David R. Henderson  

The Nature of Government

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Kiss the Emperor's Ring

The Dallas cop who prevented the NFL player from seeing his mother-in-law before she died has gotten a lot of press. Various people have taken various sides. Bill O'Reilly, true to form, said last night that we should cut the policeman a lot of slack. His guest, Geraldo Rivera, said, essentially, not so fast. Rivera saw this as a case of ethnic profiling: white cop, black driver. Rivera may be right or he may be wrong. Either way, I think he missed the essence of what happened because one can certainly imagine it being the reverse or any other way: black cop, white driver; white cop, white driver, etc.

So what is the essence? The issue of control. Read the abridged transcript of the interaction or, better yet, watch the whole 20-minute video. What comes out loud and clear is that the policeman was upset because the driver, Ryan Moats, tried passionately to tell him the nature of the emergency, whereas what Robert Powell saw as being primary was that Moats wait patiently while Powell wrote him a ticket. Even once a nurse came out from the hospital and assured the policeman that Moats's mother-in-law was dying, Powell, writing the ticket, said, "I'm almost done." Must get that ticket written no matter why Moats jumped a red light. Read the first 30 or so lines of the transcript and you'll see that it's all about Powell's authority:

Moats: You really want to go through this right now? My mother-in-law is dying. Right now! ... I got seconds before she's dying, man!
Powell: If my mom was dying I'd probably be a little upset too, but when I saw flashing red and blues, I would stop.
Moats: Did I not stop at the red light?
Powell: You stopped, then you drove through the red light.
Moats: I stopped, I checked the traffic, I waved the traffic off, then I turned.
Powell: This is not an emergency vehicle. You do not have the right to control the traffic.
Moats: OK. All right ... just go ahead and check my insurance so I can go ahead and go. If you're gonna give me a ticket, give me a ticket. I really don't care, just ...
Powell: Your attitude says that you need one.
Moats: I don't have an attitude. All I'm asking you is just to hurry up. Cause you're standing here talking to me...
Powell: Shut your mouth and listen.
Moats: Shut my mouth? Is that how you talk to me, too?
Powell: Shut your mouth and listen. If you want to keep this going, I'll just put you in handcuffs, and I'll take you to jail for running a red light.
Moats: OK. All right.
Powell: I can do that.
Moats: OK.
Powell: State law says I can.
Moats: Yes, sir. Go ahead.
Powell: If you don't settle down that's what I'm gonna do.
Moats: Yes, sir.

This is the nature of government whether the government employees are policemen with guns on their sides or sometimes in their hands or are teachers in government-financed schools. The whole Powell-Moats incident reminds me of a passage from Steven E. Landsburg's book, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life. Landsburg tells of the propaganda his daughter Cayley's teachers subjected her to about the importance of not letting the water run when she brushed her teeth. Landsburg writes:

As long as Cayley cares about her own family's water bill, she will automatically account for the interests of everyone else who might be interested in using that water.
But Cayley's teachers have not wanted her to think clearly about such issues, perhaps out of fear that clear thought can become a habit, and habitual clear thinkers are not good candidates for subservience. Instead, those teachers have pronounced from on high that because water is valuable to others, we should be exceptionally frugal with it. In an inquisitive child, this raises the question: With exactly which valuable resources are we obligated to be exceptionally frugal? A child who is observant as well as inquisitive will quickly recognize that "all valuable resources" is not the teacher's preferred answer. For example, teachers rarely argue that "because building supplies are valuable to others, we ought to build fewer schools"; even more rarely do they argue that "because skilled workers are valuable in industry, we ought to have fewer teachers."

And now for the "money" paragraph:

Where is the pattern, then? What general rule compels us to conserve water but not to conserve on resources devoted to education? The blunt truth is that there is no pattern, and the general rule is simply this: Only the teacher can tell you which resources should be conserved. The whole exercise is not about toothbrushing; it is about authority.

Two other points:

1. Mr. Moats's restraint was admirable. It's a model for how to deal with an out-of-control policeman.
2. Because this is Econlog, notice the interesting incentives. Officer Powell is put on paid administrative leave. So his punishment for his sadistic behavior is: a paid holiday.

H/T to Bill Anderson

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CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (32 to date)
david writes:

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Rey writes:

I live in Dallas; the public discontent over here certainly seems to consistently raise the race card. That's understandable.

You raised a great point about authority though. This is the nature of a police officer's position, in a general context; however, it's terribly upsetting when those who enforce the laws fail to understand the principle upon which the law was established.

Do you think a battery of questions can be given to potential police officers to ferret out an attitude of legalism? Or can we educate our police officers more? Presumably, a police officer will take courses in ethics.

