How the Left and the Right Conspired to Murder Eric Garner.
George Will recently spoke for many moderate conservatives regarding Eric Garner (who died at the hands of NYPD officers who assaulted him, allegedly over selling untaxed cigarettes) when he claimed,
“Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization.”
“Broken Windows” is the theory, popularized by James Wilson and George Kelling, that heavy policing of minor infractions serves to prevent major crimes and to maintain the welfare of neighborhood communities.
Progressives have taken the reverse position, claiming it is Broken Windows that is foolish, and Nanny State laws like cigarette taxes that are wise. For instance, a ThinkProgress blogger recently wrote:
“Critics have criticized police crackdowns of minor infractions like selling ‘loose’ cigarettes, which are part of a campaign to target minor crimes in order to prevent more serious infractions. But as the incident with Garner demonstrates, additional arrests present new opportunities for violence.”
Meanwhile, cigarette taxes do play a role in improving public health.”
Both positions, right and left, are incoherent.
The ThinkProgress blogger, apparently immune to cognitive dissonance, complains about “additional arrests” presenting “new opportunities for violence,” only to immediately afterward absolve and laud cigarette taxes. How are cigarette taxes going to be actually collected, and thereby achieve their lofty social engineering aims, if not through the threat of enforcement, arrests, violence? What provides “new opportunties for violence” more than the proliferation of mandates and prohibitions? As Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1949,
“It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action…. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.”
As for George Will, he neglects the fact that overcriminalization has been a constituent part of the Broken Windows package from the very beginning. Broken Windows was never just about prosecuting minor crimes that were actual violations of person and property. It has always been about allegedly preventing serious crimes by criminalizing “disreputable” but victimless behavior.
In fact, in the very 1982 Wilson/Kelling article that Mr. Will favorably links to (which played a major role in launching the Broken Windows policy movement) the authors denounce, as antithetical to their approach, the reluctance to “criminalize” and the “wish to ‘decriminalize’ disreputable behavior that ‘harms no one’” due to such a “vague or parochial standard” as individual rights. These founding fathers of Broken Windows betray their rank collectivism when they complain that,
“We have difficulty thinking about such matters, not simply because the ethical and legal issues are so complex but because we have become accustomed to thinking of the law in essentially individualistic terms. The law defines my rights, punishes his behavior and is applied by that officer because of this harm.”
Nanny State-style hyper-criminalization is nothing without Broken Windows-style enforcement of petty laws. And Broken Windows-style persecution of the marginalized is nothing without Nanny State-style hyper-criminalization. In this sense, the Left needs the Right, and vice versa. The only differences that sometimes arise between the two schools of thought concern which victimless behaviors are criminalized and which populations are persecuted.
But, very often the Left and Right wings of the State converge on the same prey. Such was the case of Eric Garner. His merchandise was heavily taxed for Nanny State “public health” reasons, and that tax was heavily enforced for Broken Windows “public order” reasons. The Left hand of the State set him up for the Right hand to permanently knock him down.
Also published at Medium.com: