On the Overton Window

Jul 24 JDN 2459786

As you are no doubt aware, a lot of people on the Internet like to loudly proclaim support for really crazy, extreme ideas. Some of these people actually believe in those ideas, and if you challenge them, will do their best to defend them. Those people are wrong at the level of substantive policy, but there’s nothing wrong with their general approach: If you really think that anarchism or communism is a good thing, it only makes sense that you’d try to convince other people. You might have a hard time of it (in part because you are clearly wrong), but it makes sense that you’d try.

But there is another class of people who argue for crazy, extreme ideas. When pressed, they will admit they don’t really believe in abolishing the police or collectivizing all wealth, but they believe in something else that’s sort of vaguely in that direction, and they think that advocating for the extreme idea will make people more likely to accept what they actually want.

They often refer to this as “shifting the Overton Window”. As Matt Yglesias explained quite well a year ago, this is not actually what Overton was talking about.

But, in principle, it could still be a thing that works. There is a cognitive bias known as anchoring which is often used in marketing: If I only offered a $5 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine, you might think the $20 bottle is too expensive. But if I also include a $50 bottle, that makes you adjust your perceptions of what constitutes a “reasonable” price for wine, and may make you more likely to buy the $20 bottle after all.

It could be, therefore, that an extreme policy demand makes people more willing to accept moderate views, as a sort of compromise. Maybe demanding the abolition of police is a way of making other kinds of police reform seem more reasonable. Maybe showing pictures of Marx and chanting “eat the rich” could make people more willing to accept higher capital gains taxes. Maybe declaring that we are on the verge of apocalyptic climate disaster will make people more willing to accept tighter regulations on carbon emissions and subsidies for solar energy.

Then again—does it actually seem to do that? I see very little evidence that it does. All those demands for police abolition haven’t changed the fact that defunding the police is unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but it has been for awhile now (and never was with, well, the rich). And decades of constantly shouting about imminent climate catastrophe is really starting to look like crying wolf.

To see why this strategy seems to be failing, I think it’s helpful to consider how it feels from the other side. Take a look at some issues where someone else is trying to get you to accept a particular view, and consider whether someone advocating a more extreme view would make you more likely to compromise.

Your particular opinions may vary, but here are some examples that would apply to me, and, I suspect, many of you.

If someone says they want tighter border security, I’m skeptical—it’s pretty tight already. But in and of itself, this would not be such a crazy idea. Certainly I agree that it is possible to have too little border security, and so maybe that turns out to be the state we’re in.

But then, suppose that same person, or someone closely allied to them, starts demanding the immediate deportation of everyone who was not born in the United States, even those who immigrated legally and are naturalized or here on green cards. This is a crazy, extreme idea that’s further in the same direction, so on this anchoring theory, it should make me more willing to accept the idea of tighter border security. And yet, I can say with some confidence that it has no such effect.

Indeed, if anything I think it would make me less likely to accept tighter border security, in proportion to how closely aligned those two arguments are. If they are coming from the same person, or the same political party, it would cause me to suspect that the crazy, extreme policy is the true objective, and the milder, compromise policy is just a means toward that end. It also suggests certain beliefs and attitudes about immigration in general—xenophobia, racism, ultranationalism—that I oppose even more strongly. If you’re talking about deporting all immigrants, you make me suspect that your reasons for wanting tighter border security are not good ones.

Let’s try another example. Suppose someone wants to cut taxes on upper income brackets. In our current state, I think that would be a bad idea. But there was a time not so long ago when I would have agreed with it: Even I have to admit that a top bracket of 94% (as we had in 1943) sounds a little ridiculous, and is surely on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. So the basic idea of cutting top tax rates is not inherently crazy or ridiculous.

Now, suppose that same idea came from the same person, or the same party, or the same political movement, as one that was arguing for the total abolition of all taxation. This is a crazy, extreme idea; it would amount to either total anarcho-capitalism with no government at all, or some sort of bizarre system where the government is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. I think it’s pretty obvious that such a system would be terrible, if not outright impossible; and anyone whose understanding of political economy is sufficiently poor that they would fail to see this is someone whose overall judgment on questions of policy I must consider dubious. Once again, the presence of the extreme view does nothing to make me want to consider the moderate view, and may even make me less willing to do so.

