Two Heads And Three Generations of Imbeciles

A call came in asking whether I would be interested in working with another lawyer on a case.  The caller explained that he wasn’t dissatisfied with the other lawyer, exactly, but wanted a second opinion, a second head.  “Two heads are better than one, right?” he said to me.

Well, no.  Most of the time, two heads are not better, and often worse.

Aside from there being a platitude for everything (too many cooks spoil the broth), choices ultimately must be made.  Immediately after OJ Simpson’s acquittal, everybody wanted a “dream team” of lawyers, just like Juice.  Until, that is, they found out what a dream team costs.  Clients aren’t always good with numbers.

But the Simpson dream team did something smart. Each was charged with handling a specific aspect of the case, suited to their strength, so that they didn’t step on each other. Sure, there was massive conflict anyway, and some major hate grew out of the association, but it worked at trial, which is what they were there to accomplish.

So why can’t we work together?  Well, it’s not that we can’t, but that it doesn’t necessarily improve the performance of our functions.  If one lawyer says go left and the other says go right, do you compromise and go straight?  Nobody said go straight, and going straight would be a disaster.

If the lawyers agree on a course of action, that’s great.  There may be minor issues, but let’s assume they don’t impair the primary position as to proper strategy and tactics.  The client then achieves validation and feels more confident in the legal advice.  And the lawyers hope they’re right, because it would really suck if both agree, the client follows the advice, and it blows up in his face.

But that’s not particularly helpful. If the client only had one lawyer, and that one lawyer gave the same advice which the client followed, he would end up in the exact same place.  Perhaps there would be doubts, but that doesn’t change the course of action taken, which will either bear out or not.

If the lawyers disagree, however, what’s a client to do?  He’s forced to pick between competing professional recommendations, which he’s ill-equipped to do by definition. After all, if the client knew the best course, he wouldn’t need the lawyer’s advice in the first place.

The client could always seek the advice of a third lawyer, the tie-breaker, which creates the bizarre position of having the advice of a lawyer who failed to make the cut for first or second lawyer take precedence.  Why follow the advice of a lawyer who wasn’t worthy of being your first or second choice?

There is also the possibility of the lawyers, because they want so much to work together in a cooperative fashion (and which conforms to today’s collaborative trend), reaching a compromise.  But splitting the baby was never the solution King Solomon planned to impose.  It was a scare tactic.

This doesn’t mean that the two lawyers can’t bounce their ideas off one another, argue out their relative positions and see the virtue in what the other lawyer thinks.  That can happen, and in a perfect world, the best idea would emerge from the collaboration of two minds with the single goal of doing their best for their client.

Yet, collaboration gave us the Supreme Court’s opinion in Buck v. Bell, written by the adored and respected Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose writing on the subject of socialist speech in Schenk gave us the almost invariably misquoted gem that the First Amendment “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

Holmes’ propensity for “rhetorical flourish” brought us this rationale:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Only one justice, Pierce Butler, dissented.  The other seven joined in Justice Holmes’ position on eradicating imbeciles for the good of society.  If two heads are better than one, then Holmes was right and Butler was wrong.

13 thoughts on “Two Heads And Three Generations of Imbeciles

  1. Patrick Maupin

    > Each was charged with handling a specific aspect of the case, suited to their strength, so that they didn’t step on each other.

    It turns out that sub-themes in two of your posts today each remind me of the same Paul Graham essay — one of my favorites:

    As far as I know, when painters worked together on a painting, they never worked on the same parts. It was common for the master to paint the principal figures and for assistants to paint the others and the background. But you never had one guy painting over the work of another.

    I think this is the right model for collaboration in software too.

    1. SHG Post author

      I am deeply interested in how my themes remind you of someone else’s essays that you really like. Because things you are reminded of and other people you like are deeply interesting. I only wish you would come here and write more about you, because you are deeply interesting.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        I am the most uninteresting man in the world, but I’m sure you’ve already figured that out by now.

        I should have more pithily written that Graham notes that the best way for other kinds of creators to collaborate is the same one you describe working for Simpson’s team, so perhaps there is a universal truth there.

        Not to worry, though — I’m sure that in 2027 some lawyer will be commenting on some programmer’s blog that the latest post reminds him of something SHG wrote way back in ’15.

        1. SHG Post author

          Unlikely given how inartfully my expression was compared to Graham’s. Not to mention, who gives a damn what I say?

          1. Patrick Maupin

            For better or worse, I wouldn’t be darkening your virtual doorstep if I thought that you had nothing to teach, or if I thought that you expressed yourself poorly.

          2. John Barleycorn

            Not to compliment your style but I think even the casual reader would have to admit your training and experience in conjunction with the circadian rhythm gene mutations you possess, can at times reveal an uncanny sense of focus.

            This trait alone will certainly be worthy of some mention on your Wikipedia page in twenty five years, if you chose preserve your archives.

            I imagine this seemingly innate ability is useful in your day job as well.

            If only you could yodel…


            1. Lurker

              Having edited Wikipedia, I would say that based on merits, you would no doubt qualify for a Wikipedia page. However, I doubt that there are enough non-blog third-party sources commenting on your writing to prove that these merits exist.

              So, someone should write your biography first.

            2. SHG Post author

              I doubt that there are enough non-blog third-party sources commenting on your writing to prove that these merits exist.

              Ironic stuff. You know me from here, so assume the blog is all there is rather than the caboose of a career. But whether someone “qualifies” is for others to decide. If I had to tell you, it wouldn’t be worth it. And so it’s not.

              FYI, in the very early days of Wikipedia, before SJ existed, I was on a page of trial lawyers which since disappeared, which linked to blurbs about each of the lawyers, which has also since disappeared. In other words, I existed before SJ. Go figure.

  2. the other rob

    Or perhaps today is the day?

    Just kidding, I’m too old, lazy and tired to go ’round starting wikipedia pages for people, no matter how highly I think of them.

    PS: Apologies for this not being properly nested, but the “reply” link seems to disappear once you get six or so levels in.

  3. Bartleby the Scrivener

    Buck v. Bell is a blight on our justice system. Oliver When-Dull Holmes should’ve been tarred and feathered for that travesty. I have no idea why he is so revered.

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