The outrage over this is understandable.

I enjoyed your perspective. Weber had much to say about the role of power. Seems like you draw from that tradition.

R. Pointer writes:

I watched the whole thing and I know too many cops like that. But what was stunning was that he didn't take the explanation. That just smacks of stupidity and lack of empathy. I mean empathy in the most broad sense, because he didn't realize that his superiors would find his behavior unjust - not just a lack of empathy for Mr. Moats. He couldn't put himself in anyone's shoes if he tried.

What I find most concerning about police work is the lack of wisdom some can exercise. I say it is a minority, but they are not wise enough to know the difference between justice and law. Law is a blunt instrument. Justice knows wisdom and when to make an exception. Unfortunately the police chief knows all too well that you cannot train for wisdom. No law tells you when it is right to be broken.

Steve Reilly writes:

Fair Play has always seemed to me Landsburg's worst book, and I think you picked a passage that exemplifies why. I agree that the teacher is displaying some confusion, but Landsburg quickly jumps to a psychological explanation for the confusion. His evidence for the teacher's lesson being all about authority? None. There are other plausible motives for a teacher's failure to realize that bricks and cement are similar to water in being rare, and people not in positions of authority are frequently just as confused on economic matters. But Landsburg, who is usually careful in his economic arguments, is quick to jump on the easiest psychological argument he can find.

His motive, of course, is to make his enemies seem evil instead of merely ignorant. (Or maybe it isn't at all, and it's something else entirely. See how careful I'm being?)

Troy Camplin writes:

I live in Dallas too (Richardson, actually), and I've seen the entire tape. One, I can see no evidence at all that race was a factor. That in fact obscures the real issue, of which there are in fact two. One, the officer did not temper justice with mercy. He was merciless. WIthout mercy to act as a lubricant, the wheels of justice grid to a halt. That is what we Witnessed. Also, it became clear in several of the officer's comments that he was enjoying exercising his power. I am of the opinion that any time a police officer demonstrates an enjoyment in exercising his power, he should be terminated immediately.

Evan writes:


Thank you for this post. I have been following this story from DC where I live. I cannot properly describe the sour taste left in my mouth, or the disdain for all do-as-I-say blind authoritarians as exemplified by this sympathy-less cop left flowing through my veins, after watching the 20 min video saga. I say saga because it felt like an eternity. I found myself screaming: "Just give him the damn ticket you pompous prick!"

Now, I do whole-heartedly believe that there is a race angle here. He didn't have to say a racial slur to notice the white cop, black driver component and how it was played out to its fullest. I mean, there are obviously other scenarios in which this could have gone down. But it didn't. This is how it went down. That is not the main issue, however, as you state. Either way (proof or racism or not), I totally agree with the crux of your argument and see your teacher-tells-child-to-conserve-water as an excellent example for comparison. Its plain ol' unvarnished power and authority that is the most disturbing/salient issue here. I see your example and raise you the because-I'm-your-father parenting technique. I find it troubling when children, especially by the time they are teenagers, being given the authority line as a reason to listen/obey/follow the rules. Any inquisitive child will follow with the obvious: why? Now, I'm not proffering proper ways to raise children; I'm just saying that from my observations, children, especially teenagers, who are given reasons, clear and explained, for rules and regulations will (a) follow them more often than not, (b) have respect for logical argument, and (c) disrespect/disavow any person or argument that does not come with proper logical reasoning. To me, those are character traits and subsequent actions I would want my children, if I am so lucky as to have any, to have one day.

It seems that officer Powell never asked himself, or anyone else for that matter: why? And that is the problem.

NW writes:

This is a much less serious situation than someone dying, but I sometimes wonder what would happen if I need to speed to get home because I have to go number 2 really really bad. I would be pleading with the officer if I was caught, "Please, just right the ticket because I'm about to poop my pants!!!"

You see, I have a sensitive stomach. Anytime I eat something bad I goes right through me and I get stomach pains and have to go to the bathroom.

Les writes:

Its one thing to debate these issues theoretically in the abstract, leisurely, at a distance, without the flaming emotions, the personal hot buttons, and the intense pressure of time involved in the situation.

I think few of us are at our best under stress, whether we are a son whose mother is dying, or a cop who has seen at first hand - and been jaundiced by - all kinds of perverted acts, contrived excuses and disrespect for the law.

Perhaps we should be a little less judgmental, and a little more empathetic to both parties.

