This Kind of Thing is Why Catch-22 Rings so True to Life

23:20 Fri 05 Nov 2010
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A New York City police officer blocks a bike lane in order to then issue tickets to cyclists for not using the bike lane.

Lots of food for anarchist thought in that scenario. I doubt many of my readers would try to justify the cop’s actions, but some of you might try to defend the state here, and more of you would likely defend the concept of the state.

The state has acquired powers over the regulation of traffic. Despite the fact that most of the danger come from automobiles, the state nevertheless exercises control over pedestrians and cyclists also.

At some point in the evolution of the state’s general enforcement mechanisms, it also acquired the power to levy fines as punishment for some transgressions, with its agents facing a lower burden of effort when applying these fines. The state needs money, so those fines inexorably became a cherished revenue stream.

Merging it with traffic regulation enforcement was an obvious step, as traffic transgressions are both extraordinarily common and precisely in the category where a fine makes more sense to everyone. As with other revenue streams, its performance can be tweaked, and those in control of revenue generation try to extract more from it by directing enforcement agents to levy more fines. These directives will often conflict with the other duties of the enforcement agents, and so shortcuts will inevitably be taken.

These shortcuts are taken throughout the system, and gradually become necessary to the smooth running of that system, which has both grown and grown to depend on the revenue. Concerns over accountability, fairness, and justice fade away as efficiency and smooth operation become priorities.

As these priorities become clear to the enforcement agents, they shift their own actions and attitudes correspondingly; they also perceive that their own positions will be protected as part of the attempts to avoid disrupting the system. They are free to become more arbitrary in their deeds, and, freed from accountability to the public while also increasingly under pressure from above, drift steadily in that direction.

The citizenry, by and large, still encounters the enforcement agents relatively rarely, due to simple laws of probability and numbers; the experiences of those who have had direct negative experiences are vastly outweighed by those who have not, and those who have not are very likely to accept the larger society’s positive image of the state and its agents.

And hence we have events like this one, not to mention far worse abuses, and despite the fact that such incidents are clear evidence that something is very wrong systematically, no systemic changes are made. To use a cliché beloved of my profession: is the fact that this officer is incredibly unlikely to suffer any real reprimand for these actions a bug or a feature? If you are the state, a feature; if you are a citizen, a bug. The fact that these two positions are in such clear opposition is one compelling reason to be an anarchist.

7 Responses to “This Kind of Thing is Why Catch-22 Rings so True to Life”

  1. helen Says:

    Careful, you sound like the Tea Party.

  2. garret Says:

    Touch of the Palins Tadhg.

  3. Tadhg Says:

    Garret: There’s nothing even remotely Palin-esque about my post, so I’m going to assume that you’re exhibiting your usual penchant for opportunistic piling-on. If you actually have reasoned critique, bring it.

    Helen: Perhaps your impression of the Tea Party is different from mine? These are the things that spring to mind when I think of the Tea Party:

    • Racism.
    • Fervent rejection of economic measures that might redistribute wealth to people in a lower economic class than they are.
    • Xenophobia.
    • Homophobia.
    • Paranoia about the “erosion of our freedoms”.

    I’m guessing you’re referring to the last one. The Tea Partiers, like many of the right-wing fringe groups before them, fixate on inane distractions (hence the “paranoid”): death panels, the laughable notion that Christians will face persecution in the US, the bizarre fantasy that Obama is a Hitlerian figure imposing “socialism” on the United States. In truth, individual liberties in the US (although not necessarily the liberties of Tea Partiers) are being eroded, but by increased militarism, increased executive power, the “War on Drugs”, the “War on Terror”, and so on. There is a libertarian rump to the movement that does object to those things, and I can see where my post would make me sound like a libertarian—but it’s not my fault if they’re right from time to time…

  4. helen Says:

    Tadhg, it looks to me as though Garrett is saying exactly what I am saying! It’s the paranoia that worries me about your post – the belief that although most people buy into ‘the system’ and think that ‘the system’ protects them, your sharpsightedness can see that they are genuinely oppressed. I live in a country where the state is being rolled back, and believe me, the process is merely exposing the poor more to exploitation and marginalisation. You also need traffic rules to protect cyclists and pedestrians, and fines to pay for road resurfacing and lighting. More significantly, you need the state to protect the poor and provide basic services, and (if you will excuse me for borrowing a Jon Stewart-ism), if you don’t want a government, go and live in Somalia.

    Further, your extrapolation from one insignificant incident into a grand conspiracy theory – very Tea Party, to me. That, to me, is an ‘inane distraction’ as much as the crazy ‘birther’ theories, though not as deranged, I’ll agree. If I wanted to be very evil, I would say it is all very well for a rich white male US citizen like yourself to bash the state and say you don’t need its protection, and that that privileged blindness to the essential functions that the state performs to protect the marginalised is precisely what emanates from the Tea Party to this side of the Atlantic.

