Questioning the obvious

The Tao of Recessions
Practicing safe heroism

2014-05-22 recessions

I got a note from someone with two suggestions to write about. Civil forfeiture and the militarization of the police. The suggestion came to me at a libertarian convention so I must assume that the implied question is what should our position be about it. I was already thinking of writing on the subject from a different perspective, about the harm it does to society, justice and politics, as I thought that it is far from being just bad in itself, it is a sign of much deeper problems. The not-so-obvious harm these things do to society is an interesting question to ponder.

What we, as libertarians think about it should be obvious. How bad it is should be obvious to everybody regardless of political colours. Or maybe not. If everybody was as outraged about it as I am and I think everybody should be, something would be happening about it already. To who and why the ideas of police power appeal to the point that they are willing to tolerate the forfeitures and the SWAT teams is another fascinating question.
But both of these questions are a bit academic. The one that we should explore here is how libertarians should approach it. How can we turn the outrage into a policy position and possibly even political action?

Our first reaction is, naturally, anger and righteous indignation but simply stating that it is bad, that it is an attack on personal freedom, a sign of government overreach etc. etc., blah, blah, blah will only get the usual reaction confirming that we are the crazy individualist libertarians fussing about personal liberty which makes no sense in a modern society.

How and why it is offending every possible interpretation of freedom is also a no-brainer but where does it take us stating it? Those who are outraged about it are already on our side and those who are not, will willingly accept it as the price they have to pay for the illusion of security. It is very difficult to argue with public perception. When I tell people that communism is bad, and I mean really bad, I can see the images in their heads filled with barbed wires and prison guards with machine guns. It will never be this bad here, they think. We still have our freedoms. How can I then explain to them that I have far more reason to fear a policeman here today than I had back in communist Hungary. That at least they did not shoot the random crazies on the street. They were not ready to draw their guns at a traffic stop.
How we ended up here have many reasons. Political, economic, psychological.

According to this Cato publication:

“Originally, the civil forfeiture laws were passed to make it easier for the government to stop drug traffickers, money launderers and tax evaders. As always, agents of the government, rather than being careful and judicious in the use of their new powers, quickly abused them. As Lord Acton warned, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

There are books, studies and white papers explaining the mechanics of the militarization of the police; how in the US the military and various federal agencies are facilitating it to increase their influence with state and municipal agencies. There are articles in publications from the political left and right alike; mostly describing how bad it is.

“SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games. In 2010 New Haven, Connecticut sent a SWAT team to a bar suspected of serving under-age drinkers.”

…but the above are all just proximate causes.

Intermediate Policy answers

There are laws proposed to reign in both forfeitures and SWAT raids. There are laws proposed to dry up the money source and to make the raids and the forfeitures less profitable to the executing agencies but these are all just band aids. I could propose a few on my own:

  • No police organization should profit from their activities in any way.
  • No police should receive money from other levels of government
  • Policemen should not be allowed to unionize
  • Every use of deadly (or even just injurious force) should be investigated and ruled on by an independent body.

But these would still only address the proximate causes. I seriously object to the conclusion of The Cato article quoted above which ends with this sentence: “Losing some tax revenue and having a few money launderers go free is a small price to pay for keeping our civil liberties.” Tax revenue and money laundering? Seriously? From the pen of a libertarian? Can any of us imagine ‘money laundering’ laws in a free society with sound money?

So what are the ultimate causes?

The criminalization of consensual, victimless activities in general and the war on drugs in particular.
Public service unions in general and police unions in particular.
The increasing fuzziness of law and order in general and the politicization of law enforcement in particular.
A culture where the agents of the state are increasingly likely to see the people they are supposed to serve as the enemy they need to control in general and the alienation of the police in particular.

The ultimate answers

The ultimate answers are the classic libertarian goals: personal freedom, sound money and a minimal state. What we have to understand and clearly advocate is that civil forfeiture laws and the militarization of the police are just the most visible side effects, just the symptoms of the erosion of our liberties. We should, of course, use them as the argument for more freedom, but not by themselves and in themselves. We should use them to show what road the loss of basic liberties will lead us down on. We should argue that they are the inevitable results of our hopeless wars on consensual activities. Most of these problems would go away if we would legalize all victimless ‘crimes’. That is where we should focus our efforts, not on the particular symptoms. I will return to this subject to elaborate on the ultimate causes.


Institute of Justice paper on the subject (excellent with a good legal history) The best short summary is this Economist article Overkill, a Cato white paper is a short version of the book below “Rise of the Warrior Cop”, a book from the author of the Cato paper above A Cato debate on the subject The Cato book “Forfeiting our property rights” (on Google books (free)) and on Amazon A congressional testimony of Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute on a proposed law reform on the subject The situation in Canada is not even close to being as bad as it is in the US but it is moving in that direction. There is a civil forfeiture blog if you wish to check on the latest issues. They are mostly drug related. Searching “Canadian civil forfeiture laws” will yield interesting results that I will not overview here as it does not change my conclusion: we should go after the underlying causes in general and the war on drugs in particular.

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