Fewer laws, less police brutality
By Scott Sumner
There has recently been a great deal of discussion as to how to reduce police brutality. I don’t necessarily oppose attempts to reform police forces, but I doubt whether that sort of approach would be effective. In my view, the problem must be addressed indirectly. The primary problem is not too many police; it’s too many laws.
There are two obvious objections to my argument:
1. I’ve long advocated a reduction in laws, so my motives are suspect. Perhaps I’m just using recent events as an excuse to promote a libertarian agenda.
2. A reduction in the number of laws would not have helped in the case of George Floyd, who was detained (and then killed) over a counterfeiting charge.
Those are both good arguments. But it’s equally true that suspect motives don’t necessarily mean my argument is incorrect. And the fact that it would not have helped George Floyd doesn’t mean that it would not help in many, many other cases.
As a general rule, police have two types of interactions with the public. Traditionally, police were called in by victims of crimes. In these cases, the victims were happy to see the police show up and assist them.
During the 20th century, however, the police increasingly became a semi-military force that launched a war on significant segments of the population, including drug users/merchants, prostitutes, gamblers, possessors of illegal ammunition, tax evaders, and others. Whole communities are almost under siege, with paramilitary SWAT teams breaking into houses.
In 2014, Eric Garner died after telling the police “I can’t breath”. He was being arrested for selling individual cigarettes from low tax states. This crime would never have occurred if New York had not decided to adopt a highly regressive cigarette tax, aimed at behavior modification.
Prostitutes are often harassed by law enforcement, with police sometimes asking for special “favors”.
Police often barge into homes (without knocking) in search of drugs, illegal ammunition, and other contraband. This often leads to confusion, and innocent people are occasionally shot and killed.
If we were to dramatically reduce the number of laws, then the police would have less leverage to harass the public. Power corrupts, and the police will have an enormous amount of power in a country where thousands of consensual acts are illegal. Even minor infractions such as loitering and jaywalking are used as excuses to harass people, often members of minority groups.
Roughly 400,000 people are currently imprisoned for drug crimes, often activities that would not even be illegal in other states. We’d be much better off if the police were to focus on protecting us from violent criminals, not trying to tell us how to live our lives.