Perhaps I am an unusually rational person, not so greatly affected by anchoring biases? Perhaps. But whereas I do feel briefly tempted by to buy the $20 wine bottle by the effect of the $50 wine bottle, and must correct myself with knowledge I have about anchoring bias, the presentation of an extreme political view never even makes me feel any temptation to accept some kind of compromise with it. Learning that someone supports something crazy or ridiculous—or is willing to say they do, even if deep down they don’t—makes me automatically lower my assessment of their overall credibility. If anything, I think I am tempted to overreact in that direction, and have to remind myself of the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and someone can have both bad ideas and good ones.

Moreover, the empirical data, while sketchy, doesn’t seem to support this either; where the Overton Window (in the originally intended sense) has shifted, as on LGBT rights, it was because people convincingly argued that the “extreme” position was in fact an entirely reasonable and correct view. There was a time not so long ago that same-sex marriage was deemed unthinkable, and the “moderate” view was merely decriminalizing sodomy; but we demanded, and got, same-sex marriage, not as a strategy to compromise on decriminalizing sodomy, but because we actually wanted same-sex marriage and had good arguments for it. I highly doubt we would have been any more successful if we had demanded something ridiculous and extreme, like banning opposite-sex marriage.

The resulting conclusion seems obvious and banal: Only argue for things you actually believe in.

Yet, somehow, that seems to be a controversial view these days.

What’s wrong with police unions?

Nov 14 JDN 2459531

In a previous post I talked about why unions, even though they are collusive, are generally a good thing. But there is one very important exception to this rule: Police unions are almost always harmful.

Most recently, police unions have been leading the charge to fight vaccine mandates. This despite the fact that COVID-19 now kills more police officers than any other cause. They threatened that huge numbers of officers would leave if the mandates were imposed—but it didn’t happen.

But there is a much broader pattern than this: Police unions systematically take the side of individual police offers over the interests of public safety. Even the most incompetent, negligent, or outright murderous behavior by police officers will typically be defended by police unions. (One encouraging development is that lately even some police unions have been reluctant to defend the most outrageous killings by police officers—but this very much the exception, not the rule.)

Police unions are also unusual among unions in their political ties. Conservatives generally oppose unions, but are much friendlier toward police unions. At the other end of the spectrum, socialists normally love unions, but have distanced themselves from police unions for a long time. (The argument in that article that this is because “no other job involves killing people” is a bit weird: Ostensibly, the circumstances in which police are allowed to kill people are not all that different from the circumstances in which private citizens are. Just like us, they’re only supposed to use deadly force to prevent death or grievous bodily harm to themselves or others. The main thing that police are allowed to do that we aren’t is imprison people. Killing isn’t supposed to be a major part of the job.)

Police union also have some other weird features. The total membership of all police unions exceeds the total number of police officers in the United States, because a single officer is often affiliated with multiple unions—normally not at all how unions work. Police unions are also especially powerful and well-organized among unions. They are especially well-funded, and their members are especially loyal.

If we were to adopt a categorical view that unions are always good or always bad—as many people seem to want to—it’s difficult to see why police unions should be different from teachers’ unions or factory workers’ unions. But my argument was very careful not to make such categorical statements. Unions aren’t always or inherently good; they are usually good, because of how they are correcting a power imbalance between workers and corporations.

But when it comes to police, the situation is quite different. Police unions give more bargaining power to government officers against… what? Public accountability? The democratic system? Corporate CEOs are accountable only to their shareholders, but the mayors and city councils who decide police policy are elected (in most of the UK, even police commissioners are directly elected). It’s not clear that there was an imbalance in bargaining power here we would want to correct.

A similar case could be made against all public-sector unions, and indeed that case often is extended to teachers’ unions. If we must sacrifice teachers’ unions in order to destroy police unions, I’d be prepared to bite that bullet. But there are vital differences here as well. Teachers are not responsible for imprisoning people, and bad teachers almost never kill people. (In the rare cases in which teachers have committed murder, they have been charged to the full extent of the law, just as they would be in any other profession.) There surely is some misconduct by teachers that some unions may be protecting, but the harm caused by that misconduct is far lower than the harm caused by police misconduct. Teacher unions also provide a layer of protection for teachers to exercise autonomy, promoting academic freedom.

