Everyone knows that libertarians like free markets. Even we Bleeding Heart Libertarians spend an awful lot of time talking about the economic implications of libertarianism. And it would be easy to infer from this that libertarians care about economic freedom to the neglect of all other freedoms. One might even go on to conclude that libertarians are only concerned with freedom to the extent that such freedom serves the interest of the wealthy and powerful. Such a conclusion is seriously mistaken, I think, even as an interpretation of just the economic aspects of libertarian thought. But it is a mistake for which libertarians themselves bear some responsibility. Economic freedom is not the only freedom over which governments currently run roughshod. And, as I have suggested here before, it is probably not even the most important one.
Consider, for instance, the egregious violations of liberty visited upon Americans every day at the hands of their own police. In just the past few weeks, we’ve heard about a SWAT team in Arizona breaking into a man’s house and firing over 60 rounds into his body, purportedly because he was involved in marijuana tracking. Or maybe it was home invasions. The story seems to change a bit, but so far police have not reported finding anything illegal in his home, or anything linking him to any crime. Police in Philadelphia, meanwhile, have told citizens that – the law be damned! – they’re going to “inconvenience” people who openly carry weapons in public, regardless of fact that doing so is legal in Pennsylvania. And don’t you try to videotape those inconveniences, either. Police don’t like to be videotaped and really, really wish it was against the law for you to do. Even though it isn’t.
There’s probably a reason that libertarians, especially academic libertarians like me, don’t talk more about this kind of thing. Academics tend to focus their attention on issues that are a matter of academic dispute. As John has recently pointed out, there is an active and ongoing dispute between libertarians and high liberals about issues involving property rights, economic freedom, taxation, and the like. But there aren’t that many academic philosophers out there – are there any? – defending a police state. The philosophical debate on the war on drugs, for instance, basically boils down to whether it should be entirely abandoned or merely radically scaled back. A defense of no-knock raids on suspected marijuana dealers just isn’t something people are willing to submit to peer review.
But libertarians, and especially bleeding heart libertarians, ought to give these issues much more attention than they currently do. First, these issues matter for people’s lives, especially the lives of the poor and vulnerable who are much more likely to find themselves victimized by the growing police state, either directly or indirectly. Second, precisely because they aren’t under dispute we can make compelling arguments on these issues without first trying to resolve all of the difficult and intractable problems that divide various schools of political and philosophical thought. And finally, I think libertarians have a real comparative advantage here. After all, we can draw on the core concepts of libertarian thought to provide compelling diagnoses of why these abuses of power occur, and compelling prescriptions for their resolution.
I would be remiss to close a post like this without mentioning the outstanding work of Radley Balko. No one in the libertarian movement, as far as I’m concerned, has done more than he to bring these issues to light. His work as a policy analyst, as a blogger, and as a contributor to Reason Magazine has brought a penetrating analysis to issues of criminal justice to the attention of libertarians for years. If you aren’t reading him now, start. A good place to begin might be next month’s issue of Reason, which is edited by Radley and Jacob Sullum and which will cover issues of criminal justice in depth.