More Timely Than Ever!

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Can There Be Only One Race?

I'm old enough to remember this 1960s Lay's Potato Chips commercial. (Hell, I'm almost old enough to remember when plays were in black and white!)  In the commercial a man (Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz) faces a challenge from the devil, who has a bag of Lay's: "Bet you can't eat one." "That's absolutely absurd," Lahr says; of course he can eat one. After enjoying the chip he says, "I'll have another," to which the devil says, "Oh no. I said just one. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha...."

Admittedly, this is a long and winding road to my point: there can't be only one race. Most people believe that human beings come in different genetic models: black, white, Asian, and a couple more. (Of course one can believe this without hating anyone.) But biologists and geneticists know better. There are no significantly distinct genetic groups of human beings that correspond to skin tone, hair texture, or other such visible features. Individuals within one grouping of superficially similar persons can have more genetic variation among themselves than they do with individuals in other superficial groupings. (We all are of African ancestry, though for some it's more recent than for others.) As Barbara and Karen Fields discuss in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, the idea of race grows out of the discriminatory practice of racism, not the other way around. In other words, the double standard people used in the treatment of others itself generated the justificatory concept of race. It's like witchcraft.

Does it follow from this that, as humane people like to say, there's only one race, the human race? I don't think so. In this case 1 = 0. Leaving aside the biologists' technical genetic concept of race (which has nothing to do with appearance), a concept of race would be useful only for making distinctions. But if there is only one race, then by definition, there are no distinctions to make. Therefore, one equals none. 

We already have a perfectly good biological category for distinguishing human beings from other animals: species. So we have no need for the category of the human race. "Race" is worse than superfluous. It's dangerously divisive.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Alibi Beats Achievement

There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day; we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.
--Eric Hoffer, philosopher, longshoreman

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Blaming the Self-Victimizer

Blaming the victim is certainly objectionable -- but not when individuals victimize themselves. Unfortunately we human beings frequently default to the belief that someone else caused our troubles -- which they often did not.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

How Not to Defend "Capitalism" Against" Socialism"

I challenge you to show me a lamer "debate" over "capitalism" and "socialism." (Don't worry; it's not about Bill Maher.)


Friday, February 24, 2023

TGIF: Immigration Foes, What's the Beef?

Bryan Caplan

If people are going to hate on immigrants, they should at least get their stories straight. Do immigrants take our jobs or do they sponge off us through welfare? Today, let's talk about jobs.

Recently I was listening to Spiked's Brendan O'Neill interview Batya Ugar-Sargon, the left/right-populist assistant editor at Newsweek, when I heard say: "The elites love low-wage slave labor imported by the cartels to work service industry jobs, that they would rather have cheap labor than have to pay more for it."

This is nutty working-class populism in its most uninhibited form. Ungar-Sargon would have us believe that people who risk life and limb thinking they're choosing to escape political-economic hellholes to achieve better lives for themselves and their families in America are just modern-day Kunta Kintes! They're not people; they're imports! That might come as news to them.

Ungar-Sargon is talking about both legal and so-called illegal immigrants. Interestingly, though, it seems to have escaped her notice that the only immigrants who could potentially be treated like slaves are those branded illegal by the U.S. government. They are vulnerable to abuse precisely because they have to keep themselves out of the clutches of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Legal immigrants can call the cops. Being put on ice has a different meaning these days.

A bit later in the interview she said,

Black Americans have paid a huge price for our essentially open border for the last 40 years. Over and over businesses would much rather hire illegal immigrants than hire black Americans, and so they've literally paid for up to 40 to 50 percent of wages just sacrificed on the altar of progressive pieties about importing people from failed socialist states. They're very angry at that.

That 40-to-50 percent claim astounded me because I've never heard anything like it before. Neither have the two experts I asked, guys who know the immigration-related statistics as well as anybody and better than most. In their view, Ungar-Sargon made it up. She did not tell O'Neill where she got the statistic, and -- shamefully -- he did not ask.

