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.
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.