The “personal stake” fallacy

As conservatives who believe in free speech and accountable government, we must be willing to allow everyone to state his opinion on public policy and the behavior of agents of the state. It is a common theme that unless you have personally done something, you are not qualified to speak on matters related to that thing. This is especially common among conservatives in relation to police or the military:

“Unless you’re willing to pick up a badge and protect your city, I suggest you stop criticizing those who are and be thankful for their sacrifice.”

Yes, we should be thankful to the many police officers who work hard to protect us and keep order. But the idea that only police officers are qualified to criticize police officers is an affront to freedom of speech. Limiting the discussion also is a barrier to good government and good public policy.

Yes, most police officers are good people. Most pastors are, too, but some molest children. (This is true in all denominations.) Most people in accounting are good people, and there are some who embezzle and steal. I could go on. In a constitutional Republic, people have the right to disagree. We have the right to advocate good policy. “Shut up” is a poor argument.

But what about taking responsibility to fix the problem directly?

That is not how this works. Not everyone can be a police officer, and citizens have a stake in good police behavior. Elected officials control the police. Voters choose their elected officials, and lobby for good policy, including how the police (or city planning, or Human Resources, or the comptroller, etc.) do their job.

So how about this? City planning is too aggressive and infringes on property rights, but unless you are willing to work in planning, shut up. Lax financial controls led to the theft of several hundred thousand dollars, but unless you are willing to work in the city’s financial offices, shut up. Is that really the standard we want?

There is a reason freedom of speech and the right to lobby elected officials are explicitly protected by our Constitution. The founding fathers knew that an engaged citizenry was critical to good government.

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