The Ethics of the Policeby Fernando Chiocca
Mises Institute Brazil
Jun. 30, 2011
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In an era where legal positivism dominates, when intense state propaganda has tried to eradicate the concepts of justice and natural law — and impose the belief that "law" is just about anything the state says it is — people still retain some notions about what is right or wrong, just or unjust, criminal or legitimate. People readily acknowledge that some government action is unjust, although they occur under the cloak of state authority with officers merely "enforcing the law." These actions, in practice, occur by the hands of the armed forces of the state and act directly with its vassals: the police. However, people face an aggravating factor that creates even more confusion: the state has a monopoly on judicial services and security, and no one else besides this institution — one that violates countless individual rights — can combat crimes committed by other criminals. Security, vital to any society, ends up being provided almost exclusively by the state police. Therefore, how can they possibly be ethically evaluated?
First of all, I want to clarify that this article is not intended to address a criticism of corrupt cops specifically, but the police generally. Moreover, based on natural law ethics , I intend to demonstrate that in many cases, the corrupt cop is the most just and the strictly compliant officer the most criminal. Let's imagine the following case: A shop owner hires John as a security guard in his establishment. In exchange for a salary, John starts to carry out his functions of protecting the merchant's and his customers' property from possible thefts and robberies by discouraging the actions of thieves through physical engagement if they attempt to commit a robbery. So far, so good — John performs one of the bravest and most noble professions, all within a strictly voluntary trading agreement and with respect for property. Now imagine that the store owner orders his security to destroy the competing stores, rendering his employer's store the only shopping option around. Or that John prevents — through the use or threat of physical violence — customers from buying products in places other than that of his employer. Or that John starts extorting a monthly amount of money from the entire neighborhood. Well, from this point on, anyone can say that if John chooses to comply with the orders from the owner of the store, he will become a criminal even though he continues to fulfill his original function of protecting the store and its customers from other criminals. But if John is an honest person who values moral consistency, he will surely refuse to commit such crimes and will look for another job. However, all functions described above are performed by state police: not only the function of protection of individuals' life and property against private criminal attacks, but also the criminal functions, such as preventing free competition in the market by implementing regulations, prohibitions and collection of taxes, amongst many others.
What is often claimed is that, unlike the security guard of the case above, the policeman does not follow orders from a private individual, but from a state. But this changes absolutely nothing of the nature of such actions. Human action is always individual. Only individuals act. Their actions are legitimate or criminal; and the fact that it has been ordered by a store owner, a president, a king, a dictator, or a majority of people in a particular territorial geography, does not turn vice into virtue. No one would say that the guards carrying out jus primae noctis were not criminals because they were acting on behalf of the king. Or, to use an example from a democratic state, the secret police officers of the German Nazi party executing Jews in concentration camps were not committing crimes because they were acting at the behest of a democratically elected government. These, for sake of example, are two cases in which a corrupt policeman who, in exchange for a bribe, wouldn't fulfill the "law" would be more desirable than the incorruptible one. And since every state has committed many crimes against its subjects, must we understand that all policemen are criminals? The answer is no, because the police are generally organized into subdivisions.
There are policemen that perform only virtuous and legitimate activities, there are ones that perform only criminal activities, and there are those that perform both types. The officers of the Anti-Kidnapping Division, for example, are police officers that do not involve themselves in criminal activities of the state for which they work. Their job is solely to combat the criminals who kidnap people — one of the most heinous crimes. And every time they get a job well done, they are rightly considered heroes, not only by the saved victims, but also by society as a whole. Not even the fact that they abstain themselves from fighting the largest kidnapping group of innocent people in society, which captures and keeps innocent victims captive for years at an impressive scale — the state — makes this division a criminal organism, for the non-action of refraining from helping someone can be considered immoral, but it can never be considered a criminal act. On the other hand, an example of policemen who are nothing but criminals are the policemen of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). Their job is to seek and obstruct the commerce and usage of certain substances the state arbitrarily decides to ban, such as marijuana, inhalants, steroids, heroin, morphine, amphetamines and even creatine supplements for athletes. They use their weapons to pursue and kidnap people who are engaging in trade; to threaten life and property of sellers who are satisfying the free demand of buyers; and, to steal the goods and the freedom of innocent people. That is to say, doing nothing more than what criminals do. However, some other organs of the police are tasked to perform these and many other crimes, but also get assigned, for instance, to pursue and arrest a murderer. The FBI is an example of such a branch. It is assigned to commit the same crimes as the DEA and many other crimes like: the persecution and capturing of people who are merely trying not to be stolen from (whom they call "tax evaders"), people who are sending their own money outside the state (which they call "capital flight"), people who are entering the country with goods purchased abroad without the consent of the king (the nomenclature for which is "smuggling"), and they even have slaughtered men, women and children for just exercising their freedom of religion and their right to keep and bear arms, as in the case of Waco, TX (what they had the impudence enough to profess that these people were slaves and they represented a danger to themselves and to the surrounding community!). Finally, the lists of crimes that are committed by FBI are endless. But what if they are also entrusted with the task to pursue and arrest real criminals like murderers and rapists? How should we judge them and other police agencies that do both criminal and legitimate activities? Are they necessary and even heroic?
