Fraser Forum

If you violate the law, no matter your profession, when do you lose authority?

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In an old episode of the animated series South Park, Eric Cartman is “deputized” by an illiterate police officer. Cartman then rides around town on his Big Wheel beating people on the shins with a police baton in response to what he perceives as violations of the law, or those who fail to respect his authority as a law enforcement officer. “Respect my authoritah!” he demands, as he dishes out the beatings.

This raises two questions: Does Cartman legitimately have authority in the first place? And, either way, what are the limits of authority with respect to the use of force?

Of course, these questions aren’t confined to the fictional town in South Park. These are questions we are obliged to ask in real life. When police officers use force in the real world, do they legitimately hold authority, or is it only a Cartman-like “authoritah?” And if it’s real authority, how much does it license?

People understand the function of police in different ways—that the police are there to protect public safety. Or to investigate crimes. Or enforce the law. But these three functions are different.

If someone steals my car, I have every right to try to locate the thief and recover my property. In actual practice, I may lack the resources to do this, and indeed may lack the skills. Following the logic of the division of labour, it makes perfect sense to have someone else do these things. These other agents (police) are justified in recovering my property because I was already justified, and have transferred my authority to my agent. This is how John Locke accounts for law-enforcement in his Second Treatise. But I cannot authorize an agent to do something that I do not myself have the authority to do.

So, the logic of outsourcing doesn’t mean I have the right to hire a contract killer. While it’s true that I lack the skills to murder effectively and I might be better off delegating an agent to do it on my behalf, I cannot rightly delegate this task to an agent because I don’t have the right to do it myself in the first place. The hitman can correctly say “I was acting on behalf of my employer,” but that isn’t sufficient to authorize the hit. So we can delegate to agents only those powers that we already legitimately possess.

This means that there is an important difference between saying “investigate crimes” and “enforce the law” because not every law pertains to an actual crime. Tautologically, of course, violation of any law is a crime, but not all of these are extensions of powers we already possess.

The publicly-enforceable law against stealing derives its authority from the moral prohibition on theft, which itself derives from the more fundamental idea of the natural right to live and be free.

But in the absence of a moral prohibition, the remaining candidate for a source of authority is the power of the ruler. Sometimes the ruler is a single person and other times it’s a majority of voters, but neither of these licenses the use of force unless a morally-warranted self-defense claim can be shown.

So when a police officer’s use of force is grounded in actual self-defense—say, headlocking a teenage girl or using a Taser on a handcuffed person—this isn’t a use of real authority. It’s just authoritah.


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