08 December 2014

Eric Garner, Libertarian Martyr?

What you make of the death of Eric Garner after a policeman choked him into submission is very much a matter of perspective. Some observers are satisfied that Garner got what was coming to him for resisting arrest. Others, more prominently, see him as yet another black victim of a racist police culture, dead not necessarily because the cop hates blacks but because cops are conditioned somehow to react more forcefully when confronting black men. I'm not the only person to warn that too exclusive a focus on race can distract Americans from the issue of equal relevance to us all, the immunity police seem increasingly to enjoy when excessive force leads to fatalities. But if black protesters have a right to see Garner's death in a context of racist brutality, then Rand Paul has as much right to see it in a context of excessive taxation and regulation by government. As part of his outreach to minority voters, Sen. Paul has often criticized police excesses occasioned by the "war on drugs." During the first wave of Ferguson riots last summer, he expressed concern over the "militarization" of police forces across the country. While libertarians stereotypically want a government that is no more than a police force, existing primarily to protect property, Paul has tried to remind his base that even the police power can go too far and should be subject to scrutiny. Yet he has irked some people with his intervention in the Garner case because of his argument that the law bears a share of the blame for Garner's death.

Rand Paul wasn't the first person to note that Garner died for selling "loosies" -- individual cigarettes sold on the street tax-free. For many observers that's just a way of underscoring the atrocious disproportion of the punishment Garner suffered to the offense he committed. Paul goes further than that, however. Seeing an analogy with the war on drugs, the senator argues that an unjust law -- New York State's expensive cigarette tax -- creates an underground economy that puts people like Garner in peril of police violence. Leaving aside the other recent high-profile killings of unarmed people by cops, Paul suggests that in this particular case, Garner might still be alive today if the tax wasn't so high, or if it didn't exist at all.

Paul would have been a fool not to expect a backlash, but this wouldn't be the first time he'd be surprised at hostile reactions to opinions that seem reasonable to him. To many observers on the left, Paul's statements are a crass exploitation of a tragedy (or a crime, depending on your perspective) for a right-wing purpose: the reduction or elimination of a tax. To some activist observers, Paul seems to be distracting people from whatever they consider the real issue, e.g. a racist police war on black men. I suppose I consider Paul's stance a distraction since I consider the real issue to be police procedure more than the laws the police enforce. Yet Paul's stance isn't entirely irrelevant to the bigger picture insofar as a "broken windows" policy of cracking down on relatively minor offenses (like selling loosies) makes dangerous confrontations between people and police more likely. Taken out of the context of Paul's overall position on the police, however, his comments on the Garner case make it easy for an ideological enemy to think that the tax is the only thing the senator is really concerned about. As a result, some of the current criticism of Paul seems unfair. Nevertheless, we should be able to affirm the state's right to tax cigarettes, if that's what the people really want, while holding the police more strictly to account for their action against the tax-evading loosie trade. The law that matters most in the Garner case and others like it is not the law the cop attempts to enforce, but the law we the people ultimately must make regulating the cops' enforcement of all our laws.

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