Are Libertarians Really to Blame for Ferguson?

The libertarian crowd has been warning about militarized police pretty much forever. But now they're getting blamed for empowering out-of-control local governments (and their cops).

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Sep 10 2014, 4:00pm

Supporters of 2012 Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson at a campaign rally. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Police militarization suddenly became mainstream news this summer after unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. For many libertarians, that burst of attention has been a welcome development—albeit one that came at a tragic cost.

Here was a national spectacle highlighting what libertarians have been saying for a long time now: The government (and its various armed proxies, whether military or police) have way too much power. But since the initial furor over Brown’s death died down, the libertarian crowd has found itself on the defensive, first for allegedly not caring about the shooting, and next for having somehow caused the situation in the first place. Both are bullshit slurs, as are many of the down-punching critiques of a relatively marginal ideology that is primarily about helping the powerless hold their own against the big, bad state.

According to the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal, libertarians are wrong to blame militarized police because they “didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill [Staten Island resident] Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.” Franklin Foer at the New Republic got in on the action, too, under the headline “Ferguson’s Lesson: Local Government Poses the Real Threat to Liberty.” Likewise for New York’s Jonathan Chait, who, when he isn’t cheerleading for Barack Obama, enjoys writing about how small government is the worst.

All three men wildly downplay the threat to individual liberty posed by the federal government, while suggesting that libertarians aren’t annoyed by local tyrants. That is surely a joke. Have you ever mentioned former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in front of a libertarian? If you do, you’re likely to endure a profanity-laden rant.

In a commendable act of almost but nope, Foer mentions the importance of civil asset forfeiture while skirting around the fact that forfeiture laws incentivize making drug cases into federal ones, so as to get around states with higher burdens of proof for taking property. (Plenty of state forfeiture laws have low enough standards, but the feds make them irrelevant.) Include a DEA agent in your drug bust—making it a federal case—and suddenly you get up to 80 percent of the profits from the seized cash or goods. In short, it’s a hell of a lot easier for local police to steal your shit thanks to federal law.

Konczal, at least, is correct that the problem goes beyond the Pentagon’s 1033 grants, or the Department of Homeland Security’s version of the same program, which provide even small towns with all sort of war tech like the absurd MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected) vehicles. But to act as if the state of policing in America hasn’t gotten worse, or at least more noticeable, over the past few decades—as the federal government’s reach has steadily expanded—is to be deliberately obtuse. The prison population has exploded since the 1980s. The use of SWAT teams (mostly for searches, 62 percent of them for narcotics) has also increased to a staggering extent. The Controlled Substances Act, for one, is federal law, and the war on drugs is integrally tied to police misconduct and to the fact that the United States now has 2.4 million people behind bars.

There is unquestionably something to the idea that until comfortable, middle-class white people are unable to ignore the police, cops’ flaws will not become an issue worth solving. And as Konczal points out, SWAT was invented in part to quell 1960s unrest. But so what? Modern gun control emerged out of a desire to quell the Black Panthers’ propensity for carrying firearms around and terrifying all the squares. Our law-and-order society has more than a few parents, including racism and a hysterical media. The Supreme Court also plays its part by upholding immunity from prosecution for cops and other government agents who violate individual liberty.

Still, the war on drugs—that libertarian pet issue—is the greatest catalyst for the warrior cops we see around us today. This makes “just Republicans who smoke pot” more than a little cheesed off. The war on drugs is not just about SWAT teams kicking doors in more than they used to. It is also a fantastic excuse to profile and search minorities with no recourse. So are gun laws. The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program used (and, to a lesser extent, still uses) both to disproportionately target black and Latino men for punishment.

Federalist urges notwithstanding, libertarians do not magically think that local tyranny is not a problem. But a city or county is easier to leave behind than a state—and certainly much easier than abandoning one’s home country. That does not mean that a locality where police treat people like lesser beings is some kind of libertarian fantasy gone wrong. Smart libertarians know that police don’t themselves cause institutional racism, and that expensive riot gear didn’t make Darren Wilson pull the trigger on Michael Brown.

Foer is correct that libertarians often concentrate on big, splashy news of federal outrages at the expense of local tyranny, but that is not unique to the ideology. National news is bigger news, and it’s easier to keep abreast of it. Certainly, we could all use more—and tougher—local news reporting. Cable news and national media are often a joke, or perpetuate the very same hand-wringing and hysteria that gave us “tough on crime.” And local newspapers are dying out (not that their reporters were the pavement-pounding heroes most of them think they were). But none of this changes the fundamental dangers of a sprawling federal government, and its part in making our police more powerful.

The progressive idea that a federal “police tsar” would solve the issues at play is a nerve-wracking one. Federal law enforcement, from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the bumbling Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (and an FBI that seems to spend half its time creating and then “preventing” terrorist plots), is no more trustworthy than local or state forces. The Feds are, in fact, capable of doing more harm, and all of these entities are less likely to encounter the victims of their overreach than a local police official. Likewise, the Department of Justice—a joke in the Obama era—isn’t some outside savior that can be trusted to save the day. Sometimes they annoy local jerks like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, sure. But they also help melt little kids in places like Waco, Texas, and run guns to Mexican cartels.

Again, nothing about distrusting the big, bad feds should translate to allowing local cops to do whatever they want. But local cops’ hold over the lives of ordinary individuals is enhanced at nearly every turn by national money and power. The problem is top-down and bottom-up, but since libertarians (and some conservatives) tend to mention the federal connection, progressives feel threatened and need to undermine them.

Konczal’s strangest argument betrays his lack of understanding of what libertarians really think. One thing libertarians don’t believe is that “having people who ‘use’ the criminal justice system pay for it” is what our law-and-order system should look like. He says libertarians believe that to simply privatize—or monetize—a service usually provided by the government is to end all debate over it. But Blackwater killing civilians in Iraq instead of American soldiers doing so is still a problem for libertarians. Public prisons have plenty of warped incentives for continuing to exist, such as heavy lobbying from police and prison guards’ unions, but making those into private, financial incentives does not solve the problem of there being hundreds of thousands of people behind bars who have no business being there. A more moderate libertarian might consider contractor options in order to diminish costs to the taxpayer, but they don’t solve the moral issues.

Good libertarians care about police and the right to not be tossed into prison. And as Radley Balko recently demonstrated in a beautiful piece of reporting from Missouri, we’re not really down with ruining people’s lives over court costs, speeding tickets, or other bureaucratic price tags that often lead to jailtime for folks who desperately need to take care of kids or get to a job. Forcing poor people, who sure seem to “use” the criminal justice system a lot more than rich people, to pay fines for failing at lawn upkeep or driving too fast is not remotely consistent with libertarian principles.

Pretending that militarized police completely explains the Michael Brown shooting is silly. Local cops in this racially polarized town did wrong. But ignoring the federal government’s role in making our police forces what they are today is equally absurd. Leave the libertarians alone. We may focus more on the federal government, since it has the appearance of an immovable (and intangible) object, but our favorite pastime is loudly complaining about oppressions large and small. To pretend otherwise is to admit you don’t know us.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter.

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