  5. Tadhg Says:

    What is “genuine oppression”? Most people in the US don’t suffer it, in my opinion, but does that mean it’s not an oppressive system? Surveillance and harassment of political dissidents certainly goes on in this country; since there are so few of them, and since most of the citizenry isn’t aware of it, does that mean it’s wrong to assert that oppression is significant here? Awareness of the power and ruthlessness of the American state, even if it isn’t affecting me directly, is not paranoia. Your underlying charge of elitism—that I’m being arrogant to assume that my perception of the situation is sharper than that of most of the apparently contented populace—is difficult to refute because I’m uncomfortable with any position that assumes that I can see when people are acting against their own interests, but that predicament is hardly restricted to my political persuasion, now is it?

    You do not live in a country where the state is being rolled back. You and I both live in countries where particular aspects of the state are being cut—those aspects that ameliorate inequalities. In Britain, as far as I can tell, the state is essentially claiming more power but less responsibility, which is hardly a direction I would support.

    The question of whether or not we need the state in order to protect us from ourselves is ultimately a matter of faith; I believe but cannot prove that human beings can take care of themselves and each other without hierarchical power systems—without leaders. You believe (but cannot prove) otherwise.

    Traffic rules: there are suggestions that traffic rules are harmful; while that study doesn’t completely convince me, I’m also not convinced that traffic safety automatically requires rules imposed from above in tandem with enforcement mechanisms.

    Fines: we certainly do not need them to pay for road maintenance. They’re a specific revenue generation mechanism, and we’re hardly short of other ways to do the same thing; I see no reason why that revenue couldn’t be replaced by simple taxation, if necessary. To do otherwise creates a system of bad incentives, resulting in incidents such as the one that inspired this post; another on-topic example is that various cities in the US have shortened the times on their yellow lights, increasing accident rates but also increasing the number of red-light runners caught on camera, and hence revenue.

    The poor: assuming for the sake of argument that we do need a state to protect the poor and provide basic services, I think it’s a significant stretch to say that the state we need for such purposes is the one we have now. What about a state stripped down the other way, one that provided services but had an extremely limited enforcement role?

    Somalia: please. I think I shan’t forgive you that line, which is quite clearly an appallingly reductive soundbite which among other things raises a propagandistic fear of “savagery”, ignores the culpability of Western powers in what’s happened Somalia, has a touch of racist “oh see they can’t be trusted with self-determination” to it, and is pretty much as useful a false dichotomy as “if you don’t like America, leave”.

    Clearly, I don’t see the incident I wrote about as insignificant—I see it as illustrative. This is because it is illustrative: illustrative of the fact that police can get away with utterly outrageous behavior and be essentially immune from accountability for it; illustrative of the inequities a citizen faces when caught up in the enforcement machinery (in this instance the state is so obviously wrong and yet the citizen has to lawyer up and spend significant time and money to deal with the state); illustrative of the inevitable abuses that come with the combination of revenue mechanisms and enforcement machinery. I agree that it is relatively petty, but that’s one of the reasons I used it as a starting point for that analysis, so as not to get too distracted by the awfulness in other examples.

    The key point is that it’s not an “isolated example”—I can guarantee you that petty abuses like this happen all the time. So do far worse abuses. Death penalty miscarriages of justice. The “war on dogs”. Casual brutality followed by forcing the victim to apologize. Show trials. Power without accountability is what runs as a common thread throughout all of those and the topic for the post. While the situation in this country on that front is getting worse, these are not new tendencies. The state has always fostered power without accountability, and could be defined as an efficient system for doing precisely that.

    Its more benevolent functions, the functions that you cite as the reasons for supporting its existence, have been grafted on rather recently. As a good social democrat, what is your response to my argument that abuses are inevitable and undermine the legitimacy of the state? You don’t really make one, although I assume it would be a variant of “a few bad apples”.

    You instead level charges of paranoia (strongly implying that you do not believe that the abuses truly exist); assert that the state is simply “necessary” while not actually addressing the abuses I mention in any way whatsoever (strongly implying that, were you to acknowledge their existence, you would consider them an unobjectionable tradeoff for the benefits you cite); accuse me of “conspiracy theorizing”, although I was describing long-term changes in institutions without discussing any group acting in secret to further their own interests; tar me by association; and finally suggest I might be guilty of what would be a truly appalling case of privilege blindness—which suggestion also implies that the argument I make in the post could only be made from such a position of ignorance.

