• Jim Kelly

Voting for Violence: why police reform demands better legislators and voters

Derek Chauvin's conviction arrived this week just as the mob demanded, but no one seems quite satisfied. Chauvin was overcharged with second-degree murder, and was just one cog of a giant machine. We've got our scapegoat, but how do we get more systemic reform?

This quest for justice presents a paradox for BLM, Maxine Waters, and the left generally. The left instinctively seeks government solutions to problems but has no instinct for holding government as an institution to blame when the solutions fail and the problems get worse. They ignore the failure, or blame it on specific bad apples, or excuse it by alleging good intentions of the people in charge, or blame it on corporations or religion or the NRA or the GOP--which they have no problem indicting as institutions. Mostly they avoid asking awkward questions about governent's results, because they fear the answers.

So when a public failure too big to ignore arises, they flail. Those representing the government--Waters, Obama, the Minneapolis DA and so on--are eager to distance themselves from the institution's failure and happily blame Chauvin as an individual. The Antifa left riot and set fire to government buildings. The woke left try to reprogram all white people, in the belief that white people's attitudes somehow shape government institutions.

It's encouraging to hear voters on the left call to defund police departments, since they're finally questioning an arm of government as an institution. It's just hard to see how that's either workable or helpful. Derek Chauvin was a leaf, the police department is a branch, and pruning back either one doesn't get to the root of the problem.

The insane job the police are supposed to do

Cutting back the budget of the police doesn't work without also cutting back their mandate, which is to impose a set of often deranged government demands on the public.

Consider the circumstances of their encounter with George Floyd. A shopkeeper called the police after a Floyd allegedly gave him a counterfeit $20 bill. Such a minor dispute needn't have been sorted out right away, or indeed at all, but the police burned a lot more than $20 responding right away and confronting Floyd.

Why? Because a $20 bill is a government program with a big hole in it: it's easy to fake. Back when gold and silver were used as currency, faking them was much harder, so they were less susceptible to fraud. Digital currencies like Bitcoin are trivial to copy, but they use cyptographic techniques to prevent faking or double-spending coins. Government created a fraud problem when it replaced gold and silver with paper, and it has never fixed it.

To patch over this Epson exploit, the government uses threats and guns. If it catches you printing its money, it kidnaps you and throws you in a cage. Unless you're Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, obviously. The government regards money she prints as a public service.

The police came after Floyd to implement the patch. They had to determine whether he might have printed some money and therefore needed to be kidnapped. But that was just the start of his trouble.

The drug cartel

City police are a full-service organization who impose a great many programs on citizens on government's behalf. One in particular proved decisive in Floyd's death.

The government runs a classic drug cartel, which uses violence to maintain control over drug distribution in its territory. A central FDA decides which goods the cartel will dispense and under what terms. The government uses a network of distributors and retailers called pharmacies that carefully dispense only what it approves, and only if you've obtained a permission slip from one of its authorized physicians. Anyone attempting to sell or buy outside this cartel gets met with the same violence we see from drug gangs in Colombia and Mexico.

George Floyd apparently had drugs without a permission slip. The FDA allows doctors to prescribe fentanyl and other opioids, but only with good reasons, and the DEA threatens doctors who are too loose with prescriptions. So people wanting drugs often buy them from other cartels. Obviously this infuriates the Man, who needs to preserve his monopoly, so the police are under pressure to crack down on both unauthorized dealers and disloyal customers like Floyd.

Imagine McDonalds or any other civilized business working this way--sending goons to break your kneecaps if they find a Whopper in your car. You'd scarf any Whopper you had as soon as they pulled you over, and they still might kidnap you for possessing the wrapper.

Unfortunately fentanyl is dangerous, which is ironically precisely the government's justification for its drug program. Predictably the program has exactly the opposite result of its stated goals, in this case getting Floyd killed from drugs rather than protecting him from them.

Where police reform starts

These are just two of thousands and thousands of laws on the books, put there not to protect citizens' rights but to impose their wills on their neighbors, or to patch over the unintended consequences of previous laws, or to demonstrate a politician's "compassion."

The police have an utterly nonsensical mission: to impose all these demands by force on citizens--from wearing masks on the beach, to building only according to some legislator's whims, to purging styrofoam--but without resorting to violence. Kidnappings should be done as respectfully and peacefully as possible. Also, the people they catch should fit a certain demographic profile--not too many blacks, please, because we can't abide kidnapping tainted by racism.

The consequences, of course, are deeply unjust. The police routinely trample people's basic rights to life, liberty and property; and hassle, arrest, or even shoot them for non-crimes. Behavior they consider criminal when you or I do it is perfectly okay when they or someone else in government does it, from double parking to attacking strangers on the street.

Budget cuts will not sort out any of these contradictions, they'll simply force police to be more selective about which rules they enforce and perhaps less selective about whom they hire.

What needs cutting is the police's mandate, which comes from the legislatures spewing edicts like lawn sprinklers. People entrusted with government's monopoly on violence should use it modestly and carefully to protect citizens' rights, not to try to engineer the perfect society by forcing citizens to their whims.

Unfortunately, legislators aren't doing this on their own, so it's not simply a matter of throwing the bums out.

Doing the Work

The woke left diagnoses George Floyd's death as due to institutional racism and prescribes self-reflection and humility for white people as the lever to reform. Racial animus is not a useful theory of our institutional dysfunction, and they mischaracterize the power struggle. The conflict isn't between black and white but between the rulers and the ruled.

However, they have a point: it's hard to see things improving without more self-reflection and humility. Voters have become spoiled by politicians promising to force their desires upon other people. Should we allow plastic straws? Should we forbid employers from firing people because of their opinions? Should we require farms to treat pigs with dignity? Should we provide everyone a basic income?

If you're going to reflect on something, reflect on what you mean by "we." Reflect on how blithely and frequently you call for or vote to impose your own edicts on complete strangers you know nothing about, who were not violating any right of yours or anyone you can name.

This instinct is the source of police brutality. You figure the city would be nicer with fewer chain stores, so you vote for some politician promising to get rid of them, he enacts some legal mandates, and the police dispatch men with guns to subdue anyone violating them. Occasionally your fellow citizens don't immediately buckle, and violent confrontation ensues. There's a straight line from your confusion about or disregard for others' basic rights to police abuses.

The good news is clarifying your understanding of rights is within your control and a more bounded job than repenting of your latent racism. The bad news is it's not something you can simply vote for politicians to make happen, it requires the internal work of summoning humility and tolerance and rethinking your relationship to police and government generally.

Once you've got your own house in order, start civic reform not with local police but with baby steps. Pick an easy one like defunding the Department of Education. Were schools better or worse back in 1979 when it started? What has it accomplished in 40 years? Who ends up paying for its $66 billion budget? Does it make inequality better or worse? If these seem like tough questions, you may not be ready for this step yet.

Local police present much tougher questions. Most of the electorate still wants police to force their neighbors to wear diapers on their faces, so we're a long way from taking on the responsibilities police absorb today. Defunding the police is nevertheless an honorable long-term goal. Get started clarifying your ideas about rights and responsibilities today.

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