Law Enforcement is Inherently Tragic

Debate always rages over what should be legalized, what should be banned, when police should or shouldn’t use violence, and who belongs in jail. We believe crime is a problem, and that we can solve problems by making them into crimes. But crime is a symptom. When a law is broken, it means something in society has gone deeply wrong.

Most legal systems, and the popular attitude surrounding the law, are little more than revenge fantasies. We punish people who disobey the law, not because it will fix whatever wrong they’ve committed, but because it feels like they deserve to suffer. We tell ourselves that the threat of punishment deters people from breaking the law, even without a shred of evidence to support this, let alone common sense. There are plenty of harmless behaviors that are illegal, and plenty of very harmful behaviors that are legal. There are lots of horrible things each and every one of us could do, every day. But we don’t, for a long list of reasons — and “because I could go to jail” is often very far down that list. For both people who abide by the law and people who break it, whether a legislative body approves of your actions is almost always a complete afterthought.

We tell ourselves that threats of punishment work, even though they rarely do, because we don’t want to face the fact that a broken law is a failure state. A bug in the system. An error message on the blue screen of society. If a law is so just, so moral, so representative of what a democratic society believes is “the right thing,” then why would anyone ever break it? Why would you have to enforce a good law?

When somebody breaks a law, it means one of two things:

  1. The law is unjust
  2. Something prevented this person from behaving properly

Those are the only two possibilities. There is no third option of “well, maybe some people are bad people,” and it’s time we called the belief that criminals aren’t created by their circumstances what it is: social science denial. If you believe that people rob stores because they have “poor moral character” or whatever, then your point of view is no more valuable than someone who thinks dinosaurs are a hoax or that the measles vaccine is ruining your indigo child’s crystal aura, and I’m not going to waste any more time refuting you.

There is nothing to celebrate when somebody is arrested, convicted, imprisoned, or even given a slap on the wrist and set free. For some reason — whether out of complacency, ignorance, or just plain delusion — most of society does not treat the work of law enforcement as the regrettable, preventable tragedy that it is. It’s easier to cope with when the solution is simply to repeal a dumb law, or to legalize something that never should have been banned in the first place. It’s harder when we have to accept the fact that somebody turned to something we all can agree is wrong — something like theft, murder, assault, libel, fraud — and they turned to this because doing the right thing wasn’t working.

Poverty, illness, toxic cultural norms, broken bureaucracy, fear, even traffic congestion — these are what drive people to do the wrong thing. We criminalize the behaviors that they cause and expect them to go away, but they don’t. We blame the people who break our laws because we don’t want to blame ourselves. We ought to be grieving every time a ticket is written, a handcuff is locked, a cell door swings shut, a gavel slams down to punctuate a sentence.

Instead, we create justice systems that incentivize and celebrate punishment, patting police and prosecutors on the back every time they nail somebody regardless of whether the world is better off because of it. From municipalities that excitedly raise revenue from parking tickets instead of fixing their parking problem, to district attorneys who proudly jail murderer after murderer while people keep getting murdered, the entire culture of law and order is completely warped and backwards.

Laws shouldn’t have to be enforced. This may be a utopian ideal — a world with no struggle, no scarcity, no disagreement, and everybody happily obeying a common consensus of appropriate behavior all the time — but that’s not an excuse not to try. Every engineer knows that a system will always have bugs and flaws, but that’s not a reason to accept them. When that system is society itself, the system that runs our entire world, we should be less accepting of flaws than in any other case. Let’s acknowledge that law enforcement is a kludge, a hack, a quick and dirty fix that shouldn’t have to be there, and work to prevent it from ever having to happen.


  1. geo

    thank you Zacquary, this is an excellent article!

  2. Dave

    What about mental illness? I realize laws and law enforcement won’t prevent the mentally ill from doing bad things, but that *is* a reason that some people do bad things.

    1. Jack Sprat

      In many cases, mental illness can be thought of as anti-authoritarian behavior or created out of circumstance. Of course there are people who have genetic sources or birth defects, but does locking them away really help society or merely hide the problem?

    2. Aelius Blythe

      I think mental illness comes under point #2: “Something [e.g. a medical condition] prevented this person from [or exerted significant force on their decision-making so as to hinder them] behaving properly.”

