Horowitz: On Ferguson, Libertarians Playing with Fire

Horowitz: On Ferguson, Libertarians Playing with Fire

As Congress remains in a protracted recess for another three weeks and the political news recedes from the headlines, it didn’t take long for the nonpolitical event surrounding the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to become political. After all, everything in this day and age is ultimately politicized.

There is a narrative developing among some libertarian figures that the actions of the police in Ferguson represent the latest example of egregious abuses of “big government.” From listening to their diatribes one would come away with the impression that the local police decided to randomly kill an African-American teen in cold blood, then proceeded to terrorize the neighborhood and suspend civil liberties while engaging in para-military exercises throughout the streets. Their account of the tragedy portrays the situation as a zero-sum battle between agents of government and private citizens.

For some on the libertarian right, the fact that the “victims” of the alleged police brutality are black makes this both an opportunity to bash big government and make in-roads with the black community by showing how unbridled government control is particularly harmful to their way of life. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for example, parachuted into the conflict by penning an op-ed unambiguously making this tragedy about race. While offering a terse throwaway line about the importance of police maintaining the peace, he then weaved in general bipartisan concerns about a militarized police into a politically motivated supposition about the role of race in this conflict – all before the facts are clear.

“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” said Paul.

He then boldly presented a long-held left-wing patronizing talking point that “anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”

Really? Until Paul cites real evidence that blacks are punished more severely for crimes than whites or are wrongly accused of crimes more often than other people in the year 2014, he should leave the racial pandering to Al Sharpton. Clearly, this suburban police department was not ready to deal with such a volatile situation with full competence. But the notion that they had a racist agenda beyond protecting the citizens of the city or that they would have been more forgiving of other races engaging in violent rioting is not something that can simply be asserted.

Moreover, while this view of the events in Ferguson would indeed present us with an opportunity to show the harmful effects of a police state and the general concern of militarization of police, it fails to take a holistic approach to what actually happened.

There is nothing political about the events that took place on the tragic night of August 9, when Michael Brown was shot dead in an altercation with police. Like every individual fatally shot where law enforcement is involved, we have to learn the facts on the ground before pontificating and drawing politically motivated conclusions from the tragedy. The truth will come out through the judicial process.

What is clear from the aftermath of the shooting is that parts of the city erupted in mass rioting, burning down businesses and terrorizing neighborhoods with violence reminiscent of scenes in the Middle East. Even if a cop shot Michael Brown in cold blood, which has not been demonstrated, the lawlessness and the rioting was simply unacceptable and needed to be shut down immediately. Rioters weren’t just attacking the police; they were attacking private businesses and innocent citizens. There is no higher degree of tyranny than violent anarchy, in which people cannot travel freely without fear of harm to their bodies or property.

Conservatives are certainly in agreement with libertarians on many issues and share their concerns about over-criminalization of some dubious non-violent crimes or overzealous use of police to collect speeding tickets to purvey the welfare state. There is a valid general concern about the over-militarization of police forces, and there is certainly no need for such para-military arms of bureaucracies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Education.

But conservatives should not rush into the libertarian social media mob against all things police or government engaging in a zero-sum “the police acted stupidly” meme while obfuscating the fact that the rioting presented an imminent threat to the liberty of innocent citizens. As conservatives, we don’t believe in zero government. We believe in ordered liberty built upon a strong civil society. There is no place in a civil society for violent rioting, and we need brave members of law enforcement to help preserve that ordered liberty. Their absence would lead to rampant tyranny much worse than what we experience under our ever-encroaching government.

Indeed, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) struck the perfect pitch, encapsulating everyone’s concerns: “Police officers risk their lives every day to keep us safe, and any time a young man loses his life in a confrontation with law enforcement, it is tragic… Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer. Once the unrest is brought to an end, we should examine carefully what happened to ensure that justice is served.”

There is so much common ground between conservatives and libertarians (and even liberals). We can craft legislation to clearly regulate the use of military tactics and weapons. We can work on sentencing reform for some non-violent crimes. But to completely and dishonestly ignore the role that violent crime plays in limiting liberty and the critical role that a robust police response plays in preserving liberty is antithetical to all of our values. And to engage in politically motivated racial pandering to help legitimize the behavior is shameless.


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