Thursday, December 4, 2014

Actually, It's About Ethics in Politics

Exodus 20:13 (KJV) Thou shalt not kill.

That's a pretty good guideline, as far as these things go. It's pretty tough to have a prosperous, civil society if everyone's runnin' around a-killin' everyone else. Still, even though Exodus 20 is called a list of "commandments," I think on closer inspection, most folks would admit that they're more like "guidelines" or "presumptions." There should be a (strong) presumption against killing, but you probably don't have to strain yourself to find examples of where you'd be willing, if not eager to kill.

Me? I'd kill to protect the lives of myself or my family. I might even kill to protect the lives of strangers (depending on the context, naturally). I think I'd kill to defend my property, as a last resort. I'd kill to stop an assault under the right circumstances. I'd kill to stop a rape. I'd kill to stop an arsonist before he could light a populated building on fire. Maybe I don't have the most perfectly refined sense of lethal propriety, but I flatter myself that when I'm at my most pensive and reflective, that I could answer hypothetical deadly force scenarios to the satisfaction of a jury of my peers.

So that's why I'm puzzled about people who agitate for greater regulation, greater interference with the affairs of the public. Unless a citizen is a member of a protected class (police, firefighter, politician, plutocrat, &al), an encounter, any encounter with a police officer—on duty or off, armed or not—is potentially fatal.

So it occurs to me that there are at least three ways to reduce the probability that you will be killed by a member of the domestic security forces.
  1. Alter your behavior and appearance during a police encounter.
  2. Modify the temperament of the officers on duty.
  3. Adjust the institutional incentives that guardians of the peace face on the clock.
To avoid becoming a buried statistic (the FBI does not collect crime data on officer-caused fatalities): you can be white, you can dress professionally, you can fawn, and if you're really skilled, you can lawyer up. But what you as an individual in a police encounter cannot do is control the behavior of the responding officer. As in any other interaction, the only person's actions you can control is your own. In the morning, put on a suit and a tie. Do not flash gang signs. Do not be Arabic. Do not be African-American. Do not be poor. Do not be a woman, unless you are a pretty white woman. If you are a pretty white woman, do not be underage. Be a judge or a district attorney. Be Ted Kennedy. There's plenty you can reasonably do to make yourself a less-attractive target.

Another way of reducing the probability of fatal encounters with police is to make them behave. This is where much of the current discussion lies. Police should have more training, they should be less racist, they should wear cameras, &c &c. This is certainly true, as far as things go. I'd like a set of institutions that swiftly punishes rogue cops, that refuses to shield bad behavior, that exposes and eliminates fraud, corruption, and abuse. I think it'd be pretty cool to have not only the letter but the spirit of Amendments 4-6 (also 8-10 and 14, but let's not get ahead of ourselves) respected in the several legislatures and in the neighborhoods of America. Unfortunately for the squealing little social planner that still keeps camp deep in my belly, I'm extremely skeptical that there exist sufficiently effective tools to dispel the foibles that dwell in the breasts of officers of the law, since they are still unavoidably human. Remember that there are no solutions, only tradeoffs, and if the selection filters for hiring cops are more restrictive, police payrolls have to rise to compensate. This might be an acceptable tradeoff, so long as there's evidence that it can work. I'm skeptical that it can work. I'd love to be proven wrong.

I got called out on Twitter yesterday for point #3:
It's true, I was eliding the several root and proximate causes that concatenate to result in police oppression. There are racist cops. There are Milgram effects. There are good-vs-evil tropes that move between fiction and fact. There are ordinary plain-vanilla mistakes made in the chaos and tumult of an ordinary day as a beat cop. The reason I focus on the formal rules spilling out of the legislature is because that's the one margin I see as at all malleable. No institutional reforms can reach inside cops' minds and pluck out racial or class animus and send it off to the incinerator to be safely converted to ash. No genie is going to swish o'er the land and lighten the complexion of the descendants of chattel slaves. No social conservative playing at Grand Planner will force by will alone the waistlines of teenagers' trousers to rise to the God-decreed appropriate sub-navel altitude. Some social "choices" are fantasy, through and through. I find it odd that otherwise mature thinkers would believe that ingrained human preferences are so easily malleable by the tender ministrations of the more enlightened among us.

I choo-choo-choose you, omnibus reform. I accept as given that cops are ordinary humans, subject to the same psychological limitations, the same biases, the same faults as any other human. I accept as given that citizens can't wish themselves rich, or white, or privileged (though it is my sincere hope that someday, the privilege I enjoy will be extended to others). I accept that some margins are costly to move. Punitive cigarette tax statutes are not on a costly margin. Every niggling little ordinance that curtails the freedom of nonviolent association, or protects a politically valuable cartel, or armors influential constituents against everyone else necessarily implies the use of potentially lethal force against violators. You break a hair-braiding licensing requirement, you can expect your salon to be raided by armed cops. You grow a few prohibited plants in your house, you can expect SWAT agents to toss a flash-bang into a crib. That's the deal, that's exactly, precisely what a law does: it empowers enforcement agents to enforce it.

So. So, yes, I'm willing to kill. I'm willing to kill when I think it's justified. So that's why when I support legislation to curtail some sorts of behavior, I think long and hard whether the thing I wish to prevent is worth killing for.

Selling loose cigarettes on the street? Nah, not so much.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?