The Corner


Take the Policy, Pay the Price

Reuters staff photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon works through tear gas fired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after migrants attempted to illegally cross the border into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. (Adrees Latif/REUTERS)

What do people think laws are? And what do they think government is? Watching the reactions to the recent tear-gas deployment at the border, I can’t say I’m convinced that our society knows the answer.

The obvious question to ask of those who have complained that the border patrol responded to force with force is “as opposed to what?” And the only good answer is, “as opposed to not having laws that the border patrol is tasked with enforcing” in the first instance — laws that, in this case, do not relate solely to immigration controls but to throwing rocks as well. When we pass legislation, we are not merely “expressing our values,” as Joe Biden would have it; we are authorizing force against those who break the regulations we have imposed. A coherent position for those who object to this arrangement is “Then we should haven’t many laws.” An incoherent position is, “We should have laws, but we should decline to enforce them if it makes us feel bad.” There is a reason that the Obama administration protected the border, too — often with tear gas — and that reason is that it, like the Trump administration, had only one other choice: to open the border and to give into violence. Clearly, it wasn’t prepared to do that. Indeed, it wasn’t allowed to. Those who object to that aren’t really objecting to President Trump. They’re objecting to quotidian reality.

Far too often we buy the cuddly vision of the government rather than the realistic one. We might call this the “laws without consequences” approach. Representative Eric Swalwell was quite rightly mocked for bringing up the government’s arsenal of nuclear weapons during a recent debate over gun control, but he wasn’t entirely wrong in his thinking. In America, with its rebellious instinct, strong tradition of natural rights, and impossible-to-repeal Second Amendment, the question before the gun-control movement is not “Do you want to to live in a country in which ‘assault weapons’ are prohibited and, magically, everyone is comfortable with that fact?” Rather, it is “Do you want to live in a country in which ‘assault weapons’ are prohibited, and the government enforces that rule at the point of a bayonet?” For both practical and democratic reasons, Representative Swalwell is unlikely to get the chance to nuke the more recalcitrant among his fellow Americans, but, were his fantasy of confiscation to come to fruition, he’d certainly get the chance to watch as local, state, and federal authorities tried to crack down on the holdouts. And at that point, were the consequences to look similar to those attendant to the War on Drugs and of Prohibition, it would not be good enough to say, “Well this isn’t what I had in mind.” It was. For Swalwell, it would apparently be worth the fight.

Having a selective immigration policy means pushing back people who try to break in to the country, and deporting those who succeed. Having laws against throwing rocks means fighting back against rock-throwers. Mandating the confiscation of AR-15s means deploying force agains those who refuse to comply. In the United States of America, we use violence against people who don’t obey the established rules, be they tax-evaders, bootleggers, or the guy who forgot to replace his taillight. One can say, “Yes, my policy is worth that cost” or one can say, “No, on balance, my policy is not worth the risk it engenders,” but one simply cannot have it both ways. Do we still know this as a society?

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