At first glance, what may seem a difficult dilemma to resolve turns out to be rather simple, for a "bandit" and "hero" are not mutually exclusive qualifications; i.e., a person — not a specific action — can be considered both a criminal and a hero. Let us consider the hypothetical case of a known thief in the neighborhood that had committed multiple robberies. Since he was always able to escape from the security agents that pursued him, let's imagine he was walking freely through the streets when he saw a burning building and, risking his own life, bravely faced the fire and saved the lives of a dozen people. Would someone say that he was no longer a thief then? Of course not, because a brave, heroic, decent act does not redeem or delete crimes committed before and neither does it with those that could be committed later. Likewise, a committed crime does not render a previous or a posterior heroic act non-existent. This thief will always be a hero to the dozen people who remain alive because of his act, but for his victims, he will always be the person who stole from them. Another example: if a man chases and arrests the rapist of a child and on the following day he murders a man, does he cease to be a killer and should he not pay for this crime? Obviously not, because although he deserves the recognition and admiration of all for helping to bring justice in the case of rape, he also deserves the contempt and scorn of society for killing an innocent person, and must be punished severely just as any other killer who has never committed a heroic act.
It is therefore simple to ethically analyze those police subdivisions that do not commit crimes and also those that only commit crimes; it is also easy to express an opinion on those subdivisions that perform both legitimate and necessary duties as well as criminal ones. The officers who are part of latter, mixed type of subdivisions that carry out these duties do not differ at all from John, the security guard of our example above, who starts to commit a series of crimes besides the fulfillment of his duty towards his employer's store. They are just criminals, who may sometimes also perform good deeds.
The difference between sporadic, private criminals and the police is that the former are anonymous; they are always running away and hiding, and are usually only revealed as criminals after being caught. The police officers, on the other hand, usually reveal their identity and are identified by uniforms and badges. Vehicles and buildings used by this criminal group openly display their markings. And they proudly flaunt their crimes, as when, for example, they "make an apprehension of drugs and smuggled goods", in other words, when they rob the property of merchants, and proudly announce to the society all the figures and details of the robbery they carried out.
Thus, this compulsory monopoly of the use of force, that in addition to this crime — monopoly  — practices many others, creates a situation where the police, which should be the guardian of property rights, is the same unit that attacks such rights; that those who should execute one of the most honorable and courageous functions of society: the addressing and directly tackling of some of the worst things in our world — human wickedness — manifested in the form of terrible crimes against life and property, are the same people who in most cases commit many other crimes,
and sometimes exclusively commit crimes. It is still amazing that, for example, a police officer that heroically risks his life to protect people from a robbery one day, invades private property and points his guns at elderly women to prevent them from enjoying their bingo game on the following day; thus deserving the same social contempt destined to the robber he arrested the day before for this crime and so many others committed on a daily basis. These people that — by a divine gift, a genetic predisposition or any reasons whatsoever — have the courage to face the most vicious elements of society should be the first to denounce the crimes ordered by the state and, of course, refuse to take part in them.
 Ethics is not subjective; it's not a "matter of personal opinion." There is such a thing as objective ethics, valid for all human beings regardless of time or place. In other words, a crime is a crime for a Tupi-Guaranian in 1424, for a Polish in 1986, an Egyptian 3000 B.C. and a Brazilian nowadays, no matter what the state or other dominant criminal group defines as a crime. For more about the objectivity of ethics, see Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, Part I.
 This point is further analyzed and brilliantly illustrated by Professor Block on Defending the Undefendable, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008. Previous publication dates 1991 and 1976.
 According to economic science, the term "monopoly" refers appropriately to the "grant of special privilege by the state reserving a certain area of production to an individual or group", obviously through the use or threatened use of violence against people attempting to compete with the privileged group offering the same product or service. Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy and State with Power and Market, chap. 10, Part 3-A.
 Not only the police officer who commits these crimes consents to them, but a majority of the population supports such criminal actions. And it is this passive endorsement that strengthens the occurrence of such actions. It would be ideal if the police officers refused to follow the orders of the state, but even if they don't, if most people saw the truth about these actions and withdrew their consent, they would cease. Without this consent, the weapons of the policemen could do nothing. Or, as Professor Hoppe puts it:
Again, that is the idea: the president can issue an order, but the order must be accepted and executed by a general; the general may give an order, but the order must be executed by the lieutenant, the lieutenant can give order, but the order must be ultimately carried out by the soldiers, who are those that have to shoot. An if they do not shoot, then whatever the president — or the supreme commander — has ordered will have no effect. Thus, the state can only make its policies if people will give their voluntary consent. They may not agree with everything the state does and/or orders others to do, but as they collaborate, they will obviously be of the opinion that the state is a necessary institution, and the small errors that it commits are only the necessary price to pay to maintain the excellence of whatever it produces. When this illusion disappears, when people understand that the state is nothing more than a parasitic institution, when they no longer comply with the orders issued by this institution, all state-owned powers, even those of the most powerful despot, will disappear immediately.Hans-Hermann Hoppe, The Scam Called the State, The Lew Rockwell Show 8