I wonder why Ungar-Sargon singled out black Americans. She claims to reject identity politics in favor of class politics. Is she pandering? Since biology provides no genetic basis for categorizing people by skin tone or other such features -- since the human species does not consist of three to five genetically distinct groups called "races" -- who does Ungar-Sargon or her anonymous source include in the category of "black Americans"? But I digress.

Ungar-Sargon sounds like Bernie Sanders, a strong contender for the least impressive person in American politics, who says he opposes open borders because "the Koch brothers" favor it. That may be a reason, but it's not a good one. What else does he oppose because a rich person favors it? Brushing teeth after meals?

Ungar-Sargon, Sanders, and the others in this camp have their own version of the alt-right's replacement theory, don't they? The "cartels," she tells us, want to bring "slave labor" to America to replace native workers simply to save money. They want the people's (mis)representatives to stop this at all costs. But this is nonsense. Immigrants, especially ones without government papers, do jobs that Americans think are beneath them, particularly when the government supports them.

Make no mistake about what this position says: natives have a superior, if not the only, claim to the opportunities available through voluntary exchange in America. "They take our jobs" is an assertion of a native-only property right in jobs that has no rational basis in morality or economics. It's an ugly "blood and soil" sentiment, which does not suit a free society. Not only that, it cruelly relegates people born elsewhere to lives of misery, poverty, and oppression -- needlessly so because immigration, like every consensual transaction, is win-win. So keeping immigrants out not only hurts them; it also hurts us! Immigrants not only consume; they also produce and even start businesses and hire people, natives included.

True, if an immigrant is hired in America, natives who hoped for that job will be disappointed. But that sort of "negative externality" is a feature of life, not of immigration. People lose jobs in the short run through innovations in technology and business organization, not to mention fickle consumers. Who would outlaw innovation or consumer freedom on that count? The fact is, as history demonstrates, people who are thus harmed will benefit after a brief adjustment to change -- if the government keeps out of the way.

But let's also understand what Ludwig von Mises meant when he wrote in Human Action, in the section he called "The Harmony of the 'Rightly Understood' Interests": "The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier." In other words, mass markets with their economies of scale and falling costs of production, provide everyone with an ever-greater abundance of affordable goods and services. It was, after all, the emergence of the market order that led to mass production for the first time in history.

What Mises was saying about consumption obviously applies to production too because it's the flip side of the coin. Producers hire workers. The availability of a larger labor force furnishes entrepreneurs with opportunities for new and better enterprises that could not have existed with a smaller workforce. Products and services that were beyond reach yesterday are available today. In a society unencumbered by government intervention (unlike the one we have), the increasing demand for jobs more or less creates its own supply.

As for wages, let's see what a bona fide expert says. George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan (with illustrations by Zach Weinersmith) addresses the matter in their graphic nonfiction work, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration." Opponents of free immigration should hold their tongues until they are prepared to answer Caplan's multidimensional case.

As for wages, Caplan writes:

Even economists who emphasize the negative effects of immigration on native wages report small -- and mixed -- effects. [George] Borjas and [Lawrence] Katz ... estimate that, in the long run, extra Mexican migration from 1980-2000 reduced U.S. native dropouts' wages by a grand total of 4.8%, and college graduates' wages by 0.5%. They also conclude, however, that Mexican immigration increased the wages of native high school graduates by 1.2% and those with some college by 0.7%.


Immigration increased labor demand through two channels --- one obvious, the other subtle. The obvious: More immigrants means more potential customers. The subtle: Since migration increases foreigners' productivity [a very important point! -- SR], they have more resources to offer in the marketplace. As a rule, sellers profit from more and richer customers.


How can native workers possibly profit when labor supply rises? Through specialization and trade. When the supply of low-skilled workers goes up, so does the demand for higher-skilled workers to manage them. When non-English-speaking immigrants increase the supply of cooks and dishwashers, this increases the demand for English-speaking waiters.

"But," Caplan's stick-figure interlocutor asks, "won't all these low-skilled immigrants depress our country's average standard of living?"

