Politics & Policy

Rand Paul Is Right about Eric Garner

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
It’s an undeniable fact that New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for his death.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether racism was involved in the tragic death of Eric Garner. My own suspicion is that this misfortune could have transpired just as easily with a white man resisting arrest and/or a black cop choking him.

And even though lots of people don’t want to hear it, reasonable people can disagree on whether illegally excessive force was to blame. Personally, watching the ubiquitous video of Garner’s arrest, it looks like excessive force to me. But the simple fact is that a Staten Island grand jury saw evidence that led it to conclude otherwise. People should at least entertain the possibility that it might have gotten the ruling right.

But you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since.

“I think it’s hard not to watch that video of him saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ and not be horrified by it,” Paul said. “But I think there’s something bigger than the individual circumstances. . . . I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that’s driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘Hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ . . . For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.”

Now, Paul probably shouldn’t have used the word “bigger.” He clearly meant cigarette taxes are an issue that transcends the individual circumstances of Garner’s death. But it was chum for critics who wanted to misunderstand him. For instance, a column by Salon’s Joan Walsh suggested that Paul’s answer “wrecked” his presidential prospects.

“What kind of callousness is required to say the ‘bigger’ issue in Garner’s death isn’t excessive police use of force, or police practice toward African-Americans generally, but . . . taxes?” Walsh wrote. “What kind of heart do you have to have to use the Eric Garner tragedy to rail against . . . cigarette taxes?”

Well, I don’t know what kind of heart it requires, but I do know that anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. That’s actually why they’re called “law enforcement.” Google it.

New York City declared war on tobacco a long time ago, and in the process City Hall has become addicted to Brobdingnagian cigarette taxes. That’s why law enforcement is enforcing the laws against bootleg smokes.

Of course, reasonable people can debate the wisdom of such laws. But only unreasonable people can deny that those laws are partly to blame. Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period.

What’s so strange about the outrage over Paul’s remarks is that Paul’s point is perfectly consistent with his — and the Left’s — opposition to the drug war.

I ultimately disagree with Paul about that, but it’s a morally serious argument. Even outright legalizers (Paul says he isn’t one) aren’t necessarily in favor of, say, heroin use. Rather, they argue that the costs of prohibition outweigh the benefits. Too many are imprisoned, too many are arrested, and too many die accidentally while being arrested. Well what’s true of low-level heroin pushers is also true of low-level cigarette pushers. In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means.

This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs.

If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Everyone agrees: No one should die for selling bootleg cigarettes. But if you pass and enforce a law against such things, you increase the chances things might go wrong. That’s a fact, whether it sounds callous to delicate ears or not.

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail atgoldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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