Policing and Societal Regulation (Part 2)

By | July 28, 2014

We ended last time with the observation that we seem to be living increasingly in a society under the rule of Catch-22.

For any of you who have been under a rock since before the 1960s, Catch-22 was the fabulously successful novel by Joseph Heller (IMHO, the only good one he ever wrote) first published in 1961. I remember reading it propped up in the top bunk in my dorm room at Reed College, oblivious to much of anything else going on, including classes. Most of us were the same way; despite its being nominally about WWII, it really spoke directly to us who were gradually emerging from the social stultification that was the 1950s; the 1960s weren’t really there yet, but they were thundering toward us even then. The times they were a’changin’, indeed – we thought for the better. Little did we know.

According to Wikipedia,

“A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over. One connotation of the term is that the creators of the “catch-22″ have created arbitrary rules in order to justify and conceal their own abuse of power.”

Or, as Yossarian himself was told at the end of the book, “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

Earlier, I was describing the Social Security clerk and her way of performing her job. Now indeed she may have been correct in applying the regulations (although that doesn’t excuse her abusive way of applying them), but if so then the blame has to be put on the insanity of the regulations themselves, and a system that requires a five-volume code of social security regulations, not to mention the roughly 20,000 pages of the IRS Code and regulations or the approximately 150,000 page Code of Federal Regulations itself. And that doesn’t begin to count the state, local, and special district laws and regulations, each and every one of which is intended to control the behavior of human beings.

This isn’t some sort of “libertarian rant”; I gave up Ayn Rand about the same time I found Joseph Heller. I don’t believe we ought to be reduced to a Hobbesian state of nature. I understand the nature of a commonwealth and the desirability of common social action toward mutually agreed on interests such as infrastructure development, adjudication of disputes, maintenance of a degree of public order, and some other things. I understand the necessity of a social safety net and the obligations of a society to those of its members who for one reason or another fall through its opportunity cracks; I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of it myself. But the fact is that we have become a society so mired in its legal and regulatory systems that multiple abuses are virtually inevitable. There’s one lawyer who claims that Americans must inevitably commit at least three felonies every day, just by virtue of doing everyday things. This may be an exaggeration, but not by a lot.

Perhaps the question is why isn’t there more abuse? We all know that it’s out there and can happen at any minute; we’re more or less inured to it. We hear about another police shooting of an unarmed man, and unless we happen to personally know the guy involved, we then yawn and click over to ESPN. Is there a single soul in New Jersey or New York who believes that Gov. Christie didn’t personally order those traffic cones put out, if not necessarily in so many words? Of course not; we we expect abuses of power by those in power. Do we do anything while Jaime Dimon levers himself another $20 million out of JPMorganChase even as the company pays $20 billion in fines for illegal behavior on his watch? General Motors admits to having known for over 15 years about potentially fatal defects in its cars that led to multiple fatalities and enormous losses, and is as a consequence fined $35 million – equivalent to one day’s income – and disciplines precisely one low-level employee. We hear this and we shrug again. We have lost our capacity for civic outrage.

In Part 3 (forthcoming) we’ll explore further what might be done.