Caplan replies: "Almost certainly. But there's no need to worry. Your fears rest on the dreaded ... ARITHMETIC FALLACY!" He illustrates the fallacy by asking us to imagine that a group of little kids enters a room full of NBA players. The average height of the group will shrink, of course, but has anyone actually shrunk? Of course not.

"The lesson: When the makeup of the population is changing, averages are deeply misleading. The average can easily fall, even though everyone is better off!" Understanding basic statistics is necessary simply to protect yourself from number-wielding fraudsters.

So, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Bernie Sanders, Brendan O'Neill, et al., stop losing sleep over what will happen to native workers if we respect the universal natural right of everyone, regardless of birthplace, to seek a better life. Beyond the very short run, treedom benefits everyone. To appreciate this point, economist Caplan notes that if people worldwide were free to move to where they would be most productive, world output  "could easily double." He writes, "estimated gains range from 50 to 150% of gross world product." In other words, "economically, open borders is like getting an extra ... seventy-five Manhattans a year."

Respecting everyone's liberty doesn't cost. It pays -- big time!

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Give 'Em a Break!

I'm inclined to cut the people who lived before what we call the Common Era some slack. You try living with a calendar that runs backward. You’d be voting on the first Tuesday after the first Wednesday of November.

Did the clocks do that too? Imagine your cable guy promising to be there between 12 noon and 8 a.m. on Wednesday!

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Impossibility of Altruism

It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings.

--Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual

An old joke has it that sadomasochist relationships are impossible because the masochist would beg his partner to hurt him and the sadist would refuse. 

By the same token, altruism (meaning the ethics of self-sacrifice, not merely niceness) is impossible. Theoretically, in an altruist world, no one could find anyone willing to accept his sacrifices because that would be selfish. But altruism requires other people to do so or else virtue is impossible. The way out is hypocrisy: people who preach self-sacrifice but who nevertheless stand ready to receive.

Rand would go on to say -- and I'm inclined to agree -- that the hypocrites shouldn't be called egoists, though many observers would do so. She'd say that people who relate to others not as traders but rather as parasites love themselves too little, not too much. Aristotle would agree. In contrast to altruism, rational egoism, or "selfishness," is an ethics that everyone can live by simultaneously without contradiction.

Friday, February 17, 2023

TGIF: Fins Left, Right, and Center

Th[e] central question is not clarified, it is obscured, by our common political categories of left, right, and center.

--Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change

You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you're the only bait in town.

--Jimmy Buffett, "Fins"

Champions of individual liberty and its prerequisites can't help but be disheartened by today's political landscape. For decades the Respectable Center has delivered perpetual war, domestic surveillance and secret police, a national vice squad on steroids, uncontrolled spending, soon-to-be-insolvent "entitlement" programs, sky's-the-limit borrowing, Fed monetization, alternating inflation and recession, at-best-sluggish economic growth, impediments to economic mobility, and other bad things.

That's what the "adults in the room" have given us, and that's what they will keep on giving us. The remarkable improvement in living standards that has reached virtually all levels of American society has occurred demonstrably in spite of, not because of, the government.

No wonder many people are looking for an alternative. So what about the most prominent alternatives? Those would be the nihilist identitarian left and the angry populist, or class-oriented, right and left. The outlook is no less good there.

We can dispatch the identitarians quickly. This is the group whose members think that what matters most about people is their membership in tribes defined by unchosen incidental characteristics. Actual liberals -- those who favor individualism and individual freedom  -- can muster no enthusiasm for a program that holds the pseudoscientific category of race, the reality-based categories of sex and sexual orientation, or the abused and worse-than-worthless category of gender as central both to personal identity and social status.

So let's turn to right and left populism. Class leftism may seem promising, but when class analysis comes from ignorant prejudice against commerce and contract, it's fraught with danger. Class populists (left and right) have never learned that the bogey "corporate power" requires the state's power and can't exist without it. I call it "the most dangerous derivative." (See my "Wall Street Couldn't Have Done It Alone." For an alternative, pro-market class analysis, see Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition.")

If populism simply meant the rejection of rule by elites, what sensible person could object to it? Over the last few years we've seen what elites with political power can do when they control public health.