The form of teacher misconduct I would be most concerned about is sexual abuse of students. And while I’ve seen many essays claiming that teacher unions protect sexual abusers, the only concrete evidence I could find on the subject was a teachers’ union publicly complaining that the government had failed to pass stricter laws against sexual abuse by teachers. The research on teacher misconduct mainly focuses on other casual factors aside from union representation.

Even this Fox News article cherry-picking the worst examples of unions protecting abusive teachers includes line after line like “he was ultimately fired”, “he was pressured to resign”, and “his license was suspended”. So their complaint seems to be that it wasn’t done fast enough? But a fair justice system is necessarily slow. False accusations are rare, but they do happen—we can’t just take someone’s word for it. Ensuring that you don’t get fired until the district mounts strong evidence of misconduct against you is exactly what unions should be doing.

Whether unions are good or bad in a particular industry is ultimately an empirical question. So let’s look at the data, shall we? Teacher unions are positively correlated with school performance. But police unions are positively correlated with increased violent misconduct. There you have it: Teacher unions are good, but police unions are bad.

Why I am not an anarchist

Feb 28 JDN 2459274

I read a post on social media not long ago which was remarkably thoughtful and well-written, considering that it contained ideas that would, if consistently followed, probably destroy human civilization as we know it.

It was an argument in favor of the radical view “ACAB” (for “All Cops Are Bastards”), pointing out that police officers swear an oath to uphold all laws, not only just laws, and therefore are willfully participating in a system of oppression.

This isn’t entirely wrong. Police officers do swear such an oath, and it does seem morally problematic. But if you stop and think for a moment, what was the alternative?

Should we have police officers only swear an oath to uphold the laws they believe are just? Then you have just eliminated the entire purpose of having laws. If police officers get to freely choose which laws they want to uphold and which ones they don’t, we don’t have laws; we just have police officers and their own opinions. In place of the republican system of electing representatives to choose laws, we have a system where the only democratic power lies in choosing the governor and the mayor, and from that point on downward everything is appointments that the public has no say in.

Or should we not have police officers at all? Anyone who chants “ACAB” evidently believes so. But without police officers—or at least some kind of law enforcement mechanism, which would almost certainly have to involve something very much like police officers—we once again find that laws no longer have any real power. Government ceases to exist as a meaningful institution. Laws become nothing more than statements of public disapproval. The logical conclusion of “ACAB” is nothing less than anarchism.

Don’t get me wrong; statements of public disapproval can be useful in themselves. Most international law has little if any enforcement mechanism attached to it, yet most countries follow most international laws most of the time. But for one thing, serious violations of international law are frequent—even by countries that are ostensibly “good citizens”; and for another, international politics does have some kind of enforcement mechanism—if your reputation in the international community gets bad enough, you will often face trade sanctions or even find yourself invaded.

Indeed, it is widely recognized by experts in international relations that more international law enforcement would be a very good thing—perhaps one of the very best things that could possibly happen, in fact, given its effect on war, trade, and the catastrophic risks imposed by nuclear weapons and climate change. The problem with international governance is not that it is undesirable, but that it seems infeasible; we can barely seem to get the world’s major power to all agree on international human rights, much less get them to sign onto a pact that would substantially limit their sovereignty against a global government. The UN is toothless precisely because most of the countries that have the power to control UN policy prefer it that way.

At the national and sub-national scale, however, we already have law enforcement; and while it certainly has significant flaws and is in need of various reforms, it does largely succeed at its core mission of reducing crime.

Indeed, the exceptions prove the rule: The one kind of crime that is utterly rampant in the First World, with impacts dwarfing all others, is white-collar crime—the kind that our police almost never seem to care about.

It’s unclear exactly how much worse crime would be if law enforcement did not exist. Most people, I’m sure, would be unlikely to commit rape or murder even if it were legal to do so. Indeed, it’s not clear how effective law enforcement is at actually deterring rape or murder, since rape is so underreported and most murders are one-off crimes of passion. So, a bit ironically, removing law enforcement for the worst crimes might actually have a relatively small effect.

