No Libertarians, Eric Garner is not about you

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Evidently, libertarians just couldn’t muster much outrage amid allegations that an armed agent of the state used disproportionate force, ultimately killing an eighteen-year-old named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

But with the death of Eric Garner — and today’s announcement that the officers involved will not be indicted — the right thinks they’ve found a tragedy to bring back their agenda.

“I mostly blame politicians … the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate[s] something is wrong with criminal justice in America,” Rand Paul writes.

Expect to hear that detail a lot in the coming weeks: “selling untaxed cigarettes.”  That’s because for Libertarians, this case isn’t about a cop using obviously excessive force until he killed a man. No — it’s about how evil taxes are, and if only we let rich tobacco CEOs get even richer racism will magically disappear!

Deciding that we should repeal taxes because of Eric Garner makes as much sense as deciding that we should repeal jaywalking laws and let people wander in the middle of busy highways because of Michael Brown. The problem isn’t that police are enforcing laws — the problem is that police are ignoring them, particularly laws against racial profiling, excessive force, and so on.

Better solutions

But even if we ignore the gross cynicism of co-opting a man’s death to advance a completely unrelated agenda, the Libertarian argument still doesn’t work.

After all, there are plenty of alternative solutions that Libertarians would find less agreeable. To name one, the government could simply raise taxes on tobacco companies instead of taxing consumers. Enforcement efforts against Philip Morris are obviously far less likely to turn violent.

Another possibility: massive investments into affordable housing, SNAP, unemployment insurance, universal basic income, and other such programs. These would all provide crucial economic security to people who might otherwise be tempted to get involved in risky black market transactions like illegal cigarette sales.

A third possibility: strong gun control laws, particularly in major metropolitan areas. As Matthew Yglesias points out, lax gun legislation fosters an aggressive and adversarial relationship between law enforcement officers and civilians. Daniel Pantaleo and other officers responded violently to Eric Garner because that’s how they’ve been trained to interact with a public that’s unusually likely to be armed.

A fourth possibility: bigger government! For instance, even more funding for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division – its budget has grown by 26 percent since 2008, but it is still clearly under-resourced. Give the federal government the tools it needs to investigate when local police departments can’t do the job.

There is, in other words, no reason to simply leap from Eric Garner’s death to the preferred Libertarian outcome of destroying the government. It’s been 33 years since Ronald Reagan famously declared that “government is not the solution to our problem,” and black men are still dying in the streets. Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Image courtesy Gerard Flynn.

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