Unfortunately, we cannot judge political movements only by what they oppose. What do they favor? Aye, there's the rub. The populists on both sides will say they favor freedom and democracy, but those two standards clash with each other. If the majority rules, what happens to the minority's rights and freedom? The populist might concede that some matters ought to be beyond the reach of the majority -- political expression, for example -- but what and how many matters? The committed democrat will want to keep those matters to the barest minimum -- in the name of freedom. It's a scam.

So again, what about the freedom of the minority, the smallest of which is the individual? Populists evade the question by resorting to what the classical liberal Benjamin Constant called the "liberty of the ancients." In his 1819 essay, "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Liberty of the Moderns," Constant pointed out that our notion of liberty has changed since antiquity. For the ancients, liberty consisted exclusively of the freedom to participate directly in the political process. As Constant went on:

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which ... form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one's own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.

The world of 1800s modernity, Constant continued, had a different notion: liberty consisted not only of the freedom to participate in governance but also of the right to live a private life, including the right to use one's property unmolested. As he put it:

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word "liberty". For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims. 

Clearly, the populists subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty, and they may not take umbrage at that statement. Whether left or right, they prefer the coercive communitarian politics of antiquity to the individualism and voluntaryism of Enlightenment liberal modernism.

So no wonder they support restrictions on imports and exports, which interfere with our freedom to trade with whoever is willing to trade with us; immigrant restrictions, which interfere with non-Americans' freedom to improve their situation and Americans' freedom to associate with them in all kinds of fruitful ways; and antitrust prosecutions of private tech companies, which interfere with freedom of enterprise and private property.

In each case the populists reject the proven bountiful spontaneous order of markets in favor of collectivist answers both to real and imagined problems. That is, instead of opposing government policies that create and exacerbate problems that are mistakenly attributed to free trade, the free movement of people across arbitrary national borders, and Big Tech as such, they propose that "we" directly address those problems at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress and the offices of unaccountable regulatory agencies. It's social engineering plain and simple.

However, contrary to populist fantasies, there is no "we" that actually rules. For one thing, who is to be included in -- and excluded from -- the "we"? That's a political, not a metaphysical, decision. At best, it's an exercise in question-begging.

Moreover, the voters' diverse views and feelings are always filtered through politicians and bureaucrats, whose frame of reference is partly defined by well-connected special interests. Those are the people who will say what if any products we may buy from and sell to non-Americans; which non-Americans we may and may not socialize with, hire, sell to, and rent to; and what disfavored private companies may do with their own assets.

In other words, populism in the end resembles elitism -- except, as Bryan Caplan argues, at least elites tend to be more economically literate than the masses and so might be "the lesser poison." In public opinion polling, the more-educated respondents are more likely to be favorable to trade with foreigners and immigration. Caplan credits elites with watering down the masses' most extreme demands for protectionism and closed borders, if not quashing them entirely. As he once tweeted, "Elites' problem isn't being 'out of touch' with masses. Elites' problem is denying how irrational masses really are." For any card-carrying populist, this is heresy. (See Caplan's book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I review it here.)

To their credit, the populists of left and right support free political speech (although they erroneously apply the same standard to the government and to private firms) and oppose foreign military intervention. But this group -- which comprises such otherwise diverse people as Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, Glenn Greenwald of System Update, Brendan O'Neill of Spiked, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News -- would have the government spend the savings due to a noninterventionist foreign policy domestically rather than leaving it in the pockets of the taxpayers, who after all are the ones who earned it through the production of wealth for consumers.

Contrary to the populists, the alternative to democracy is not some flavor of authoritarian elitism. It's what's F. A. Hayek called the market order, which is rooted in individual freedom -- in a word, libertarianism.

Friday, February 10, 2023

TGIF: Games Politicians Play

Except for the civic religion on ostentatious display at the annual presidential state of the union address, one can hardly think of a reason for the tradition at all. It's not as though we learn something substantive or even hear a truthful material claim. (Yes, it could be useful in launching a president's reelection campaign.)

