I’m sure you have heard this phrase before. Maybe you are even unfortunate enough to have said such a thing yourself. It was most likely done trying to defend the actions of the police or military. Often times this phrase is used because the person saying it understands that the actions of the individuals in question are wrong but feel “unpatriotic” questioning it. The police “keep us safe” so when they unjustly murder or steal from someone, the statist has a hard time placing blame. Should the blame be placed on the officer who stole or murdered or on the superior that told him to do it? Often times police themselves will use this line of thinking to defend their actions as they violate the rights of another person. It’s a way of acknowledging that what they are doing is wrong, but the blame can’t fall on them because “they are just doing their jobs”. The blame, if it can fall on anyone, should fall on the person giving orders.
This is dangerous logic. Many of the most atrocious crimes in human history were committed by men “just doing their jobs.”
The troops “defend” our freedoms by killing goat herders in a foreign nation that they invaded under false pretenses. They too are “just doing their jobs” and following orders. The people that call to support the troops no matter what use this line of thinking. Some how it flows to a defense of our freedoms, spreading democracy (at the point of the sword no less), and defending their brothers in arms. Actually, defending their comrades is a common excuse given by soldiers. But one has to ask the question, if they never invaded a sovereign nation to begin with, would they still have to “defend their brothers”?
The answer is “no”.
Patriotism and nationalism are at odds with our understanding of morality. We understand that stealing from someone is wrong. That is a crime because violence and coercion have been done against another person. We understand that there was an action and a victim. But then we see someone driving with an expired registration or ingesting a certain item or drug (victim-less crimes by the way) and see the police either arrest (kidnap) or ticket/fine (steal/extort) them for this victim-less crime. The astute individual trapped in statism then says “well, the officer is just doing their job”. Clearly, their moral compass is pointing them one way while their statism tugs in another.
Mises said in his piece “Epistemological Problems of Economics” that “It is not mankind, the state, or the corporative unit that acts, but individual men and groups of men, and their valuations and their action are decisive, not those of abstract collectivities.” Individuals are not separate from the collective. A soldier chooses to kill a poor family in a foreign land, steal their stuff, and move on. An officer chooses to infringe on the rights of a citizen harming no one and violating nothing but the laws designed by the state for revenue generation. These individuals always have a choice. Some of the most abhorrent men to ever come to power did so on the backs of other men that ignored their moral compasses and “just did their jobs.” Mises also elaborated on this in his piece “The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science” by saying “Society does not exist apart from the thoughts and actions of people. It does not have “interests” and does not aim at anything. The same is valid for all other collectives.”
The officers and soldiers made value judgments (or valued their judgments less than their superiors) and chose to do harm to others. I have to ask, have we regressed so far as species that justifying murder, theft, and extortion is as simple as making it your job? I really hope not. Unfortunately with the amount of times I have heard this excuse, it appears that we have. This is why patriotism, nationalism and it’s offspring of “just doing my job” is so dangerous. F.A. Hayek said “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”
And look, it has. We justify murder so long as you do it in a group, sanctioned by the collective. We justify theft, so long as the thief has a badge, gun, and the blessing of the collective. We justify whatever we want under the premise that we know what others need. We then become prepared to force our will on others at the point of the sword for their “betterment”. It is rather disgusting to see violent acts become a justifiable job. Only the individual acts. The tyrant that said “murder them!” would be helpless if those below him said “no” in response. Unfortunately, there many willing to say “yes” and they say it with much “patriotism” and pride.