May 26, 2006

"Not good enough for us, too good for you"

This bumper sticker was posted by James Joyner at Outside the Beltway ("Congressional Double Standard on Warrants", 5/25/2006), with credit for the slogan given to an "anonymous comment on an Orin Kerr post":

The meaning seems intuitively obvious -- Congress is OK with warrantless wiretapping of citizens ("us"), but objects to a warrant-based search of a congressional office ("you"); and the person displaying the bumper sticker thinks this is hypocritical. But it's not so easy to explain how to get there from the words.

I don't mean the referents of "us" and "you", which have to be inferred from the picture of the capitol building and the current associations of "warrant". [Well, maybe this is a problem -- I thought it was obvious that first person ("us") is in the voice of the person displaying the sticker, while "you" is the U.S. Congress; but Melissa Fox (see below) assumed the opposite assignment.] The problem has to do with two quasi-idioms based on good (in "not good enough for" and "too good for").

The second half of the slogan is pretty easy. If we ask Google what sorts of things are "too good for him|them|you", we find a preponderance of punishments: impeachment, US jails, killing, the death penalty, hanging, horse whipping, etc. The idea is that some crimes are so heinous that the legally-prescribed punishments (impeachment, the death penalty) and even extra-judicial sanctions of whatever kind, are not strong enough responses. In the current situation, according to the bumper sticker, mere FBI investigation and search under the terms of warrants granted for probable cause is "too good for" corrupt members of congress. " I say, search 'em all. Now."

But what about the first half of the slogan? In what sense are warrants "not good enough for us"? When we say that "X is not good enough for Y", and X is some sort of object or situation or process or institution, we generally mean that Y wants or needs something more than what X provides. (Y might have a valid reason, or just feel generally superior to things like X...)

100 feet not good enough for you?
Jimmy Carter, a third generation southern Baptist, has come to a painful decision that the ole-time religion is not good enough for him.
... apparently my software's not good enough for them anymore.
If GnomeMeeting is not good enough for you, where is the problem?
If so, the [audio] system is probably not good enough for you.

So the first half of the bumper-sticker slogan ("Warrants: not good enough for us...") suggest that we want something more than what warrants provide. This is confusing, since the main complaint about the warrantless wiretapping was that it is extra-judicial -- if the FISA court had been used, most people would not have objected. So does displaying this bumper sticker (or wearing one of the t-shirts) commit the user to the view that even FISA warrants would have been "not good enough"?

The other possibility, I guess, is that the "warrants are not good enough" complaint was meant to refer not to extrajudicial wiretapping but to the concerns (fairly widespread in the libertarian blogosphere) over "intrusive paramilitary raids" carried out with warrants.

A less generous interpretation of the bumper sticker's sentiment might be: "never mind all this business about warrants, the feds should just search the bad guys (themselves?) and leave the good guys (us) alone". That's a natural human reaction, but not much of a judicial (or logical) principle.

Great bumper sticker, though.

[Update -- Melissa Fox writes:

I was surprised to see that you parsed the slogan from the bumper sticker as referring to the citizenry as 'us' and Congress as 'you'. My reading had been that the capitol dome indicated Congress was the speaker -- so warrants aren't good enough for us (congress) but too good for you (the people); that is, normally a warrant is enough to allow a search, but not for members of Congress, oh no, warrants aren't good enough -- what do they want, a sign from above? Conversely, as you say about the second half (only with opposite referents), the contempt in which Congress seems to hold the American people suggests that we don't even deserve to be protected by due process, to be notified before our homes and offices are searched or our phone conversations recorded, etc., etc. Warrants are too good for us -- which, as it's Congress speaking to us, means they're "too good for you".

That seemed so intuitive to me that I had to read your LL post three times before I got it. :-/

Hmm. I'm not sure whether this is evidence that this is not such a great bumper sticker after all, or that it is even better than I thought :-). If I have time later today, I'll put up an interactive poll so that we can get a sense of how many people construed the slogan in which way...]

[Karen Davis and Fernando Pereira agree with Melissa Fox -- I can see that I've got the back end of the elephant on this one.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 26, 2006 06:37 AM