Libertarians and limited-government advocating conservatives and Republicans frequently reference the fact that government is force. They say government policies, laws, and regulations are enforced at the barrel of a gun. And that’s about the point when liberals and progressives snort with derisive laughter and say that “it’ll never come to that” or “go wrap your head in tin foil, without government who would build the roads?”
Then we have the case of Eric Garner, who NYPD officers accused of selling “loosies” or single cigarettes. (This is not only illegal in New York City, but also a federal crime, by the way.) Police chose to engage Garner physically instead of simply issuing him a citation and court summons. When Garner appeared to resist arrest, five officers engaged in a take-down, which led to Garner’s death as one of the officers applied a “choke hold” in an effort to subdue him.
Much has been said and written about the incident already, and we don’t want to focus on the specifics of the case other than to say clearly the police engaged in an excessive use of force that resulted in the death of someone they were taking into custody. There must be consequences for this action. In our view, this is not a racial issue; it is a human one. The issue calls to question how much force the government should be permitted, especially when responding to non-violent offenses.
The Garner incident joins many other, and often not widely reported, incidents of police resorting to violence against citizens in what should be routine law enforcement matters. The Cato Institute publishes a map of such incidents, which you can view here:
- Some additional examples include the armed raid carried out at Gibson Guitar’s factory for supposedly importing a type of wood that US federal officials thought was illegal in India and Madagascar (but isn’t).
- And the guns-drawn raid at Rawsome Foods, an organic food co-op in Venice, California for selling raw milk.
- And even in our home state of Virginia where plain-clothes alcoholic beverage enforcement officers, who failed to identify themselves as law enforcement, swarmed the car of a college student because she bought water at a local grocery store. The law enforcement agents claim they thought she was buying alcohol illegally.
- And most recently the case of Arnold Abbot, a 90 year old man arrested in Fort Lauterdale for feeding the homeless in violation of city ordinance.
Government’s willingness to go overboard and use armed and sometimes militarized types response units to respond to administrative, and sometimes imaginary, violations of law is alarming. All citizens of all ideological persuasions should be outraged and demand that this activity stop immediately and impose criminal and civil liabilities for government officials who act inappropriately.
In 2013, the federal code alone stood at some 43,000 pages of text (the Holy Bible, often decried as imposing too many harsh rules, by comparison is 1,100 pages). The federal code is only a collection of laws enacted by Congress; it does not include tens of thousands of pages of regulations and administrative rules imposed by executive and regulatory agencies. And that’s only at the federal level, and doesn’t include additional layers upon layers of rules and laws imposed by state and local governments.
It is indisputable that “government” laws, whether imposed by federal, state, or local authorities, have grown exponentially since World War II. A frequent complaint of many small government and freedom advocates is that law-abiding citizens could at any point be breaking several laws without knowing it. In fact, John Baker, retired law professor was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime. That is not an exaggeration.”
At a recent graduation speech, President Obama encouraged graduates from the Ohio State University to reject voices who suggest “that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.”
In response, we’ll offer a quote from Atlas Shrugged :
“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” – Dr. Ferris
The president insists that tyranny is in fact NOT lurking just around the corner. But for a growing number of people who have encountered the government’s machine of law enforcement by breaking petty rules like selling single cigarettes, buying cases of water that look like alcohol, or simply feeding the homeless, it just might be.