I'm sure someone somewhere has pointed out that democracy is not only a religion but also the opiate of the masses. When too few people could swallow the silly claim that the head of state represented the applicable deity, a new way was needed to assure the people's enduring acquiescence in their own subjugation. What better way than by having them believe that the power rested in their own hands? They had only to use it wisely (that is, by choosing those whom history if not Yahweh had ordained to rule). If they didn't, the fault was theirs alone. Thus no need for revolution or regicide. They needed only to traipse to the polls when called and participate more conscientiously in the collective exercise of their sovereignty. Helping to articulate and then loyally abiding by the General Will was the essence of freedom, after all. So stop complaining and participate civically!

The rest follows. The rites and holidays serve to remind us of our purported awesome power. Each year, then, the president goes before a joint session of Congress to report on the state of our union, with the cabinet (minus one) and the august justices of the Supreme Court duly assembled. The presidential box is graced by people who, for some very poor reason, allow themselves to be politically exploited by the occupant of the White House.

From there, it's all pretty routine, and Joe Biden stuck to the script. Take his boast about creating a record number of jobs, shrinking the deficit, controlling inflation, and the like. We've heard it countless times before. If something has gotten worse, say, crime, vow to make it better but accept no responsibility.

Never mind that the job growth (attributable to enterprise) was predictable with the waning of the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors beyond the power even of the Oval Office. Never mind that huge budget deficits loom as far as the eye can see -- Washington is addicted to spending our money -- and that the debt limit has again been reached and will soon be raised. The sky's the limit, you know. That justifies forecasts of more Fed inflation and malinvestment, then recession and involuntary joblessness.

Never mind that the federal budget line labeled "interest on the debt" continues to increase and will tower over ever more spending categories. Never mind that Biden's Buy American policy means that the government will intentionally spend more of our money than necessary in procuring materials for infrastructure projects it should have nothing to do with anyway. (And leave foreigners with fewer dollars with which to buy what politically unfavored Americans make.)

Never mind that newly proposed price controls and regulations will lower the living standard of everyone, lower-income people included. And never mind that "illegal" immigrants aren't the problem with the welfare state or the source of fentanyl. (That would be the misnamed war on drugs.)

Mind none of that. Just jump to your feet multiple times and applaud. That goes even for you good folks at home -- just in case your smart TV is watching you back. (I'm just sayin'.)

I did enjoy the lively give-and-take that went on when Biden said that “some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset.” Republicans were heard to shout back, "No!" and "Liar."

That's another game they all play: pretending that Social Security and Medicare won't crash -- sunset is too gentle a verb -- on their own without any help from Congress. Both programs will be insolvent in the short term. The implicit crash provision was built into the original legislation in the 1930s and 1960s.

But before the people had a chance even to wonder if the chief executive was indeed lying, he engaged in classic misdirection by saying, “Let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors.”

Everyone -- yes, everyone -- got to their feet and applauded. He might as well have said, "Let's all agree that the law of gravity has been suspended!"

The Republicans of course have their own overlapping game. They brand themselves as the party of limited government (but not of limited military or surveillance) and fiscal responsibility and expect us to pay no attention to the small men behind the curtain who spend oodles of our money just like their opponents do. They are bad wizards and bad men. Since raising taxes would go against the brand, they are, despite their incessant squawking, secret agents of deficit spending, which means inflation and recession. Of course, many Republicans -- MAGA and the other denominations -- thrill to the words Buy American and to any industrial policy as long as the prefix strategic is attached. That's music to their ears. And they don't want immigrants polluting the culture or labor market. The populists of left and right are substantially of one mind.

How reassuring that it's business as usual in old D.C. Thank goodness the adults are back in charge. The civic religion can proceed with its rituals mostly intact.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Black History Month?

If a Martian social scientist were to visit America, he surely would assume that Black History Month had been concocted by racists. And he'd be right -- for a racist qua racist need not bear ill will toward a particular group. What makes someone a racist is the very concept of human groupings, in this case, persons of African ancestry. In other words, what all racists have in common most fundamentally is the scientifically baseless idea that the species homo sapiens is divided into three (or more) segments that differ significantly at the genetic level. Like so many things we "know," this one ain't so.

