Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I got into an argument recently.

The argument was about whether an individual's judgment is better than a community's judgment. This friend of mine who I argued with is a self-described liberal. Who claims that the judgment of the community is more important than the rights of the individual.

It occurred to me afterward, I wish it had occurred to me then, that their stance is somewhat inconsistent when you consider their opinion on certain issues. Proposition 8, for example. They consider it a good thing Prop 8 was struck down. But they had also said, during the conversation, that it was okay for the community to decide on rules and laws that individuals didn't agree with and that as long as it was the will of the majority, it should be followed. Yet Proposition 8 was proposed and voted on in California. Where a majority of those who turned out to vote on the proposition decided they wanted it as law. So that was the will of the majority. That was the will of the community. The decision to try and overturn it is the will of individuals. The decision to try and claim it is unconstitutional is the judgment of an individual.

I generally trust an individual to have better judgment than a community, I'll be honest. At least when it comes to THEIR OWN LIFE. Not necessarily when it comes to what constitutes public policy and the public good. The truth is that if you fully embrace individual choice with no communal structure, what you have is anarchy. And if you fully embrace community with no individual choice, what you have is a machine dictating the lives of the people whose individual lives, devoid of choice, lack meaning.

There has to be a communal structure for people to co-exist on a larger scale. What that structure should be depends on the individuals involved in it. There have to be some rules people can agree on. Some areas that the communal structure - the system - that we can call government are responsible for. But what areas should the community be responsible for and what areas should an individual be responsible for?

If a farmer works hard, by himself, and has a surplus of his crop - more than he needs - he might decide to sell or trade some of his surplus to those who need it in exchange for something he needs or wants. In that way, he benefits from his efforts, his time, energy and resources he expended on growing those crops. If the community decides it's important to feed those who can't feed themselves, I believe the community should PURCHASE the excess from the farmer. Not take it. The community should not force charity. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

Moral reasons: Forcing someone to labor for others without being able to benefit from their efforts and without a choice in the matter is basically slavery. People have the right to benefit from their labor. They have the right to make certain choices when it comes to what to do with their life.

Practical reasons: Motivation. If the farmer knows he's not going to be allowed to keep the surplus, why would the farmer ever grow a surplus? Maybe some people would. But a lot of people won't spend their time, effort and other resources on something so labor-intensive if they can't in some way benefit from it. And if the farmer decides he's not going to make a surplus anymore, the community can't take a surplus that doesn't exist. So the only thing the community can do is suffer because now, instead of people being able to trade their goods and labor that the farmer may need to get the surplus, the community as a whole has less food. Unless the community decides it's okay to take what the farmer grew for himself. And leave the farmer without enough food to feed himself and his family. And when that sort of thing happens, it never ends well. History has shown that it never ends well. Best case scenario? The farmer decides "screw you guys, I'm going to take my stuff and leave" and the community loses all benefit from having the farmer at all. Worst case scenarios tend toward violence.

The US decided, ages ago, that US citizens should be subject to various forms of taxation. No matter where they are in the world. There are US citizens who have been living and working in foreign countries for years who are giving up their citizenship because they are being taxed to support a country they haven't seen in years, don't know if they will ever see again and which is spending its resources on things that in no way shape or form that they can see benefit them more than becoming a resident of the countries in which they live and labor. People do decide "I'm taking my stuff and going away. Screw you guys." You can't stop them from deciding that. Unless you want to try to force them into full on slavery. And there's no way to pretend it would be anything other than that.

That's not a strawman. That's not an exaggeration. Yes, it addresses the extremes of the spectrum. But we move further and further toward the extreme ends of the spectrum as long as we let one side keep pulling us in one direction. Unless you really truly believe, somehow, that the much-vaunted idea of the "community" is so perfect, that the people who make up the community are so perfect that such a thing could never happen. And if you believe that, go read your history books. It already has happened. It has happened before and it could happen again. Communities are not noble. Communities are built on self-interest. The choice, then, is which you would rather have. Individuals pursuing their self-interest? Or the community forcing individuals to bend to its self-interest even if it means giving up their rights?

I know which one I choose.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So, I've been in Europe and the United Kingdom for the past several weeks.

I'll keep this short. Before I left, I got into an argument with someone about the police. Now, I used to work for the police department. I tend to be pretty pro-cops. I do know that you have some bad cops. And that even good cops are just ordinary people doing the best they can under the circumstances and sometimes they lose control or they have a lapse in judgment. People screw up.

The other side basically attempted to say that cops are all bad and used all the stories that have been in the news about all the times cops have been found to have used excessive force or overstepped their bounds. I have a hard time figuring out what he was actually trying to say, mind you. Because he claimed he wasn't advocating the lack of a police force. That he even acknowledged the necessity of a police force. But kept going on about how cops are bad and cops shouldn't do these things.

Yes... and? Cops should not lose their temper. Ideally, they should always be aware of their surroundings and use proper judgment. And ideally there should be no bad cops. But we don't live in an ideal world and cops are still people. And you have some people who are going to abuse their authority no matter what. And you have people who are going to screw up from time to time. And when you're a cop, your screw-ups may have bigger consequences than those of the average person. But there's not exactly a "solution" to that problem. You train the cops the best you can and have oversight, investigations and disciplinary action when they step out of bounds. We have that. Of course, that doesn't work exactly the way some people would like it to since it sometimes clears cops of wrongdoing when some people believe they shouldn't be cleared. I'm not saying there aren't cases where a cop has been cleared when they shouldn't have been. But I AM saying this; if a cop is in a dark alley, responding to a call for assistance or pursuing a perp and sees someone holding something that looks like a weapon and that cop calls for the person to put it down and that person raises it pointing in the direction of the officer? The officer should fire. If the officer was close enough to discern whether or not it was a weapon and found it wasn't, that's different. But when the officer doesn't know? That officer's life is on the line. And not firing his weapon could mean his death. And an officer should be cleared in a situation like that.

An officer should be cleared in an investigation where he used his taser to gain compliance from a subject who is flailing about and resisting arrest in a manner that is likely to end up causing serious injury to the subject, the officer or bystanders. An officer should be cleared for using pepper spray on a violent drunk.

Now there are a million things an officer shouldn't be cleared for, too. But all these people insisting how bad cops are happen to be forgetting; the officer's job isn't just to arrest someone. It's to keep the peace and ensure the safety of themselves and the general public.

If you don't like the cops, do everyone a favor; before you start badmouthing them, at least have a coherent point to make. Don't just point at things they've done wrong over the years without an endpoint to your argument. If you think there should be no cops and it should be lawlessness, I vote we petition the US government to send you to some third world country where things are basically that way so you can live the kind of life you claim to want. If you just think we need to be more effective at oversight, investigation and discipline? Ok. I can grant that. But keep in mind we're also severely shorthanded in law enforcement in the US. We're trying not to let go of officers where we don't have to in a lot of places (though from what I've read lately, that may be changing). So how do you balance those priorities? The need to have officers out there is real and significant.