Thursday, March 15, 2012

Books Burning and the Danger of Self Law Enforcement

Is burning books an efficient action? It depends. On the one hand, people should be free to do what they want with their own assets, including burning their books. As long as they pay for those books, why should we bother? On the other hand, spreading an idea with a book may be beneficial, so burning them might be costly for society since we’re deprived of the opportunity to receive more knowledge.

But these days, burning books might not be as costly for society anymore. Information can now be transmitted efficiently to a huge audiences that, unless you are the government of China, nothing you do can effectively prevent the spread of the ideas in those books.

With respect to the latest case of book burning, I feel that the action itself was not that significant. Some people wanted to show that they disagreed with certain ideas, bought books they didn’t like and burned them. In a way, such a demonstration is actually good for promoting the books. The burners derived utility from the bonfire, and I assume the costs for buying and burning the books were minuscule for them compared to the benefits they received from burning the books. Life goes on and no one was harmed.

What I am more concerned about is the idea that this action was a symbol of people enforcing the law themselves because the legal authorities did not perform their job properly. In short, the burning was an act of vigilantism. Now that’s a serious matter. Expressing your thoughts publicly is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Enforcing the law by yourself? Not so fast.

Why should people be prevented from enforcing the law by themselves? Why can’t we let them to do what the authorities should actually do in the first place? We’ve seen many cases when we feel so helpless with law enforcement in Indonesia that some of us think it’s acceptable for certain criminals to be tried by the masses. It would be more efficient, and it serves them right. Right?

The answer is no. Despite the alluring character of vigilante acts in movies and comics (who doesn’t love superheroes crushing criminals that cannot be touched by the law?), it is not efficient at all if we allow people to assume the role of judge and jury.

First, there are procedural standards that must be satisfied before we can punish someone for conducting criminal activities. Although there are costs associated with such a process, we still need it simply to avoid additional costs that might occur in case we punish the wrong person. The less the chance of being punished, the cheaper the cost of doing crime and the higher the cost to the society.

Second, there should also be a clear standard of violation for enforcing the law. You can’t simply punish an act if you can’t justify the adverse effects to society or certain individuals. Moreover, even when you think you are being harmed by an act, we should also consider whether the benefits of having such an act would still be bigger than its costs. In antimonopoly law, we call this the rule of reason analysis. We determine whether an act should be deemed illegal based on its economic effects to the welfare of the society.

Third, the remedy should also be clear. If we feel that an act adversely affects a person, such a person would be entitled to a remedy. In such a case, we must ensure that the remedy is fair and proportionate to the damages caused by the act. If you can’t justify the damages, there should be no remedy — it’s as simple as that.

This is why in a war of thoughts, it is very tricky to satisfy the three elements above. We can’t accurately judge the correctness of a thought if it stays only as a thought. We can’t assess the damages caused by a thought if it only affects your thoughts. And therefore, we can’t declare a proper remedy for the damages that are non-existent.

There are better ways to fight a thought, and one of them is making a counterargument which I am currently doing through this article. You are free to attack other people’s thoughts, but that war should stay in the realm of words.

Asking law enforcement to join the debate or thinking that you may represent them will only complicate the process. Without clear guidelines, it will become another waste of tax payer money and create unnecessary social unrest.

Fight your war by yourself and fight it decently.

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