The myth of race is what Barbara Fields and Karen Fields call "racecraft," and yes, they do mean to analogize it to witchcraft (Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life). What most people, benevolent and malevolent, mean by race could not differ more from what biologists mean by race. As the Fieldses write:

Race in today's biology is not a traditionally named group of people but a statistically defined population: "the difference in frequency of alleles between populations (contiguous and interbreeding groups) of the same species." Unlike the units of bio-racism, these populations are not held to be visible to the naked eye [emphasis added], or knowable in advance of disciplined investigation. [Link added. The internal quote is from Anthony Griffiths et al., Introduction to Genetics.]

Racecraft saturates the language of even well-intentioned people, which is why the Fieldses' book is so damn important.

Friday, February 03, 2023

TGIF: The Tyre Nichols Atrocity

The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols literally at the hands (and feet) of several Memphis police officers might be a source of cognitive dissonance for some people. But before we get to that, let's begin at the beginning. 

To start with the moral basics, the officers who initiated force against Nichols, a 29-year-old father, and the others who joined in once the assault was in progress, had no apparent reason to believe Nichols posed any danger to them or the public. Judging by the body-cam video, the first officers to stop and approach Nichols's car were exceedingly hostile from the start. It would be wrong to say they escalated the situation -- rather, they appear to be in high confrontational mode from the get-go.

Some might say that Nichols failed to comply with the officers' angry orders to get out and on the ground as they pulled him from his car. From the video, it looks more like Nichols was shocked and disoriented by what was happening. "What did I do?" he asked. He didn't strike the officers; he asked a question. I suspect that police culture doesn't cotton to such impertinence even when a suspect appears unthreatening. Yes, he ran away when he got the chance (and was soon caught and brutally punched and kicked again), but that was after being assaulted, tased, and pepper-sprayed. Watch the videos from the police body cams and pole-mounted surveillance camera for yourself. They're not easy to view.

Simply put, this has all the looks of an atrocity by members of the now-"permanently deactivated" SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit, who knew they were being videoed.

The sheer brutality will confirm many people's beliefs about the police. But there are problems with what many people think they know. As the saying goes, we often know things "that ain't so." Here's where the dissonance sets in.

Five officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other serious offenses. Others, including three onlooking fire department paramedics, are being investigated and have been dismissed. The street demonstrators who are demanding accountability may have missed the reports. Or they can't take yes for an answer. Never let the facts get in the way of a good slogan: "Accountability now!" Should the cops be lynched? (Other cops who killed citizens in recent years have been convicted and imprisoned.)

This is accountability is good, but prevention is needed too. Police departments must examine their hiring and training procedures in order to exclude bullies and bullying tactics as much as humanly possible. Police should not be taught that they are an occupying army. It would help if they were not furnished military gear by the national government and if they did not think of themselves as paramilitary rather than civilians. Moreover, offending police officers must not be able to take refuge in things like qualified immunity. You and I are liable for the damage we do, even unintentionally. So should the cops be.

As noted, the SCORPION unit, set up to focus on "high-crime spots," is now history. Such things exist in other American cities. Forming the unit presumably was well-intended because, throughout the United States, most violent crime occurs in a relatively small number of areas, largely lower-income black and Latino communities. As Rafael Mangual, author of Criminal (In)justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most, points out, if you were dropped into a random location in America, chances are you would land in a low-crime area. Note who would suffer from a reduction in policing in high-crime areas: the poorest, most vulnerable Americans; they would be black and Latino. That's probably why, when polled, black Americans overwhelmingly oppose shrinking the police presence.

It thus seems reasonable for the police to focus on where the crime is: resources are not unlimited. But that shouldn't be a carte blanche for cops or -- and this needs more attention -- national and state legislators, who tell the cops what to treat as crimes. The police problem would be far smaller if governments did not prohibit drug use, manufacturing, and sales. That's because a "war on drugs" is necessarily a war on consensual transactions, which have no complaining witness. That fact prompts the police to use tactics -- undercover operations, reliance on dodgy informants, no-knock raids -- that create sure-fire conditions for violent confrontations and lethal errors involving innocents. (See the Breonna Taylor killing for an example.) In sum, terminating the drug war (and other wars on vice) would reduce the number of potentially dangerous contacts between the police and lower-income people, as well as improve the quality of the remaining contact. It would also rid the drug trade of the thuggish gangs that run black markets. Prohibition kills. (Much else must be done: for example, end occupational licensing and barriers to small-business formation, and let lower-income kids escape the government's schools.) 

