In an otherwise excellent segment on the tragic Eric Garner case, in which some New York cops choked to death a man selling loose cigarettes, Jon Stewart, generally a smart man, either misunderstands or plays to his audience’s ignorance. Either way, it’s worthwhile correcting him because there is a very large point to be made about this case, a point beyond the already large point about police gone wild.

The specific issue is a claim made by Senator Rand Paul. Here’s what the clip has Senator Paul saying:

I think there’s something bigger than just the individual circumstances. . . . Some politicians put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes. So they’ve driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police to say “Hey, we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.”

Stewart’s response? “What the f**k are you talking about?”

Paul already said what he was talking about. Jon Stewart simply didn’t want to acknowledge the point. Stewart says correctly that the government can enforce laws without going to such extremes. Sure. It can. But one thing we have to be aware of whenever we advocate a law is that government agents who enforce it will sometimes go to extremes.

Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter makes the point well. In a piece titled “Law Puts Us All in Same Danger as Eric Garner,” Professor Carter writes:

On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.

In short, he who wills the end wills the means.

Carter continues:

I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Take that, Stewart.

The whole Carter piece is well worth reading, and, if you want more than a laugh, is way more valuable than Stewart’s video. Carter talks about the overregulation and overcriminalization that the government has done to our society. Carter cites an estimate from Douglas Husak that “more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment.” And in a very large percent of these cases, the people committing the crime don’t even know they did so.

Of course, Garner did know that he was breaking the law. He was engaging in illegal trade, trying to benefit himself and those he sold to. The horror!