A Tactic for Libertarians
When the time came for questions, I pointed out the implicit assumption and went on to discuss the implications of the same assumption in a different context—the punishment of criminals. The police probably know more about crime, are more competent to determine who is or is not a criminal, than most judges and virtually all jurors. Hence, following out the logic of the speaker's argument, the obvious conclusion is that the decision of who is guilty should be made by the more competent police not the less competent courts. We could save quite a lot of time and trouble by simply having the police who arrest suspects go on to decide whether or not they are guilty and, if they are guilty, impose suitable punishments. If the speaker was not happy with that conclusion, I thought he might want to reconsider the assumptions from which it followed—in his context as well as mine.
It occurred to me that the exchange was worth mentioning here as an example of a tactic that other libertarians may find useful when arguing with people on the left. Most such people, at least in my experience, take an optimistic view of the competence of government to help the poor, regulate safety, set conditions of employment, and do many other things. But they are, I think correctly, sceptical of government law enforcement. Pointing out the implications of their optimistic assumption when applied to law enforcement may be one way of getting them to rethink those assumptions as applied in other contexts.
An analogous tactic ought to work when arguing with conservatives. They tend to take an optimistic view of the workings of the police and criminal (although not civil) courts, at least when arguing with liberals. But they are, I think correctly, sceptical of the competence of government in a wide variety of other contexts, such as the regulation of business or the control of land use. It should be possible to suggest to them that, if the government cannot be trusted to decide how best to preserve endangered species or prevent businesses from mistreating their customers and employees, one ought to be at least mildly sceptical of its competence to decide who deserves to be locked up or executed. The incompetence of government is an argument against the Occupational Safety and Health Act—but also against the death penalty.
To avoid making the same mistake I described at the beginning of this post, I should add that "incompetence" is a somewhat misleading term, since it assumes that the individuals in question have the correct objectives and merely make mistakes in how to achieve them. A large part of the reason to be sceptical of government as a way of organizing human affairs is that the particular individuals making decisions often have the wrong objectives, that the results that best serve their interest are not the same as those that best serve the objectives they are nominally supposed to be pursuing. That is true in the regulation of business, it is true in the control of land use, and it is equally true in the prosecution and punishment of criminals.