In his 9th May proclamation praising American peace officers, POTUS described their work thusly:
As we mourn the fallen, let us also remember how they lived. With unflinching commitment, they defended our schools and businesses. They guarded prisons; patrolled borders; and kept us safe at home, on the road, and as we went about our lives. To their families, we owe an unpayable debt. And to the men and women who carry their mission forward, we owe our unyielding support.
The thing is that some of these things are actually quite bad and reflection upon just a couple of easy cases should lead most folks to strongly doubt whether they really do owe the families of perished peace officers an "unpayable debt".
For instance, border patrols keeps productive individuals out who would by most estimates vastly constribute to American productivity. Perhaps the peace officers' commitment to this particular cause should flinch. The gains are, of course, greater still if one takes a global perspective (see Michael Clemens' Journal of Economic Perspectives article about it here for some truly vast estimated benefits).
Keeping the population safe is surely an overstatement. The peaceful folks who choose to take up drugs or swap labour for dollars at less than the legally stipulated minimum wages are not kept safe by those who unflinchingly enforce legislation. They certainly owe neither gratitude nor support to the law enforcers. Should they be thrown in prison for their peaceful activities, they may feel justifiably upset that those guarding them do not relent in "carrying their mission forward".
While reasonable people might hesitate to agree that they owe an unpayable debt to perished peace officers and their families, one should also remember that peace officers are, on the other hand, in no way worthy of scorn either. Milton Friedman spelt out the case that bad legislation should be enforced with particular fervour, so that the sufferers would speak up and thereby teach others the terrible consequences of bad legislation. More generally, it would be most uncivil to condemn a group of professionals who do indeed carry out much valued work, too. Disagreement with Obama's praise should only be partial. Where his praise does not apply, it is simply a natural consequence of the dilution of moral thought that comes with collective management.
Much of what peace officers do is indeed praiseworthy. The same, however, may be said for the actions of dust men and hair dressers. Why not? Respectively, they keep our streets sanitary by removing disgusting filth out of our sight and they help make us presentable so that we may go to work without feeling shame. One might add that in the process of doing these heroic deeds there are no causalties of failed ethics (at least no intended casualties) such as perished illegal immigrants or imprisoned drug users.
I have mentioned just dust men and hair dressers, but there are many, many other people worthy of similar praise. The calendar is not long enough to properly celebrate all their services, so it is a good thing that there are markets to reward them.
Hat tip for the proclamation to EconLog's David Henderson