As I was gearing up to comment on a libertarian debate about the police, I realized that the post that started it is a perfect example of what we could call a “Hypothetical Debate Syndrome” a particularly vicious libertarian affliction.
Libertarians are probably more prone to suffering from it than followers of any other political ideology.
What makes HDS dangerous is its ease. You don’t have an argument? Call on the NAP! Once you did, we can all take a nap, because the conversation will not go much further. You have a complex moral problem? Simplify it to its core question, take a moralizing stand and you will not have to deal with it any more. Call anybody who is looking for a more nuanced approach to the question morally and intellectually flawed. Call them hypocrites. Claiming that your opponent is a hypocrite is easy. Dealing with the problems in a practical way and to design policies to prevent them is not.
The function of these arguments is either righteous or contrarian posturing. Quite often both at the same time. Open borders, sale of body parts would also be good examples.
Hypothetical debates work like diviner rods to identify the true ideologues. They also function as badges to demonstrate allegiance.
The Higgs quote is a perfect example of the problems with hypothetical arguments.
Let’s look at it once more:
- Every cop has agreed, as part of his job, to enforce laws; all of them.
2. Many of the laws are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked.
3. Therefore, every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer of laws that are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked.
There are no good cops.
Point one: Every cop has agreed, as part of his job, to enforce laws; all of them.
Cops do not ‘enforce the laws’, they are just one part of the machinery that does. They do not know ‘all the laws’, they are not lawyers. They are not supposed to know or to have informed opinion about ‘all laws’. The target of the cops’ actions is behaviour. They are trained and instructed to identify and control certain behaviours and activities until they can hand over the matter to other parts of the law enforcement apparatus. Cops do what they are told to do and passing judgment is only part of it to the extent of properly identifying the scope of the expectations on them. When the cops catch you red-handed, standing over the body of your victim with a bloody knife, they will still talk about you as the “alleged perpetrator”. They can witness you doing the crime and they will still refer to you the same way. The extent of this separation, the politically correct care that is put into ensuring that they are not the ones enforcing the law can quite often be outright ridiculous.
Cops are just the bluntest instruments of law enforcement. Prosecutors and judges play a far greater role in law enforcement than policemen do. Being arrested or even manhandled is nothing compared to being sent to prison for years. Judges and prison guards have the same deal with the system. They also enforce laws that can be ‘manifestly unjust’.
Can we say, should we say that “there are no good judges” or “there are no good prison guards”?
Point two: “Many of the laws are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked.”
Says who, and say what? What are the objective definitions of ‘cruel’ and ‘wicked’?
And what is ‘manifestly’ unjust? Who is supposed to formulate that? Each policeman on his own?
If not, than who? The Marxists? The Libertarians? The Muslims? Should each policeman pick his own preference? Some may think that laws allowing homosexuals to live is wicked because it is against divine law.
Should they be allowed to act on that ‘manifest injustice’?
Point three: “Therefore, every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer of laws that are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked”
What should we expect from them instead? To decide the merit of every law individually? Do we really expect them to be constitutional experts and philosophers as well? And how should it work in practice? How can we have any expectations if we can have no idea what to expect?
What should be the foundation of the morality of a policeman? When someone from the ghetto robs the house of the millionaires, should the Marxist policeman be excused from investigating it? For him, the poor man robbing the rich may be seen as ‘manifestly just’.
Should we really expect them to define what is ‘manifestly just’?
Should we expect policemen to specify ahead of time which laws are they willing to enforce?
I could easily go on with these silly questions of reduction ad absurdum, but I hope the point is clear.
It may also help to picture the problem talking about private security firms. Should a security guard also be allowed to make up his mind about which part of his contract to honor? Who can decide which clause of the contract is ‘manifestly unjust’?
A dangerous message
The point of the above is not to show how stupid the meme is, but to demonstrate the complexity behind the issue. The same level of complexity exists behind any of the similar libertarian issues.
The problem with reducing a complex issue into a sound-byte is that it invariably turns it into bad propaganda. Propaganda is the gross simplification of issues to rile strong emotions.
Contrarian, righteous attitudes are only good for revolutions. If we wish to have a healthy movement aimed at positive change, we cannot expect to build it with confrontational, contrarian messages.
Brought to its logical conclusion, the Higgs meme suggests total anarchy.
What offends me the most in quotes like this is the way they dismiss the need for, or even the possibility of serious discussions. Policing has serious problems, and the morality of the individual policemen is not the worst of them. I addressed those problems in my previous post – Good Cop, Bad Cop.
Dealing with the things that reward them for doing bad things is the only thing that can actually change them.
But that is not easy to turn into a catchy 3-pointer that we can stick next to a picture.