The Corner

Politics & Policy

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Police officers kneel down in solidarity with protesters during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Washington, D.C., May 31, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Austin Petersen, a libertarian with whom I am in agreement on a good number of things, tweets:

I think that this misses the forest for the trees. The people primarily responsible for the recent COVID-inspired restrictions on church attendance were not the police, but our legislators and executive officials. The role of the police was to enforce their decisions. To observe this is not to give carte blanche to the police purely because they are “following orders”: As with anyone else charged with upholding the rules, police officers can do their jobs well and they can do them badly; they can do them too officiously and they can do them too carelessly; they can do them judiciously and they can do them unfairly; and, in extreme cases, they can even resort to murder. Rather, it is to note that the police are, ultimately, tasked with enforcing, not with making the rules. Want to avoid being ticketed at church? Vote out the people who made church attendance illegal.

Petersen uses the word “defund.” This, I suppose, could mean defund entirely, or defund partially. Because I am not a child, I’m open to hearing arguments for both. But I can’t see how either one would lead us to a more libertarian — or fair — world. If, in an attempt to reduce the reach of the government, we were to defund the police completely, we would be limiting our capacity to enforce even those laws that libertarians believe are necessary: those against murder, assault, rape, robbery, and so forth. If, in an attempt to reduce the reach of the government, we defund the police partially, we would be forcing officers to prioritize which laws they uphold and which they do not. Not only would that be a poor way to get rid of rules that we dislike — the way to do this is to repeal those rules — it would almost certainly lead to people in more heavily policed areas being harassed, and to those in wealthier and better-connected areas being left alone. Would that be “justice”?

Petersen himself hasn’t endorsed an alternative, but many who are jumping on this train — including the city government in Minneapolis — have talked about replacing the police with a “model for public safety.” At this point, that term is so vague as to be meaningless, possibly by design. And yet, in practice, there are really only three ways in which it could be fleshed out. It could be little more than a euphemism for “a changed police force,” in which case the topic at hand is not the “abolition” or the “defunding” of the police, but their reform. It could imply a return to the mixture of private security, quick-deputizing sheriffs, and assorted militias that marked out the early republic and the Old West, which seems unlikely to be the preference of the sort of people driving this trend. Or it could presage the institution of precisely the sort of vicious, ideological, and inescapable political organization that has accompanied the worst of the world’s revolutions. One doesn’t have to change too many words in “model for public safety” to get to “Committee of Public Safety.” And we all know how that worked out.

Whatever it is that they want, a better course of action for limited-government types such as Petersen would be to reduce the number of laws on the books, and to ensure that there are strict rules governing how they may be enforced by the authorities. Anything else is a recipe for caprice — and caprice is the opposite of equal protection under the law.

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