But there are many other crimes that law enforcement clearly does successfully deter, such as aggravated assault, robbery, larceny, burglary, and car theft. Even controlling for the myriad other factors that affect crime, effective policing has been shown to reduce overall crime by at least 10 percent. Policing has the largest effects on so-called “street crime”, crimes like robbery and auto theft that occur in public places where police can be watching.

Moreover, I would contend that these kinds of estimates should be taken as a lower bound. They are comparing the marginal effect of additional policing—not the overall effect of having police at all. If the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns applies, the marginal benefit of the first few police officers would be very high, while beyond a certain point adding more cops might not do much.

At the extremes this is almost certainly correct, in fact: A country where 25% of all citizens were police officers probably wouldn’t actually have zero crime, but it would definitely be wasting enormous amounts of resources on policing. Dropping that all the way down to 5% or even 1% could be done essentially without loss. Meanwhile—and this is really the relevant question for anarchism—a country with no police officers at all would probably be one with vastly more crime.

I can’t be certain, of course. No country has ever really tried going without police.

What there have been are police strikes: And yes, it turns out that most police strikes don’t result in substantially increased crime. But there are some important characteristics of police strikes that make this result less convincing than it might seem. First of all, police can’t really strike the way most workers can—it’s almost always illegal for police to strike. So instead what happens is a lot of them call in sick (“blue flu”), or they do only the bare minimum requirements of their duties (“work-to-rule”). Often slack in the police force is made up by deploying state or federal officers. So the “strike” is more of a moderate reduction in policing, rather than a complete collapse of policing as the word “strike” would seem to imply.

Moreover, police strikes are almost always short—the NYPD strike in the 1970s lasted only a week. A lot can still happen even in that time: The Murray-Hill riot as a result of a police strike in Montreal led to hundreds of thefts, millions of dollars in damage, and several deaths—all in a single night. (In Canada!) But even when things turn out okay after a week of striking, as they did in New York, that doesn’t really tell us what would happen if the police were gone for a month, or a year, or a decade. Most crime investigations last months or years anyway, so police going on strike for a week isn’t really that different from, say, economists going on strike for a week: It doesn’t much matter, because most of the work happens on a much longer timescale than that. Speaking as a graduate student, I’ve definitely had whole weeks where I did literally no useful work and nobody noticed.

There’s another problem as well, which is that we don’t actually know how much crime happens. We mainly know about crime from two sources: Reporting, which is directly endogenous to police activity(if the police are known to be useless, nobody reports to them) and surveys, which are very slow (usually they are conducted annually or so). With reporting, we can’t really trust how the results change when policing changes; with surveys, we don’t actually see the outcome for months or years after the policing change. Indeed, it is a notorious fact in criminology that we can’t even really reliably compare crime rates in different times and places because of differences in reporting and survey methods; the one thing we feel really confident comparing is homicide rates (dead is pretty much dead!), which are known to not be very responsive to policing for reasons I already discussed.

I suppose we could try conducting an actual experiment where we declare publically that there will be no police action whatsoever for some interval of time (wasn’t there a movie about this?), and see what happens. But this seems very dangerous: If indeed the pessimistic predictions of mass crime waves are accurate, the results could be catastrophic.

The more realistic approach would be to experiment by reducing police activity, and see if crime increases. We would probably want to do this slowly and gradually, so that we have time to observe the full effect before going too far. This is something we can—and should—do without ever needing to go all the way to being anarchists who believe in abolishing all policing. Even if you think that police are really important and great at reducing crime, you should be interested in figuring out which police methods are most cost-effective, and experimenting with different policing approaches is the best way to do that.

I understand the temptation of anarchism. Above all, it’s simple. It feels very brave and principled. I even share the temperament behind it: I am skeptical of authority in general and agree that the best world would be one where every person (or at least every adult of sound mind) had the full autonomy to make their own choices. But that world just doesn’t seem to be feasible right now, and perhaps it never will be.

Police reform is absolutely necessary. Reductions in policing should be seriously tried and studied. But anarchy is just too dangerous—and that is why we shouldn’t be getting rid of police any time soon.