Sanity Personified writes:

You do realize that a black man killed four - count 'em four! - cops in Oakland last week. Now isn't there some reason to think that a cop pulling over a large (NFL) black man would have reason to be wary? "But my mother-in-law is dying." That's an original excuse, the cop probably thought.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Les,
My whole point was that the officer should have been empathetic. What do you think he thought when the nurse told him that the excuse was legitimate?

Dear S.P.,
The key was that he pulled into a hospital parking lot, did not pull a gun, and was respectful. The officer blew by all those signals.
I challenge you to watch the whole 20 minutes and not conclude that the officer should have quickly gotten over his "wariness." I also challenge you to watch the whole thing and not conclude that it was all about his authority.


Joel writes:
Because this is Econlog, notice the interesting incentives. Officer Powell is put on paid administrative leave. So his punishment for his sadistic behavior is: a paid holiday.
I think you're excessively short term here. Once the lynch mob catches up to him, I think he's going to enjoy this leave about as much as an AIG executive enjoys his bonus.
David R. Henderson writes:

I bet you're wrong. AIG execs didn't have a whole police force to protect them.

Scott Wentland writes:

Let's not forget the selection effect. The type of person who is particularly satisfied with possessing this authority self-selects into this profession.

AB writes:

Sanity Personified,

Yeah, when a driver has his hazard lights on, stops at a red light to check traffic before driving through it, does not immediately pull over but instead goes the hospital and pulls right up to the emergency room, and then is respectful to the officer in informing him about the situation, clearly the officer ought to be afraid that this is a scary black man who is lying about his motives for the traffic offense and might shoot him.

Pat writes:

I wonder why it took quite a while for the police officer to give a ticket. I am quite hesitant in condemning the police officer as much as Geraldo Riviera would be for the fact that he did stopped the NFL player for crossing a red light and he was enforcing the law. That said, I doubt he needed to write a ticket before the NFL player visited his mother-in-law, even less keeping him outside the hospital and talking to a nurse for a while until letting him go. The way I see, it was simply a dumb mistake. Unfortunately, I doubt that would make the NFL player any happy.

Matt writes:

I think both of them should be/have been empathetic to the other during and afterward. Cops get excuses all the time, so give him some slack when he doesn't believe you and gets high on his authority. And the guy checked for traffic, went safely through the intersection, was in a hospital parking lot, his wife ran in, he wasn't doing anything stupid, so just wait by his car and you can write the ticket when he gets out. I'd like to think that if I was in either ones' shoes I'd understand where the other was coming from and would be generous toward him. But I may be wrong.

For the water conservation point, I think there's a difference between water and labor/construction resources. If you leave the water on while brushing your teeth, it goes down the drain and is gone. Teachers' labor is invested in students, and the schools are pieces of capital that can be used year after year.
Related, I read a piece (by Landsburg possibly?) on recycling and how school teachers were indoctrinating his child into their religion of environmentalism. If the choice is between recycling now and using fewer resources from their origin, and using all original resources before starting to recycle from the landfills, isn't it less costly to recycle now? Maybe the teachers believe that the cost of future recycling from landfills will be much higher and therefore it's wise to recycle now (because that cost isn't built into current prices).

Troy Camplin writes:

The police are supposed to be trained to remain calm under very stressful situations. This certainly didn't qualify as that for him. In fact, if you listen to his voice, he is quite calm -- he's just indignant that the person in front of him wasn't groveling at his feet.

And just because there are two people of different races involved in a situation, that doesn't mean there's racism. this isn't about race at all. It's about power.

Fu Man writes:

I agree with your point about authority. As reported on the Dallasnews.com, here is what a veteran Dallas PD officer said about the younger ones:"...They get this attitude like the citizens are their subjects."

Fu Man writes:

Why do you think that Moats was able to keep such a remarkable calm that many of us could not in such a circumstance?
Here is my take: Moats might realize in his mind that from where he stood as a black man a slip a tongue could be enough for the white officer to "take him to jail for running a red light". So yes, race did play a role in this incident, either consciously or subconsciously.

Greg Ransom writes:

Shouldn't we go back to "behavioral genetics" or whatever to understand WHY a cop needs to be in control, and needs to feel in control, and why he needs the guy who's violated the law to be submissive.

Ever owned a dog?

Because we are liberals doesn't be we are idiots who don't understand xy&Z .

Zac writes:

Food for thought: What would happen to this police force if it did not immediately fire this officer and declare that training measures have been taken to ensure this never happens again, if the Dallas PD was a contestable market and not a coercive monopoly? Would anyone continue to patronize them?

Jay writes:

Since this Dallas situation is about state power, would someone comment on the district attorneys who are choosing to charge young teenagers with sexual felony charges for sending naked pictures of themselves. Are phone photos situations any different?