Here's another possible source of cognitive dissonance: the Nichols case shows us what we already should know. Police brutality is not about race -- it's about police brutality. Nichols was black, but so are the five dismissed and indicted officers. Two of the three fired EMTs are black. One white officer is being investigated, and another cop under investigation has yet to be identified. The Memphis chief of police is a black woman. It is hard to see how this is a racial atrocity. Logic will be twisted to make it appear so, but it will not wash. To attribute the black cops' conduct to white supremacy is to deny them agency -- which strikes me as patronizing -- not to mention racist.

To the extent we have a police problem, it's everyone's problem -- but especially lower-income people no matter their skin tone. They have more contact with the police than higher-income people. Lighter-skinned lower-income people are also beaten, shot, and killed by police, but they apparently aren't newsworthy in our race-distracted era.

To see how wrong the Black Lives Matter narrative is, read this paper by Zac Kriegman, the top Reuters data analyst who was fired simply for showing his bosses that their crime coverage was wrongly premised on BLM's narrative, which is unsupported by the data. (Kriegman wasn't refuted; he was summarily dismissed.) The historian Barbara Fields, coauthor of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, asks if you really cared about police brutality, why would you lead white people to falsely believe that only black people need to fear the cops?

Next, as bad as police aggression is, its frequency should not be exaggerated. Dishonesty is a bad policy; it discredits efforts to reduce that aggression as much as we can. In 2022, says Mapping Police Violence, about 1,100 Americans (of all colors) were killed by police, most of them by firearms. That's down not up over the last several decades. (The Washington Post says the shootings alone numbered 1,096.) That's all killings, including justifiable ones. The number of killings of unarmed Americans is in double digits (about 40 in 2020), although unarmed people can be dangerous too, especially when they reach for a policeman's gun. The 1,100 figure is nothing to be complacent about, but perspective is necessary.

Police make 10 million arrests every year in a country of over 330 million. So let's not exaggerate the problem. What we cannot truthfully say is that it's police open season on a certain group of Americans. Are black men killed disproportionately? Black people make up 13 percent of the American population and by that benchmark are overrepresented among victims of police killings. But is that the right benchmark? Kriegman writes,

The correct benchmark for measuring bias in police use of lethal force is the number of high risk encounters for each group, and not the population of each group.... [O]n average, violent crime rates are dramatically higher in predominantly black communities than they are in predominantly white communities.... Therefore we should expect there to be more encounters in those communities for the purpose of achieving entirely legitimate and laudable policing objectives.

When we use the appropriate benchmark, Kriegman writes, "the supposed anti-black bias disappears completely, and possibly, even reverses." (By analogy, men make up almost 50 percent of the general population, but over 90 percent of the prison population. Does that prove the criminal justice system guilty of misandry? Not if you use the proper benchmark: the population of people who commit violent crimes.)

As I've suggested, policing could be improved in various ways through better screening and training, and full transparency and accountability. It's got to happen -- and soon. Poor policing harms the most vulnerable in two ways. It directly victimizes people through police brutality, and it indirectly victimizes people by leaving them at the mercy of street criminals. Both ways are intolerable.

Yet we should understand that no matter how much better policing could be, it won't be good enough. The reasons are simple: policing today is a monopoly of governments, and it is politicians who define the crimes that the police are mandated to combat. We all know what coercive monopolies produce: shoddy products and services at unnecessarily high prices. We certainly need policing because some people will be inclined to have their way by force. To get better policing, then, we must insist that the politicians and bureaucrats step aside and let competitive free enterprise -- with full transparency and accountability -- deliver high-quality and affordable services, just as it has done with the other services it delivers.