From John Ray's shorter notes




December 28, 2018

Jon Burge, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Brazil

In my heading above I have lumped together some unlikely characters -- a corrupt police chief, a 17th century German philosopher and the modern-day state of Brazil.  But as unlikely as it seems, they do have something in common. And police chief Burge has just recently passed away so perhaps it is time to take another look at his record

The lasting relevance of Leibnitz resides in his dictum that we live in the best of all possible worlds -- a notion that almost everyone dismisses without hesitation as absurd.  But Leibnitz was a brilliant man.  What did he mean by his strange dictum?

What he was doing was was in fact warning us about Leftist-type  thinking.  He was pointing to the fact that some good things are necessarily accompanied by bad things -- and that some bad things are a byproduct of some good things. So even a world that a lot of people disliked could in fact be the best possible.  Attempts to improve it might in fact make it worse.

And Leftism is a perfect illustration of that. Leftist policies are often adopted in the belief that they will offer some improvement in the life of the people -- but all too often those same policies also have "unforeseen" bad effects. So Obamacare made health insurance more affordable for some but effectively cut millions of Americans off from health insurance altogether.  If only Leftists adopted Leibnitzian thinking, they might be more hesitant to rush into their customary destructive legislation.

And that helps us to take a revised evaluation of Jon Burge.  Who was Jon Burge? Jon Graham Burge (December 20, 1947 – September 19, 2018) was an American police detective and commander in the Chicago Police Department who was accused of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991 in order to force confessions.

And the perspective you need is to be aware of the rampant lawlessness of many blacks in Chicago to this day.  In just one weekend you could have (say) a dozen black on black shootings that resulted in death or serious injury.  And poor co-operation between blacks and the police meant that it was totally unrealistic to prosecute each shooting. So lots of violent people walked free.

And so began the nearly 20 years of the reign of Jon Burge.  If Burge or his men thought that they had a perpetrator in their grasp, they weren't going to let him go for lack of evidence.  "Evidence will be provided", they said.  They simply railroaded whoever they thought was a bad guy. They fabricated any evidence needed.

And they justified that by saying that the bad guy might not have done what we set him up for but he would have done other stuff that we didn't know about.  So justice was still done. And in the long haul they were proved largely right.  When the wonderful law students got to work and showed that some man was innocent of what he was convicted for, it almost always emerged that he had committed other crimes.

Needless to say, Burge's success at getting convictions became well known in Chicago.  He was greatly feared.  And one result of that fear was a reluctance to tangle with the Chicago cops.  Blacks knew that they could still get away with most shootings but they had better be very slow to shoot whites.  They knew that Burge always pursued such shootings and that he always got his man, evidence regardless.  So whites were fairly safe in lawless Chicago under the supervision of Jon Burge.

So Burge has been the only one to get some sort of a handle of the torrent of violent crime in Chicago.  In a situation where normal law enforcement was impossible he did what many regarded as the next best thing

He was of course eventually caught out and spent a few years in prison but I think we should judge him not as a crooked cop but as a man at war -- an unscrupulous war he waged with some success.  As Leibniz teaches us, his corruption of justice was bad but it also did some good.

And as far as we can tell, the Chicago cops these days are as rough as ever. The US Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the Chicago Police Department and released their report in January 2017. They strongly criticized the police for a culture of excessive violence, especially against minority suspects and the community, and said there was insufficient and poor training, and lack of true oversight.  Chicago rules are still different, it seems

So am I condoning what Jon Burge did?  I hope it is obvious that I am NOT condoning what he did.  What he did was terrifyingly wrong.  But it often happens in life that all our choices in a particular circumstance are bad and the most rational thing we can therefore do is to choose the lesser of two evils. And it is my disruptive submission that what Burge did was in fact the lesser of two evils.  Burge got a couple of hundred really bad guys put out of the community for long periods.  And just about none of them could have been put away by legitimate methods.  So the alternative to what he did was to leave hundreds of murderous thugs free to roam through the black community.  And I think that was a worse alternative.

It may help a little if I note that it is not unusual for lawbreaking to be publicly condoned.  The Robin Hood story is probably the best known example of that.  Hood was a highway robber but because he gave some of his loot to the poor he is fondly remembered. Will Burge ever be fondly remembered?  It's unlikely.  His crimes were undoubtedly more heinous.  But he offered the same combination of service to the public through wrong deeds.

And Leibnitz next leads us to Brazil.  Brazil is a heavily socialist state that is also corrupt so I will put what I want to say about Brazil into a more general rubric:

Corruption in a heavily regulated state can promote freedom.

If all of Brazil's Leftist regulations were energetically enforced, it would be very difficult for anyone to make a buck.  Businesses would certainly be greatly hampered in what they did.  Fortunately, however, there is very little energy anywhere in Brazil to enforce official regulations and what energy there is can usually be bought off by a small bribe to the relevant official.  So in practice, Brazil is surprisingly like a free-market economy.  And you can see that in some of the economic successes that Brazil has.

The most surprising is aircraft production.  The Big Two of aircraft design and supply are Boeing and Airbus.  Between them, they supply most of the world's civilian aircraft.  But there are two minnows who also produce a significant volume of aircraft for international sale:  Bombardier in Canada and Embraer in Brazil.  And Embraer aircraft are of a high standard and sell well.  So that is pretty remarkable: A Third World country that is a well established supplier of civilian aircraft to the international market. It's more than China, Japan and Russia can currently do, though they are trying.

And Brazil has shown how to power cars with "alternative" fuel.  Brazil has vast acres of lushly growing sugarcane.  So they can harvest that very efficiently and cheaply.  And alcohol produced from cane is about half the price of American corn alcohol.  So you can see where we are going here.  Just by harvesting and producing alcohol by normal means would make Brazilian alcohol a competitive fuel for cars.  But Brazil goes one better.  They build distilleries right next to crushing mills. So the feed to  the distillery is not sugar crystals but a product from fresh-crushed sugarcane juice, keeping production costs way down.

So Brazil has long run millions of cars on pure ethanol and has done so at little cost penalty.  Brazil has in recent years discovered great oilfields off its coasts so much of the incentive to rely on ethanol has vanished. Petroleum products could undercut ethanol in price. But Brazil has certainly shown how to produce "alternative" fuel at a reasonable price.  So even a free market enabled by corruption can be dynamic and efficient. Leibnitz would nod wisely to hear of freedom and prosperity produced by corruption and lawlessness.

There is no doubt that a system where a few wise laws are carefully enforced is ideal but the ideal can be difficult to reach.  But even in a non-ideal system life goes on and useful compromises can sometimes emerge.





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