      That’s actually a prime example of crime being a *symptom* of a problem. Not that a mentally ill person would *never* commit a crime if only they had proper treatment, but a crime committed by a person not in their right (healthy) mind can certainly be a symptom of a serious medical condition. And treatment, not punishment, is the only ethical response to a medical condition – whether mental or physical. Granted, treatment may require a secure facility so (in my opinion) we may never get to the point where we don’t EVER lock people up EVER.

      I think that’s generally the point this article is making – we must at least try to prioritize treatment over retribution, otherwise we’re just chasing symptoms instead of eradicating the causes (of which mental illness may be one) and hence the primary need for law enforcement.

      1. frank87

        Dr Swaab, a famous brain researcher argues that most criminals have some sort of mental illness.

        1. Christopher

          No, most ‘criminals’ are simply people who refuse to kowtow to the government telling them who they can sleep with, what they can put into their own bodies, what they can own, etc.

          The government LOVES to dictate a hell of a lot of stuff to people today and that needs to stop.

          The only laws that should be on the books are those that are meant to punish those who physically harm other people without those people’s permission, who steal from other people, and who force people to do or not do something that they do not or do wish to do, sexual or not.

          All the rest of ‘da law’ needs to be repealed because it is just meant to dictate to other people what they do and/or try to force what some people call ‘common sense’ (that is not usually sensible from the other person’s PoV) on those people.

    3. Andreas

      I think it begins with the fact that mental illness is an arbitrary definition – and from there it only goes down 🙂

      The history of medicine is full of “treatments” (like lobotomy) for “mental illnesses” (for instance as shown by the symptom of masturbation). I don’t say that mental illness is a completely useless concept, it’s only that it has been used as a weapon throughout history. I’d be very, very careful with that term.

      1. gurrfield

        Actually “crime” also is arbitrarily defined. Many things have been criminal but which are not today and some things which are criminal today were not earlier in history.

        1. Christopher

          Yep… examples of that “At one time criminal” are miscegenation, homosexuality, etc.
          Hell, some things were legal at one time (having sex with people under 16, prostitution) and are now illegal.

          Basically, it is time to say that unless someone is physically forcing someone else into X or Y, it should not be illegal.
          I know that will anger some people who believe that minors and teenagers can be forced into things, sexual and not, against their will but that simply is not the truth except for the children and teenagers raised in very conservative families who are taught that people older than them can order them to do anything.

    4. Scary Devil Monastery

      That is an excellent point, and one which invites a followup.

      A few facts of note:

      In Sweden the proportion of repeat offenders using violence who have been found to have ADHD and/or schizophrenia is roughly 1 in 3. Medication and therapy does, in the majority of cases, allow these people to succeed in ordinary society.

      Switzerland is known to possess two things – one of the highest proportion of automatic weapons per capita along with the highest mental health standards of it’s citizenry…and has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.
      Whereas every nation with bad mental health standards has skyrocketing murder rates – mexico and the US stand as good examples.

      Just from a very small grab bag of examples you can make a case that the majority of murders and violent crimes can be seen as a direct indication of failing medical care.

      The vast majority of mental illnesses compelling crimes are ironically the ones most easily treated as well.

      1. Christopher

        ADHD is a made-up disease. Most times, people with ‘ADHD’ are really just infinitely smarter and ahead of the rest of the people in their classes and are getting severely bored with the classwork in question.
        I.E. they are geniuses who are being expected to slow down so the rest of the lower IQ people can keep up with them. That makes people resentful and inattentive at best.

    5. Kristian Niss

      That falls under reason number 2: Something (mental illness) prevented this person from behaving properly.

  3. Matt`

    You clearly have a very optimistic view of human character, but it seems somewhat counter to reality to say that “The law is wrong” or “Something external to the person caused them to break the law” are the only options – where does your 2-bucket classification system place crimes that are committed because the perpetrator believed they could get away with it, and simply didn’t care about the people they hurt?

    I guess I can see what your point may be; that if society were optimally arranged everyone would be taught or raised with greater respect for their fellow man, but it still seems like a bit of a stretch to place the responsibility on “something prevented them from behaving properly” when it’s also true that a huge number of other people, of similar background and circumstances, may have faced the same situation and the same opportunity and simply chosen not to commit a crime.

    I think that speaks to there being a natural variation of character between humans, beyond what can be explained by societal factors pushing people around or “the right thing not working”.

    1. frank87

      The second category is very broad. Being angry with somebody is a common reason to break the law that fits this.

  4. Werner

    This is naive.

    Whoever agrees have never encountered a psycopath or an aggressive narcissist in a management position.

