Why Good (Government) Police Cannot Exist

On Mar. 28, Julian Adorney published an article called “Resolved: Good Cops Do Exist” in which he argues that government police officers can not only be good people, but can produce a net benefit for society. In this rebuttal, I will attempt to show that this position is unsound on a point-by-point basis.

“Many libertarians argue that ‘good cop’ is a contradiction in terms, at least by the standards of the non-aggression principle. According to this position, any job that requires a person to aggress against his fellow citizens is bad for society. And every cop will probably be required, over the course of his or her career, to initiate force: to issue traffic tickets, to detain an innocent suspect, to apprehend someone for a nonviolent crime. So while individual police officers may be good people off the job (they have families, friends, people they care for), in their professional roles, they are necessarily bad for liberty.”

It is even worse than this. Even if a government police officer sits behind a desk and directly victimizes no one during his or her career, such a person is still receiving a paycheck that is funded by theft and slavery.

“This is a powerful argument, but it is too simplistic. The initiation of force isn’t the be-all and end-all when determining whether one is a good or bad police officer.

First, not everyone who initiates force is automatically immoral.”

The non-aggression principle is the litmus test for morality in libertarian philosophy, as the non-aggression principle is the essence of libertarianism. Establishing the validity of this principle is straightforward. Each person has the right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, as the act of arguing otherwise requires one to exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body, thereby creating a performative contradiction. If each person has the right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, then it is wrong for one person to initiate an interference with another person’s right to the same. Thus the non-aggression principle is logically proven for people. Private property rights also follow from exclusive control of one’s physical body, as they are one aspect of owning responsibility for one’s actions.

“Morality is at least partly determined by intentions, rather than results. A burglar is surely less moral than a drunkard who unintentionally stumbles into the wrong house. The facts of the case — unlawfully entering someone’s property — are the same, but intention makes all the difference.”

Morality is determined by the nature of one’s actions and whether they are compatible with objective moral rules, such as those that follow from the act of argumentation. In contrast, the author uses a consequentialist approach to morality. To refute this approach requires two steps.

First, let us consider determinism versus indeterminism. Determinism is the philosophical position that for every event, including human action, there exist conditions that could cause no other event. This implies that it is not possible to persuade others of one’s philosophical position, as strict determination of our actions (and therefore, our philosophical positions) would mean they were completely necessitated by past events beyond our present control, and therefore not alterable by argumentation. But the effort to persuade others of one’s philosophical position is part and parcel of rational argumentation. Thus, to argue for determinism is to try to convince someone that it is impossible to convince them of anything, which constitutes a performative contradiction. Therefore, indeterminism must be true.

There is one possible objection to this argument, and that is to maintain that free will is not a requirement for rationality because an arguer could be determined to persuade someone and the recipient of the argument could be determined to be persuaded. But if this were the case, then there would be no moral agency because there would be no ability to choose, which would mean that moral nihilism is true. This would also accomplish the purpose of defeating consequentialism, but it would also defeat every other normative ethical theory, so it will not do to stop here. Instead, we should note that objective moral rules follow from the act of argumentation, so arguing that there are no objective moral rules constitutes a performative contradiction. Thus, moral nihilism is false and the compatibilist objection to the argument against determinism is rebutted.

Now, we can disprove consequentialism. Consider two people who find themselves in identical situations and who take identical actions. Because of indeterminism, the future is not directly knowable by extrapolating from the past. Thus, the consequences may play out differently in each case. Regardless of one’s criteria for distinguishing good consequences from evil consequences, the situations may play out with good consequences in one situation and with evil consequences in the other situation. This means that the same action taken under the same circumstances can be both good and evil. This is a contradiction, therefore consequentialism is false.

“If cops give out traffic tickets because they believe that speeding kills people, we may try to change their minds. But we cannot fault their intention to make society safer, even when it manifests as forceful actions with which we may disagree.”

Of course we may fault their intention. If government police officers believe that speeding kills people and that this justifies murder threats against the citizenry, then they are making a positive claim which carries a burden of proof. If they do not fulfill said burden of proof but act upon it, then we may rightly fault them for acting in a logically irresponsible manner.

“Second, an officer who initiates force may still provide a net gain for his ‘customers’ (in this case, society at large). Imagine a cop hunting a serial killer. As part of her investigation, she pulls an innocent man in for questioning. Later, she also catches the serial killer. The cop clearly initiated force, but she also made society safer. One innocent man is worse off for having been detained and questioned, but thousands of people who live near the killer — unseen victims of his future crimes — are now safer. If she were employed by a private protection agency, the community that hired her would call this cop a hero and recognize the net benefits of her service.

This argument is admittedly utilitarian.”

As utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism and consequentialism has already been refuted above, utilitarianism fails a fortiori. But even within a utilitarian framework, it need not be the case that a community would recognize the officer’s actions as a net benefit. What was the innocent man prevented from doing with the time that he spent in questioning? Perhaps he was a scientist working on a critical research experiment which failed because he was not there, and now the world has lost a scientific breakthrough. Did the time spent questioning the innocent man prevent the cop from catching the killer earlier, thereby allowing the killer to murder more victims than he otherwise would have? Perhaps so.

“But if a company you hire for X service does something wrong, you would probably not immediately terminate the contract. Rather, you might weigh the wrong against the other good they do you, engaging in a consequentialist calculus to decide whether they provide value to you. We should apply the same analysis of trade-offs, not to police forces as a whole, but to individual officers.”

It depends on what that wrong is. If it is a matter of occasional human error, then one might forgive them and let them try again. If it is a matter of blatant incompetence, then one might be considering other options. But if it is a matter of violating absolute moral principles, then one would be justified in immediately terminating the contract and either finding a different provider, taking matters into one’s own hands, or doing without. One must also remember that there is no contract of employment here, at least not a valid one. Rather, agents of the state have used violence, threats, fear, and intimidation to monopolize police services.

“But are there actually cops who make society better? Many libertarians don’t think so. Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant secretary of the US Treasury, asserts that all police officers are ‘psychopaths.’ It’s common in libertarian circles to call the police ‘a gang of thieves.’ This argument fails to respect the inherent diversity in any profession.”

No, this argument respects the implications of becoming an agent of the state. There is no diversity in the fact that every person who has chosen to present oneself as a government police officer, the job description of which is to enforce the laws and to be paid from government coffers for doing so. To enforce the laws is to present a consistent threat to use as much force as necessary to stop a person who is known to be acting contrary to the whims of politicians. As some of the laws are contrary to the non-aggression principle, those laws are immoral. Thus, to become a government police officer is to choose to present a consistent threat to initiate the use of as much force as necessary to stop a person who is known to be breaking immoral laws, or in other words, acting morally. This violates the non-aggression principle and is therefore immoral by libertarian standards.

“In Thinking As a Science, Henry Hazlitt points out that when we think of a concept, our mental construction of the concept is limited to an amalgamation of specific examples we have encountered, experienced, or imagined. When I say the word ‘cop,’ you think of cops you have known, cops you have seen or read about, cops in a specific context. We can each think of the same word, but we are actually imagining vastly different individuals. I might imagine a man hunting violent gang members, while you might imagine a white cop killing a black person for a victimless crime.

Both of us are drawing on our unique experiences to assemble a mental concept. We are thinking of one cop, or a combination of some of those that we’ve met or heard of, and projecting our experience onto all 900,000 officers in the United States. Anyone asserting that there are no good cops, cops are psychopaths, or the opposite (all cops are saints), is making an unjustified assumption.”

Hazlitt’s argument is only valid for a posteriori thinking. A priori logic suffers no such limitations, and the statement that there are no good (government) cops is shown in the previous paragraph to be a priori true.

“Indeed, many of our individual concepts are skewed, because most people only ever hear about officers who behave badly. Heroic cops sometimes make the news, but their stories don’t go viral like videos of police brutality do. Additionally, most people don’t interact with police officers who are helping them — if you see those flashing lights in your rear-view window, you’re mentally gearing up to lose at least $150 for a traffic offense. That we are inundated with experiences and stories of bad police but not good ones gives us a skewed perspective when we’re creating our concept of the word ‘cop.’

That makes it easier to make sweeping statements like ‘cops are a gang of thieves.’ But it also means these assertions are unjustified.

Some critics go another route to argue that all police are bad: if there are good officers, they ask, why aren’t they out there denouncing bad cops? But the fact is that these whistleblowers already exist. Detective Joe Crystal testified against other officers in a misconduct case. Officer Regina Tasca pulled her abusive coworkers off of an unarmed 22-year-old they were punching.

It is not to the credit of the police that these two officers were punished for standing up to their brethren. Crystal found himself ‘a target of intimidation’ for his actions, and Tasca was fired. But most police who stand up to their fellows only make the news when they’re then punished: that story fits a pre-existing narrative that drives website traffic. A cop who reveals police corruption and stays on the force isn’t newsworthy, so we rarely hear about it.

None of this is to say that all cops are good. Many are abusive, bullying, or even racist. I hear stories every day of police engaging in appalling behavior. But the activities of bad police are becoming increasingly public, while heroic officers usually only make the local news.”

Confirmation bias is indeed something to be watchful for, but a few particular good deeds by a few particular people do not justify or atone for institutionalized evil. Only the perpetrators of said evil can atone for their misdeeds by renouncing their affiliation with the state and performing restitution for any acts of aggression that they have committed in the course of their careers.