The Perils of Analogies

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Matt Yglesias sees a parallel between crooked cops, and low-performing teachers:

I don't know anyone at all who thinks cities shouldn't have police departments, or that crime control is a trivial concern. But virtually all liberals are prepared to see that while many police officers are brave and dedicated public servants, many police departments also have problems of various kinds with corruption and mistreatment of suspects. It's not, I think, "cop bashing" to suggest that a minority of police officers are substantially worse than average or that cities would be better off getting rid of those cops. 

What's more, it's also obviously true that crime and crime control are complicated sociological phenomena driven by many forces that have nothing in particular to do with police officers or the internal procedures of police departments. But at the same time, if I were to observe that the leading sociological correlate of getting beaten up by the cops is being a low-income minority male I don't think any liberal would conclude that the real problem here is poverty rather than police abuse. Rather, the problem is that when important public agencies underperform low-income people tend to be disproportionately victimized.

This is obviously a complicated subject. But my experience is that a lot of people on the left, rather than arguing the merits of the issue, seem to take it as self-evidently un-progressive to try to improve the performance of a public agency in part by doing things that the people who work at the agency don't like.

I don't think this really works.

Matt is blending complaints about corruption, crime-fighting effectiveness, and actual criminality and comparing them with the competence of teachers. But getting unfairly throttled by the cops isn't simply "underperformance" or an issue of competence. Indeed, it may not even be a question of "competency," at all. The guy jamming his night-stick down your throat might have the highest homicide clearance rate in the precinct.

We are talking about two different, though admittedly related, issues--competence and abuse. One need not impact the other. A teacher might be highly effective in getting their students to learn. Such competence would not preclude them from. say, molesting the occasional kid. When I make a scene about a cop killing my friend, and getting away with it, I am not, simply, making a point about the Prince George's County's ability to close cases. 

There's probably more to be said here, but the comparison is so addled, that I'm having a hard time not being drawn into far-out hypothetical-land, rooted in the stance of some nameless "liberal." Part of the problem is that the article is about ticket-fixing, and drug-dealing, not police beatings. What's the real-world analogy for that? I have no idea. 

I'm always skeptical when an argument hinges on imagination, and lacks actual points made by actual people.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/10/the-perils-of-analogies/247624/