    What would keep corporations in check but laws? The good will of your sociopathic boss? Laws barely stop them now.

    1. Autolykos

      It’s not naive, it’s utopia. I agree that we currently don’t have the means to make this vision reality. For example, there is no way to heal true psychopaths (to the best of my knowledge). But that doesn’t mean there never will be.
      Or there’s still poverty, inequality and scarcity around that can only be partially fixed, leaving ample motivation for crime. But that doesn’t mean abundance can’t be possible in the future.
      And corporate crime is probably the easiest type of crime to deal with, because the actors involved are rational (or at least pretty damn close most of the time): One just has to engineer the system in a way that makes sure this type of crime doesn’t pay, and it would practically disappear overnight.

      In short, I would definitely prefer to live in a world where laws and prisons are obsolete. And even if that ideal might be impossible to reach completely (and it probably is in the near future), we should still try to get as close as possible instead of just giving up on humanity – because getting closer is always possible and has tangible benefits.

  5. Patrik

    Yes, this is naive. It’s also somewhat insightful.

    That it is naive should be apparent to anyone who has ever played games with other people. If you have, you should be fully aware that questions about conduct arise even in the most trivial game. You should also be aware that not all people try to be objective and fair. If you haven’t yet encountered someone who just want to be selfish, you simply haven’t played with enough people. They’re fortunately not that common – but common enough that almost all people playing games have encountered one.

    These people are fully willing to break social norms for the enjoyment of being “winners”. They are willing to cheat and lie for no other benefit than feeling superior to others. Do you REALLY think external factors are necessary to make them consider committing crimes that could give them more substantial rewards?

    The insightful part of this text is that law enforcement and courts may not always be the best way to handle these issues. Yes, there is no doubt a revenge element involved and yes, it’s not always constructive in the sense that we deal with the problem in a way that is optimal *for the individual*. However, what’s optimal for the individual isn’t always optimal *for society*.

    Let’s be blunt. “Humans” is a resource that is practcally endless. They multiply by themselves, and currently it’s more of a problem that there are *too many* humans, than too few. In other words, the value of a human life really isn’t “infinite” as most of us tend to think. Of course, each of us are pretty darn attached to *our own* lives – but society really doesn’t depend on individual humans. Society can function just fine without a lot of individuals.

    Hence, we need to look at cost. If we postulate that everyone can be “fixed” (a big IF), there’s still the issue of cost. Let’s say it is possible to rehabilitate a career criminal – what would be the cost of that? Is that cost to society higher than simply throwing the criminal in prison for the rest of his life? If it is, you can’t really argue that it is reasonable for society to invest THAT MUCH into making sure each and every individual is integrated into society.

    Obviously, calculating the cost of things like that is almost impossible. Still, one should not advocate fanatical and extremist standpoints simply because it is difficult to be more nuanced.

    1. Andy

      “Do you REALLY think external factors are necessary to make them consider committing crimes that could give them more substantial rewards?”

      Substantial rewards *are* an external factor. If cheating is more rewarding than playing along, then you’re playing a shitty game with a cruel ruleset.
      By having a private property society, people have something to gain from ‘theft’, so we guarantee that it will happen. By having an open access society, people have nothing to gain from hoarding, when they could live much more easily baggage-free and pick up whatever they need from library-like stores.

      “Let’s say it is possible to rehabilitate a career criminal – what would be the cost of that? Is that cost to society higher than simply throwing the criminal in prison for the rest of his life?”
      I don’t know, you tell me how much human life is worth. I doubt many people would put it beneath the cost of giving someone a college-level education. Note that rehabilitating a criminal does not merely have a cost, it provides the benefit of a productive member of society who would otherwise have needed to be cared for with no returns.
      I define a criminal by a case law definition – someone who has done something provably harmful to another member of society. Most people in jail due to a ‘career’ are there for symptoms of poverty – taking things from the fortunate rich. That is not even a crime, does not require rehabilitation, and is immediately preventable by providing for that person’s needs.

  6. Gwandad

    What a load of old rubbish. We lock them up to keep them from reoffending. You “do gooders” can play your games with them while they are locked away!

    1. Andy

      You’re mixing up restraint with punishment. Violent people do need to be restrained until rehabilitated, for society’s safety. Punishing/degrading them is counter-productive to that process, typically leaving resentment that they will later take out on someone.

