Cops and Attitudes and Control, Oh My

Analogies are everywhere; sometimes, mundane events can provide surprising insights into tangentially related phenomena. Recently the daily commute to work has had me thinking about cops, since it's the season when crews bloom along the roadside to fill in potholes, trim branches, or repair damaged utility lines. There's almost always a cop directing traffic at the scene, or watching as cars crawl past. Why is it that traffic cops seem to think it should be easy to interpret some of the bewildering gestures they make? 'Stop' is usually obvious, fortunately. 'There's a bee flying around my head' isn't, and the cop who waves at a familiar face may forget that people in other cars are trying to decipher his every wrist movement.

One morning I drove past a road crew, with a cop standing around looking bored ' there wasn't much traffic, and his presence was probably only required due to the all-knowing beneficence of some highway planning board. I apprehended an openly hostile, vagrant thought proceeding in his direction: something like, 'well ' there's a fine waste of tax dollars.' I scolded myself, though: after all, he's a human being; maybe he's a decent fellow, and my readiness to draw conclusions about his character is unfounded. He didn't aim a radar gun at me, or DO anything other than stand there as I went by: Is that enough to piss me off?

Admittedly, there's something about badges and uniforms that attract human qualities that I just don't care for: a proclivity to follow orders; a militaristic mindset that relies heavily on the threat or use of force to conjure an illusion of respect; often a sense of superiority that accompanies the possession of brute force and enough moral ambivalence to use it without much hesitation. Wouldn't it be nice, I asked myself, if cops actually allowed us to be safer, instead of being one of the chief threats a citizen encounters in everyday life? Wouldn't it be nice if the courts and judges served some genuine standard of justice, instead of making injustice appear progressively more legitimate and normal?

I know cops aren't necessarily bad people; they work for a living, and it's got to be a tough job. Problems arise because police work for the state: They follow the orders their employer gives them, or lose their jobs. The state is interested primarily in revenue and control: As a result, cops have speeding ticket quotas to meet, and civilians may be pulled over for not wearing seat belts; as if that should be anyone else's business. A cop may feel obliged to bust people for behaviors that neither he nor they consider criminal; the criminal probably won't be afraid of him, while the law-abiding citizen is likely to be intimidated. How many cops grasp the fact that there's something seriously wrong with that picture? Hopefully, some do.

As a human, I'd like to view the police with the same type of respect and appreciation as the plumber, the electrician, the ambulance driver, or anyone else who might respond to an emergency situation. The difference, of course, is that I pay the plumber when I need his services, and he treats me with respect; he's an ordinary person doing his job, and we both benefit from the arrangement. The police are paid regardless of my need or desire for their services with tax money that is taken from me involuntarily; they do not account to me for their services, most of which I didn't desire and fail to appreciate, and if I do need them someday, I can only hope they show up.

On another morning's commute, I encountered a traffic jam at a complex intersection where traffic normally flows freely. There was, naturally, a cop in the midst of it ' for no apparent reason ' and cars sitting bumper to bumper in all directions. Not to fault the cop for doing his job, but it was the worst snarl I'd ever seen at an intersection that I drive through at least twice a day. Do I think I could have done a better job? No, absolutely not! He was thrust into the unenviable position of playing surrogate decision maker for every one of the hundreds or thousands of drivers that entered that intersection from multiple directions. There are certainly situations where someone needs to direct traffic, but this did not appear to be one of those.

The scene struck me as a good analogy for the free market as it could work ' there he was, awkwardly creating a royal mess of the intersection, and it would have functioned better without him, although mishap was a possibility in any event. Instead of each driver being free to interact with the other drivers they encountered at the spur of the moment, every driver waited for this poor cop to make observations and decisions that might have been made instead by the one thousand and one drivers involved: probably with no less risk of accident, and certainly with a lot less traffic backup.

This train of thought carried me further, into the ever-present realm of disputes about how society should or could work. Whether libertarian, anarchist, or another type of society is at the heart of the debate, the questions sound oddly similar. There seems to be a universal impulse to feel that somebody has to direct, or at least map out, a detailed, big-picture scenario for how such and such a society will work. Variations on the same old 'what-if' themes always seem to crop up. 'What will we do in this situation?'

It sounds reasonable ' even responsible ' to ask these questions; almost everybody wants to have a positive impact on society. Almost all of us care a great deal ' as humans ' about the society we live in. That gives me hope. However, it's human nature (and not the better part of it) for a person to feel that he or she could do a better job of directing traffic, and/or designing a better strategy to deal with the flow of countless spontaneous decisions that happen every instant. Perhaps anyone could benefit from playing traffic cop once or twice, if it's not enough to learn from observation: But that exercise requires the unwilling cooperation of other travelers who probably won't appreciate the delay.

