The Efficiency of the Police - Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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The Efficiency of the Police

By Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Appeared in the Illustrated London News, April 1, 1922

The plague of atrocious and anonymous murders has naturally been discussed as a problem of the police. It is usually thought sufficient to make a vague demand for more “organisation,” for the modern man is in favour of introducing order into everything except his own ideas. But I think the remedy insufficient—first, because the British police are already more centralised and powerful than they were ever meant to be, or than our national tradition of liberty allowed of their being; and, second, because all this talk of mere organisation rests on a fallacy. Organisation very often means merely turning men into machinery; and it is quite a mistake to suppose that machinery as such is efficient. Machinery can move slow as well as fast—indeed, machinery left to itself does not move at all. Noth ing could be more elaborately organised than the etiquette of a Chinese Court, or a palace in the last and darkest days of Byzantium or Spain. All Byzantine bureaucracies, all systems of officialism in decadent and declining empires, are most systematically organised. What is wanting in them is the breath of life—or, in other words, people taking some sort of interest in their work. Such an organisation is the very opposite of au organism. It has no vitality, because it does not truly believe in its own aim in life. This is the tragic consequence of the false relations touching industrial injustice in the modern world. We hear a great deal about the policy of “ca’ canny”; but people do not seem to have learned the one real lesson from it. [Ca’ canny is a Scots phrase: ca’ or caw = to drive; canny = gently. It means go easy; go slow; do not exert yourself.] It is that it is just as possible to organise slackness as to organise efficiency; perhaps a little more easy. It is a certain attitude towards work, and the real reasons for that attitude, that are worthy of the attention of a thoughtful person. If I thought the police were inefficient, I should not be content with shuf­fling papers and rearranging labels, with putting one depart­ment under another department, or giving one unsuccessful official more power over another. I should inquire first whether the police were discontented, and whether, perhaps, they had some reason to be discontented.

But I doubt whether we need to argue that the police are particularly inefficient, and I think there are other causes. To begin with, the modern notion of universal official organisation is a physical impossibility, and almost a contradiction in terms. It implies that everybody should be shadowed, and there­fore that every man must be his own shadow. It demands a policeman for every person, which could not be attained even if every person were a policeman. There are only a certain number of officials to go round; and, if we insist on using some of their energies for small and senseless objects, there will obvi­ously be less for large and serious objects. If one of the officials is engaged in preventing people from buying chocolates after half-past eight, he has the less attention to give to people who send poisoned chocolates to other people whom they have the misfortune to dislike. If a policeman is engaged in preventing a man from standing treat to an old friend in a public-house, he cannot at the same moment be preventing another man from stabbing an old enemy in another public-house. The common sense of this consideration was as obvious as broad daylight to our fathers, and was embodied in the old legal tag of “De minimis non curat lex” [“the law does not care about ‘minimums’ or trifles”]. But that maxim has certainly been entirely reversed and repudiated in modern social legislation. Our officials are so much occupied in controlling diet and details of medical theory, and disputed points of decorum in the arts, that such a trifle as a corpse on a doorstep or an assassination a few yards from a lamp-post appears almost in the nature of an irritating and unexpected addition to their daily toils. They cannot be expected to concentrate on anything so barbaric and elementary. “De maximis non curat lex.” [“The law does not care about the biggest matters.”]

It is therefore the very opposite of the truth to say that the police fail through lack of organisation. It is much nearer the truth to say that they fail because society is being far too much organised. A scheme of official control which is too ambitious for human life has broken down, and broken down exactly where we need it most. Instead of law being a strong cord to bind what it is really possible to bind, it has become a thin net to cover what it is quite impossible to cover. It is the nature of a net so stretched to break everywhere; and the practical result of our bureaucracy is something very near to anarchy. But I agree that there are yet other causes for that anarchy. Our lawlessness is not only produced by our passion for making laws.

For one thing, as many must have pointed out, every tool of modern science is necessarily a double-edged tool, a tool that cuts both ways. A criminal can use a motor-car as well as a policeman; he can even use a telephone with almost as much effect. This is quite as true, of course, on a large scale as on a small one, as was proved by the huge historical fact of Prussia at war. When Dean Inge reproved me for resisting the eugenic projects of coercion, he comforted himself by saying that science would march on and continue to produce its marvels whatever idealists might say. I ventured to reply by pointing out to what sort of triumph the science of Germany did actually march, and what sort of marvels it did actually display to the admiration of mankind. There is no doubt that a Zepelin is a wonderful thing; but that did not prevent it from becoming a horrible thing. If human sin can produce such

abomination out of the beautiful vision of aviation, out of the science that takes the wings of the morning to abide in the uttermost parts of the sea, it is absurd to say that nothing evil can come out of a eugenical science that studies atavism and apes. The truth is that any advance in science leaves morality in its ancient balance; and it depends still on the inscrutable soul of man whether any discovery is mainly a benefit or mainly a calamity. This is, perhaps, the strongest argument for a moral­ity superior to materialism, and a religion that refuses to be bullied by science. Moral progress must still be made morally; and a modern scientist who has invented the most complex mechanism, or liberated the most subtle gas, has still exactly the same spiritual problem before him as that which confronted Cain, when he stood with a ragged stone in his hand.

Modern discoveries like the motor and the telephone, like modern discoveries in poison gas or the mechanics of aviation, are therefore as much on the side of the criminal as of the policeman. But to this there may also be added, I think, another truth not wholly unconnected with it. It is a more tentative suggestion than the other; but I incline to think it is true. It is not unlikely that in the recent chaos of creeds and codes, from which we are only gradually emerging, there may be a much larger percentage than in steadier periods of really educated men in a mood to be the enemies of society. Where there is a popular religion and a recognised law of life, the opposition to it will be merely lawless, and a great deal of it will be merely senseless. But we have passed through a time of transition when even a sensible man might well be a sceptic, and when a sceptic might well be an anarchist. For mind as much as machinery depends for its good or evil not on its force, but on its direction. But if really educated and enlightened men have more and more turned in a criminal direction, there will be a great augmentation of the criminal force; and it will not be altogether surprising if it is sometimes too much for the police force.


About G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the greatest and most prolific writers of the 20th century. A convert to Catholicism, he is well known for his Father Brown mystery stories and for his reasoned defense of the Christian faith. 

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