The Adventure of the Priory School,” “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” “The Adventure of the Second Stain” and “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger.” Holmes did not think that he was the law or above the law, he simply defined and pursued law and justice apart from the definitions and directives of the state.
A great example of this is when Holmes also frees the thief James Ryder in the Christmas tale “The Adventure of Blue Carbuncle.” After Ryder begs Holmes for mercy, Holmes allows him to go free. Holmes then waxes eloquently on what has transpired, showing a remarkable grasp of the nature of incarceration. He tells how the state’s system that worsens and hardens citizens who have made a solitary and relatively harmless bad choice into career criminals:
I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony. But it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.
Here’s to hoping the the upcoming film posses the same inherent praise of justice and subtle contempt for the state that the original stories did.