Now that the saga of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Officer James Crowley has moved to the back-burner, let’s look at three less obvious lessons from Skip and Jimmy’s not-so-excellent adventure.

Understand that government is the use of legitimate force. Not necessarily “legitimate” in terms of morals and ethics, but legitimate in terms of what is legal. Police officers have moral and legal authority to use force in order “to serve and to protect”. At times, they may exceed or fail to exercise their authority. But the nature of their job implies a readiness to apply force.

It follows that one should be on their best behavior around the police. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that yelling at police officers will increase the probability that one will be arrested. In this case, even if Professor Gates was treated improperly, he clearly had it within his power to avoid being arrested.

At its root, government policy is about the use of force—whether to regulate behavior, to redistribute income, or to restrict mutually beneficial trade. We can miss this point by focusing on a democratic process where we seem to exercise tremendous choice over those who govern us. Or we can underestimate this point by assuming that government is typically benign.

President Obama’s word choice tells us something about his worldview. His now-famous decision to speak to the specifics of the Gates case was an over-reach of startling proportions.

It was surprising in that Obama “spoke stupidly” when he is usually so careful—often painfully so—with his words. (As a corollary, perhaps it should worry us that he values “diplomacy” so much, but is willing to speak out-of-pocket on awkward and sensitive issues.)

It was odd in that he is the Commander in Chief and chooses the Attorney General to be the chief law enforcement officer in the United States. A president’s default position should be to support the police.

It was sad in that our “post-racial” President botched a key moment for race relations. Instead of sticking to eloquent but general remarks about the underlying issues, Obama extended his comments to inappropriate specifics that created a firestorm and deepened unfortunate stereotypes.

Finally, it seems revealing in terms of what he thinks about his powers of intellect and assessment. This connects to the current debate on health care. In both cases, the President believes that a federal solution is the best way to handle problems. Instead of deferring to the locals who knew far more about the Gates situation, Obama presumed to be able to speak with expertise. In health care, he imagines that a single, grand, federal experiment in a remarkably complex and important arena is preferable to 50 state-wide experiments.

Everyone discriminates.

Labor economists distinguish between “personal discrimination” and “statistical discrimination”. Interestingly, both stem from a form of ignorance. The former is a subjective preference rooted in a socially unacceptable form of ignorance. A person doesn’t like a group of people out of bigotry.

The latter is more interesting because it is based in the reality that all of us make important decisions with imperfect and costly-to-obtain information. Out of varying degrees of ignorance, we make choices with the best information available to us at reasonable cost. Often, our best information about individuals involves their affiliation with groups. So, we stereotype from what we know about a group to members of that group. By definition, all of us discriminate in this manner.

Consider a pool of job applicants. The firm has relatively little information about candidates. So, they generalize from what they do know: where the applicants went to school, their GPA and field of study, the quality of reference letters, job experience, and so on. None of those are definitive; they are only somewhat predictive. For example, will someone with a 3.8 GPA be a more productive worker than someone with a 2.8 GPA? Usually, but not always.

Think about the term “prejudice”. Taken literally, it means to “pre-judge”, implying that someone is making a decision with too little information. At times, such decisions are necessary—and hopefully, people do the best they can with the info they have. At other times, it implies an unnecessary rush to judgment.

In this particular moment of crisis, both parties—Gates dealing with the police and the police dealing with him—were making important decisions with (very) limited information. By definition, Gates and the police were engaged in stereotyping. Of course, it is ironic that Gates did this while self-righteously accusing the police of doing the same. And it is absolutely fascinating that, by their training, both Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are “experts” on racial profiling.

Sadly, in judging the events from the outside, many people have been unnecessarily quick in a rush to prejudicial judgments in favor of Professor Gates or the police. The irony here is greatest among those, including President Obama, who have pre-judged by accusing Officer Crowley of discrimination.

One of my colleagues reduced the Gates situation to the following: Would a 58-year old man, with the same attire, etc.—but white—have been treated the same way? The question is only somewhat helpful. Interestingly, it sets up potential accusations of age-ism, sexism, and “clothes-ism” (or class-ism). Should it have mattered to Officer Crowley if Gates was 18, 38, or 88 years old? Would a similar woman have been arrested in this case? What if Gates had been dressed in a ripped t-shirt or a tuxedo?

At the end of the day, the police and our President must make vital decisions with information that is far less than ideal. Hopefully, they do the best they can with what they have—in humility and patience—drawing the best, reasonable inferences from a competent worldview, formidable character, and the best available data.

  • Patrick

    It is an insightful meditation to consider that Jesus was tortured and crucified by the police of his time. Yet we repeat the words of a policeman at every Mass when we say “Lord, I am not worthy…” Then consider that it was both the moral and civil authorities who condemned Jesus, and questioned Him constantly, so that He warned his disciples to be wary of the leaven of the pharisees.

    Some events display the wisdom of the Prayer of St. Francis brilliantly.

  • Timothy

    “A president’s default position should be to support the police” Really? And what criteria determine when the president should not be in “default position”? Do the circumstances of this incident not meet those criteria? I noticed you also used this incident to put in a jab about health care. C’mon Acton…try harder please to veil your dislike for President Obama.

  • http://schansblog.com eric schansberg

    If knowledge of the particulars was sufficient (which he admitted was not the case), then the default could be over-ridden as appropriate.

    Do you have specific thoughts on the “jab about health care”? Why would one prefer a single federal experiment over 50 state-based experiments?

    I like Obama as much as I liked Bush, but the policies of both are/were a mess.