  7. Antimon555

    I agree with you to a certain degree, but frankly, if you really believe that all people are inherently good, you haven’t been looking around the tubes very much. Not even the YouTube. My rough estimate is that maybe 20 to 40 percent are on the good half of the spectrum, the rest evil.

    For example, if you gave a thousand people a choice of, without any repercussions or awards, letting a random stranger either recieve a bouquet of flowers or a punch in the nuts, and in either case watch the result, what would you think the result would be? Really?

    1. Predator

      Firstly, the presumption of there being good and evil is laughable to begin with – like all other things – this is a relative concept.

      Secondly, How is punching someone in the nuts evil while sending someone else flowers good? How does the question even make sense without context?

      To put it another way, allegorically:

      To the farmer, the mouse is evil because it eats his crops.
      To the mouse, the cat is evil because it eats him.
      To the farmer the cat is good because it eats the mice.
      (Thank you Mr. T. Goodkind for this allegory 🙂

      Morality is a lie, or at least what you think you understand of morality is.

      1. Caj S

        You just say that because you know that you would choose the latter yourself 😛

        1. Buglord

          due to the vague nature of the choices I would indeed also choose that option. because I have no way of knowing which is actually worse for whatever receiving individual.

          there’s just too many reasons why either choice can be terrible.

      2. Antimon555

        To “Predator” and “Buglord”: What should I say, you just proved my point

  8. 12.3.2014 Daily Links | Daily Links & News

    […] hundreds of breaking news accounts of the Grand Jury’s failure to indict, obviously one of thousands  of recent accounts about policing and society and oppression and violence-against-citizens and […]

  9. RS

    Sorry but this is simply wrong, on both counts:

    1. Experiments have shown that prison _is_ a deterrent. What isn’t is the severity of the prison term.
    2. There _are_ bad people, specifically people who lack empathy. They may or may not have been born bad, but they’re definitely bad by the time they’ve reached 20. Denying this is denying reality.

    1. Andy

      1. Citation needed, but that is not in dispute here; violent people need to be restrained, “severity” implies punishment being involved, which is exactly what is at issue here. See above.
      2. “Bad” is a highly subjective, effectively meaningless term, and you are merely reifying it by giving it your own private definition. Nobody is denying that we have people who lack empathy, but you must admit that we now understand many of the factors that create criminal propensities in people, and that they are preventable, or you would be denying modern science.

  10. Heidegger


    -The only legitimate reasons for inprisonment are deterence and incapacitation.

    – That people behave bad or lack empathy, doesn´t necessarily mean that they are “evil” in a metaphysical sense. The latter would require some kind of free will that seems incoherent to anybody requiring that the PERSON (1) COULD (2) have done otherwise.

  11. monicker

    There is a documentary video about the private prison system, made in US by a major media company, I remember a quote from it: goes something like, ‘we build beds, and they will surely be occupied’, like in saying: our offer drives demand. Its no point for those new prison buildings we made to stay empty, so we will find someone to occupy them, its the business industry, with the collaboration of government.

    2. similarly to the weapons industry: the producer doesnt want to go broke, so he doesnt care about peace, he continues to produce weapons in time of peace.

  12. Wyrm

    I think you’re missing the actual point of “the Law”.

    Punishment by the Law is ineffective as a threat as has been shown several times. But the Law is not aimed at the criminals themselves.

    It’s aimed at the other people, the ones who expect “something” to happen to criminals. If you don’t do something to criminals, other people will. And that’s not a problem in itself either. The problem is that generalizing that behavior will lead to pure Chaos. The Law is not about punishing or protecting individuals, it’s all about Order. Maintaining cohesion in society.

    Most people believe in the Law because it has long been explained to them that it’s the way to behave in your society, and there are consequences to not abiding by it. It’s not intended as a threat, just as the way it happens. Most cultures are built on the idea that Wrong or Evil is punished, so it’s simply expected. As an elected representative, break this expectation and you will be seen as having failed your people.

    If you want to change the Law, you first have to change the culture that make people expect punishment for crimes. And to change this, you need an alternative to the punishment system. Not just wishes that Laws won’t need to be enforced because people will just behave by themselves.

    Finally, there is another point to consider. Law and Law enforcement are not always seen in a good light. In several cases, they are seen as an annoyance, or a necessary evil. Which means many people feel the same as you, that there shouldn’t be a need to enforce rules to leave in a civilized society. But you still need an alternative to change the system.

  13. Stephan Kinsella

    There is no such thing as quality legislation–legislation is not a legitimate means making law.

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