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An Excerpt from *When All Else Fails*

Summary:
Here are the concluding paragraphs of When All Else Fails. Over the past eight chapters, we’ve examined a wide range of arguments which attempted to show that government agents enjoy special immunity against civilians. Other arguments tried to show that some government agents at least enjoy special immunity against other government agents or would-be government agents. The arguments all failed. Until we get a successful argument to the contrary, we should conclude government wrongdoers are morally on par with civilian wrongdoers.  Many of us have seen videos showing the police choke Eric Garner to death.[i] Half of us have seen “Bou Bou’s” wrangled face after police threw a flash grenade in the sleeping toddlers’ crib.[ii] The Washington Post now runs a column dedicated to

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Here are the concluding paragraphs of When All Else Fails.

Over the past eight chapters, we’ve examined a wide range of arguments which attempted to show that government agents enjoy special immunity against civilians. Other arguments tried to show that some government agents at least enjoy special immunity against other government agents or would-be government agents. The arguments all failed. Until we get a successful argument to the contrary, we should conclude government wrongdoers are morally on par with civilian wrongdoers. 

Many of us have seen videos showing the police choke Eric Garner to death.[i] Half of us have seen “Bou Bou’s” wrangled face after police threw a flash grenade in the sleeping toddlers’ crib.[ii] The Washington Post now runs a column dedicated to documenting and explaining police abuse.[iii] One of the most popular genres on YouTube are videos of police violence and of citizens refusing to comply with police requests. This is a topic of major current interest. And the problem isn’t going away.

 Violence is an awful tool. It’s not exactly a last resort, but it’s rarely a first resort. I have not argued for anarchism, for violent revolution, or even for peaceful revolution. I have not defended a theory of social change or articulated a platform for revising unjust laws or removing systematic patterns of oppression. These are difficult problems, and it’s not clear social scientists have made much progress on identifying what works and what does not. My goal here has been quite limited: I have merely argued you may defend yourself and others from particular acts of government injustice the same way that you may defend yourself and others from particular acts of civilian injustice. 

Government agents have a job to do. In their first instance, their job is to project our rights and implement justice, not to trample our rights and thwart justice. When government agents choose to do the latter, they exceed any putative authority they might have. When government becomes the enemy, we may protect ourselves. Our rights do not disappear because senators voted to ignore them or because a cop is having a bad day.

Some government agents sometimes take on dangerous jobs for our benefit. Cops assume a great deal of risk, though not as much risk as lumberjacks, farmers, fishers, roofers, truck drivers, or construction laborers.[iv] Congresspeople, generals, and presidents take on tremendous, stressful jobs with great responsibility.

 But, at the same time, we each possess an inviolability, founded on justice, which forbids anyone from violating our rights. Government agents take on risk, but they also take on greater than normal moral responsibility to protect rather than violate our rights. How dare government agents do any less? And if they do dare to violate our rights, then they, not we the innocent, should suffer the consequences.


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpGxagKOkv8

[ii] http://abcnews.go.com/US/family-toddler-injured-swat-grenade-faces-1m-medical/story?id=27671521

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/policeshootings/?utm_term=.78d2a12022ba

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/blake-fleetwood/how-dangerous-is-police-w_b_6373798.html

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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