    Just for fun, I can make the counterclaim: that your dismissal of abuses such as the one that kicked off my post, and of those suggested by the rest of my post, is only possible because of your own privilege, and the vanishingly small probability of your ever being on the wrong side of the state’s enforcement mechanisms, much less on the wrong side of them without very significant intellectual, social, and economic resources to help protect you. Further, that your adoption of the highly paternalistic stance that the state and its abuses are all necessary to “protect” the poor and disenfranchised is a stance you can only take because of your blindness surrounding those abuses and the power dynamics that create them. I don’t actually believe that, but thought I’d try out some ad hominem to keep up.

    And finally, now that this is twice as long as my original post: if you and Garret have heard Sarah Palin making the same arguments I do about the power of the state, well, I don’t think they made those speeches public over here, and you should definitely send me references.

  6. helen Says:

    ooh, hardcore! First off: thank you for calling me on the “if you don’t like it, go and live in Somalia” catchphrase. You are quite right that there is a nasty racism underpinning such a dismissal, so I shouldn’t have used it. I might say, though, “if you don’t like it, go and live in Detroit”, or similar city where the municipality can barely provide basic services, rather than prosperous, well-regulated San Francisco.

    As to points: In Britain, as far as I can tell, the state is essentially claiming more power but less responsibility, which is hardly a direction I would support. – I agree on some points and not on others. Clearly, the move towards at least a continuance of and possibly a step up of militarisation is indeed an extension of the powers of the state in a direction I don’t like, as is the punitive aspect of the measures being taken to cut the benefit, which will certainly be implemented with negative measures rather than by empowering the unemployed, disabled and marginalised. However, I see the British state reneging on its responsibilities to provide social and economic services to everyone, a move that of necessity disadvantages those most who most depend on them. So in that sense, there is a rolling back of the state that will lead to the suffering of the marginalised – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/07/children-old-lonely-council-spending-cuts.

    I don’t think it’s patronising to believe that the poor and marginalised need to be protected by the state in a social contract that I subscribe to. I work in the public sector because I believe in providing a public good (education) in a non-profit environment (hah, might have to rethink that one.) I contribute towards the social provision of the state in this way, and I benefit from it in myriad ways, from public libraries to safe roads to equality protection to free health care. I may be less exposed to poverty and ill health due to government cuts than someone poorer or more disabled than me, but I am certainly affected by living in a community where the common good is under attack. Essentially, I am more authoritarian than you, I suppose, but I believe in the state not as an authority over and above the citizenry, but something that ideally is the citizenry, including myself: I contribute to, benefit from and critique the state.

    A few bad apples, you ask? I think it’s always important to take a nuanced, pragmatic and contextualised approach to abuses of power. Yes, the New York policeman abused his power, and should be called to account for it; you’ll agree with me that in degree, his is not as heinous an abuse as the ones you mention above, or the British imprisonment of asylum seeker children. It’s necessary always to scrutinise power, and to hold it to account, but I don’t think it’s useful to extrapolate from one small incident and consider it indicative of and connected to every abuse of power that ever occurs in the state. To do so is to ignore the specific cultures of corruption that allow this specific abuse to take place, to trivialise much graver abuses of power and (this is where the conspiracy comes in) assume that all abuses of power are somehow connected in one evil authoritarian entity called the State. I do not believe this is the case, and in my view law, order and liberty can only be protected if the citizenry support the police when they are doing the right thing as well as protesting when they do the wrong thing. I am well aware that cultures of abuse can develop within policing systems, and fully agree that they need to be called to account. (My friend Vicky Conway, for instance, works on police abuse of power in Ireland – you might be interested in her book about the Morris tribunal and other abuses: see http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofLaw/Staff/DrVickyConway/). I don’t think that saying that one small incident is illustrative of a giant system of abuse is either true or useful.

    And of course you are right, I am also privileged enough rarely to be on the wrong side of the law, something that is as much a matter of wealth and accent as it is of being a law-abiding citizen (which I am.) I am aware that my wealth and security are predicated on the exploitation and oppression of others. But I’m also well aware of the ways in which I could be on the wrong side of the law were the state less just, and moreover where a state whose enforcement function was minimal might leave me without the protections I enjoy against, for instance, sexual harassment at work, dismissal on account of my sexuality, or the right to equal pay – not to mention the general safety of being able to walk the streets without being mugged, not having to pass bribes to access essential services, being able to call the police if my house is broken into or buy food in the security that it has not been adulterated.

    On the matter of how to manage traffic, I think we disagree on detail not on the principle that it should be managed (though I, like you, am interested in the no-traffic-signs experiments). Where I disagree with you is about the usefulness of extrapolating from this one minor New York incident to a whole system of abuse connected with an ever more threatening system of ‘authority’, whatever that might be. That’s why I consider this point paranoid, and similar to the Tea Party which, in my understanding, leaps on small phenomena and spins a paranoid anti-statism out of them.

  7. garret Says:

    I never read your post, but I do think that you would look cute dressed up as Sarah Palin.

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