Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Column on why many accept "Public" Crimes

Why They Keep Doing it?

Tibor R. Machan

Few people we know approve of break-ins, bank robberies, forced labor,
trespassing and other crimes. Sure, there are the criminals but even among
them most do not generally approve of their crimes; they tend to
rationalize them in various ingenious ways. But among the rest of us such
deeds are not tolerated, even from desperate folks. These latter should,
most will contend, find some alternative way to manage their emergencies.

On the other hand, there are millions who fully approve of voting in
various ?public? policies that amount pretty much to break- robberies,
forced labor, trespassing and other deeds. Or they vote for people who go
to various centers of political power and cast votes in favor of such
policies. And then there are all those who give support to these by
working in various government bureaus that administer the ?public?
programs that basically involve the commission of the crimes that very few
of us tolerate when they are committed without the cover of being ?public.?

Now, one answer defenders of such ?public? policies will give is that
after all, the measures had democratic support. So they couldn?t amount to
crimes (in the sense of violating basic principles of community life),
could they? However, this doesn?t clear things up fully since few among us
approve of lynch mobs whereby the majority of a community perpetrates,
say, a hanging. Even though the majority backs it, the hanging is widely
understood to be unpardonable.

There may be no ?one-size-fits-all? answer available to my question. Why
certain people accept criminal conduct dubbed ?public? policies may be
different from why others do. And most would not accept that these
?public? policies are akin to the crimes they uniformly condemn. But why?
Why don?t they appreciate that getting a great many people together and
thus empowering various ?officials? or ?authorities? to commit the crimes
amounts, well, simply to magnified criminal conduct?

One widely voiced reason given in academic circles for why the two things
aren?t at all the same is the democratic one but another is that there is
some kind of tacit agreement people in societies enter into that
authorizes the ?public? measures that are, in fact, criminal in other
contexts. Such a belief in a mythical social compact or contract has
recently surfaced in the popular press when Professor Michael Ignatieff of
Harvard?s JFK School of Government advanced it in The New York Times
Magazine. He claimed that citizens who were hurt by hurricane Katrina had
a valid complaint about lack of government help since governments exist to
protect people against disasters and other adversities.

It is true enough that in the old era of monarchies, government was seen
to be the ?keeper of the realm.? In return for this it had nearly full
authority to tell the people what they must do with their lives. The
divine right of kings doctrine helped shore up this idea. But in most
instances such government ?authority? came about by default?after some
realm had been conquered, whoever?s army did the conquering simply assumed
full powers over the conquered and their territories. There was no
question about right and wrong, about whether this was justified, only
about who had the power to carry off the deed of conquest.

In the wake of this ancient?and not so ancient?attitude about who is
authorized to control society, many people tend toward a kind of realism
in political matters. While at the personal level they disapprove of
theft, break-ins, forced labor, trespassing, and so forth, they also
embrace the notion that when it comes to the interaction of large groups,
insisting on moral standards is sort of naïve. Instead, we need to accept
that if some group is powerful enough, it will be impossible to protest
effectively against its policies once it?s been labeled ?public.? (It
doesn?t extend to the Mafia, of course.) Those who protest are seen as
idealists?including the American Founders.

Another way some defend crimes masked as ?public? policy is to claim that
as the outcome of public debate, they are legitimate. It?s a bit like
justifying a heist on the grounds that, after all, those perpetrating it
had a long and intense discussion about whether to do it. This lends the
deed a semblance of civility.

None of this passes muster. Such criminal public policies are just that,
criminal. It does, however, suggest why it?s so difficult to sell this to
millions?and to all those among them who own and manage the media. No
matter how many people approve of and back it, crime by any other name is
still a crime. The government deeds amounting to such crimes are every bit
as objectionable as when individuals carry them out. This isn?t easy to
sell, especially when so many hold out hope that they, too, will sometimes
benefit from these crimes.

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