Is it important to live in a society where our interactions are peaceful and voluntary? I think so. If coercion can be relinquished for the sake of cooperation, will it be worth a bumpy transition from point A to point B'? And how smooth is the road now? Who wants to play traffic cop and stand in the way of hundreds of people who have eyes in their head, most of whom will use them given the chance, and make an appropriate decision tailored to the precise set of circumstances in which they find themselves, the possibilities of which are infinite?

It would be nice to know how the ideal free society would work. It would be wonderful to hope that such a thing was possible in this new century, and that some of us who live today might see it come to pass. But central planning won't work, no matter whose head it happens in ' no matter what party gets elected, or what futuristic architect or social engineering expert is consulted. No matter how smart or well intentioned the traffic cop may be, he cannot match the efficiency, swiftness, or flexible operation of the myriad minds that make up the morning commute. Nor can he instill a sense of responsible and convivial interaction into the travelers that pass through an intersection, because his presence actively prohibits such spontaneity from yielding any positive benefits.

There are always so many questions, and they're good ones. How will highway systems be administered? Who will mediate when there's a conflict? What about the fire and police departments, and the post office? Will there be armed forces to defend us if we're attacked? Is there a way to control an epidemic, or a ravening mob? Can corporate abuses be curtailed, or environmental considerations protected? When human rights or property rights are threatened, who will defend them? What are the alternatives to what we have now, and how will they work?

Questions that I can't answer to my own satisfaction, frankly; the answers are out there, buried beneath the permafrost of a bureaucratic ice age, and I have every reason to hope they'd soon thaw under the light and warmth of liberty and free enterprise. Judging by the ingenuity, sincerity, and the valiant spirit encountered in cyberspace, that hope seems well founded. All I can do is to present my own set of questions, which I find every bit as troublesome and worthy of consideration as the previous set.

Have highway systems developed at the cost of cooperative communities and alternative modes of transportation, and will we be as free with them (and us) under the control of a central administrative authority as we might have been with possible alternative systems that never evolved? How freedom enhancing is a fabulously complex highway system when you object to the driver's license that requires fingerprints and other biometric data and a Social Security number to acquire, or if you can be stopped for the most specious of reasons, possibly being detained or even having your vehicle impounded or confiscated?

When you turn to the existing court system: will they respond quickly and reliably; can you afford their services; are you reasonably certain that the court will yield an unbiased and rational verdict? When you call the police or the fire department: Will they have an obligation to respond, and if they do, are they liable to report you to another agency for violating an obscure code you could be unaware of? And then there's the post office' Is it probable that private enterprise could provide equivalent services more effectively and congenially, with a clear understanding up front ' and in writing ' of terms and obligations?

When armed forces fight overseas to expand an empire at your expense and your freedom diminishes at home because it's a time of war, does that constitute defense? When SWAT teams are unleashed against citizens because they organized a protest, joined a politically unfavorable group, or attended a rave, is that an attack by hostile forces? At what point does a defense of government interests become an offensive against the people? Will 'Support our Troops' have the same rallying power if 'our' troops are ever turned against gun owners and/or domestic dissidents' and can that happen in America?

Will government address an epidemic of disease or a biological attack with a free flow of information and timely alerts? Or will it tighten control by mandating forced quarantines, vaccinations, medications, and reportages, destroying all remnants of a once sacred trust between patient and physician, treating citizens as livestock ' alternately provoking panic and squelching it? Will government reign in democracy gone amok, if it stands to benefit from unruliness? Will government arrest the sort of gross corporate malfeasance that has allowed it to expand exponentially, or punish itself for developing chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, poisoning the environment with toxic waste, violating human rights or property rights? Whose side will the cops come down on in any scenario?

If there are any cops listening, please prove me wrong; it seems hopelessly na've to imagine that you'll defend 'us' against 'them,' but life is full of surprises, and they might as well be pleasant ones.

The devil one knows isn't necessarily a good master to serve; under the circumstances one could do worse service to society than exploring some viable alternative without having all the answers in advance: even if it means making mistakes along the way. If mistakes must be made, they might as well be new ones.

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Cat Farmer's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Cat Farmer is a perennial misfit, autodidact, market anarchist and libertarian activist.  She loves cats, music, plants, and country life.  She is currently pursuing a career in the financial sector.  Her interests include economics, alternative medicine, philosophy, creative writing, and web surfing.  Her motto: Too many naked emperors, too little time.  Cat Farmer's website is at