Les writes:

Dear David:

You wrote: "Dear Les,
My whole point was that the officer should have been empathetic. What do you think he thought when the nurse told him that the excuse was legitimate?"

My response:

Of course the officer should have been empathetic. But do we all invariably do what we should? Are we all perfect angels? Or are we all occasionally less than perfect under pressure and in the heat of the moment?

As someone once said of the woman taken in adultery: who shall cast the first stone?

Steve Sailer writes:

Why is this trivial case of more interest than the four policemen who were murdered in Oakland by a stopped motorist?

One obvious reason why cops like to maintain a position of power and dominance in encounters with motorists is to intimidate the motorist into not murdering them.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Well - we have witnessed human nature at work. Governments are made up of humans. Ergo...

There are governments based on individual rights and democracy that allow citizens of all classes, sexes, ages and colors to prosecute the prosecutor. There are also tyrannical systems with no regard for democracy and individual rights - they bring out the worst of human nature. Human nature does not change - the system can and does.

In Eastern Europe during Communism for example - everybody was a Moats with not even the slightest chance of finding justice after such an incident. The fact that the cop was now publicly shamed and that we are discussing this event shows the beauty of a free society and of our own governments in the West.


Why is this trivial case of more interest than the four policemen who were murdered in Oakland by a stopped motorist?

Oh my god - I did not hear about that. Somebody shot four policemen and was not prosecuted but was allowed to simply walk away with a paid holiday by taxpayers? Steve - this is huge - please provide a link to that story!!!!

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

IMO, the cop not only demonstrated a lack of empathy, but also proved that he is incapable of analytical thought. Once he saw that the vehicle he was pursuing had its flashers on AND had taken the turnoff to the hospital, it should have occurred to him that there was a possibility that the occupants of the vehicle were in crisis. And when the vehicle parked by the emergency room, the average 10 year old would would have been able to figure out what the cop could not...that instead of harassing the occupants of the vehicle, the cop should have be ready to provide assistance.

I guess what I'm saying is that the Dallas police currently have on their force a cop who lacks the maturity/analytical capacity of a 10 year old.

floccina writes:

Reminds me of my occasional dealings with the IRS or other taxing agencies. Just shut up and pay the tax. We do not want to hear your reasons.

David writes:

You are right that it is about control, and only control.

It is not something specific to Dallas, or the US, or to that policeman, or the result of poor training, or racial discrimination, or poor judgment, or anything else.

The reason that police generally devote so many resources to traffic violations (and in particular speeding) is not that "speed kills", which it doesn't, but rather that they are offended by the widespread flouting of government authority that speeding (for example) represents. It is all the worse because those flouting the authorities are not hardened criminals or sociopaths but reasonable, upstanding and generally law-abiding citizens. My assessment is that, deep down, the police are really bothered by what they see as this sort of "disobedience". And what the state wants more than anything is to nurture a culture of obedience. Consequently, application of silly laws or, as in this situation, of sensible laws in silly situations is not a "state error", it is the whole point. It is the mechanism by which resistance to unreasonable laws is broken down and citizens are trained to accept (and obey) any sort of law. Of course, they start with inconsequential laws and gradually work their way up.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

You've nailed it, David, it's a deep-seated need to see people grovel. Or it could be the fact that speeding tickets make money for police departments.

oldbuck writes:

I haven't read all these postings, this may have been mentioned.
What of the thousands of un-trained government Brown Shirts that will soon be filling our streets and public places.
They will have far less training that that officer and only 90 days to "strut their stuff".
Think on that for a moment...... times up. :o) oldbuck

Mr. Econotarian writes:

A red-light camera would have been preferable.

Why do cops pull over people who run a red light, when a picture of their license plate would suffice for a ticket?

Is it because they are hoping to up the ante with a drug bust?

I understand pulling over someone going "dangerously" over the speed limit, but not someone "typically" going over the speed limit.

This kind of enforcement would probably reduce the number of officer fatalities.

Isaac K. writes:

"This is the nature of government whether the government employees are policemen with guns on their sides or sometimes in their hands or are teachers in government-financed schools."

I take offense at this statement - Teachers in a private non-publicly funded institution act THE SAME WAY as those in public schools - possibly even worse, because the affected group is much smaller, and the consequential outcry less influential.

A hired security gaurd will behave EXACTLY the same way as the police officer would in this situation. It isn't a result of "government." It is a result of being bestowed power.

It's the one break I have with Rothbardians;
Part of the nature of GOVERNMENT? No.
Part of the nature of ANY authority/power, even those voluntarily chosen? YES.

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