Fewer Victimless Crimes, Fewer Eric Garners
EspañolBy Ruben Pacheco
The murder of Eric Garner demonstrates that economic freedom is inseparable from civil liberties. If we want laws that are applied equally and without prejudice, we need police reform and regulatory reform. The United States has immense overcriminalization, and illegal commerce is one of the many ways the state criminalizes peaceful people.
Regulation, in practice, means brutalizing those who don’t obey.
The relationship between state violence and economic freedom can be seen worldwide. The Arab Spring erupted after Mohamed Bouazizi was targeted by Tunisian police for selling unlicensed fruits and vegetables. Since Bouazizi didn’t have the state’s permission to engage in commerce, he was harassed and coerced into paying bribes. Fed up and humiliated by police, he went to a local government building and set himself on fire.
Consider Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city with one of the highest rates of police brutality in the nation, and where a recent DOJ investigation found the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) guilty of “a pattern and practice” of unconstitutional policing. New Mexico’s economic freedom consistently ranks toward the very bottom among states in North America.
New York, where Eric Garner was slain, has some of the most onerous regulations in the country. Smokers there pay a total of US$5.85 in taxes per pack of cigarettes. This kind of excessive taxation has a disproportionate impact, and regulations ratchet up the fixed costs of living in urban areas and disproportionately affect the urban poor.
Both the APD and NYPD have police that are infamous for violating the civil liberties of residents.
The power structure that shields police from accountability is the same structure that shields big business from competition. According to Ed Krayewski, associate editor at Reason magazine, police unions across the country have negotiated for “an intricate system of legal protections built for cops.” Similarly, powerful business interests use the state to create a regulatory environment that legally and financially hinders their competition.
These anecdotes indicate that reforming police practices isn’t enough; we also have to free our markets — since restrictions on economic freedom criminalize nonviolent actions.
From the video, one can tell that Garner had been previously targeted by police for the illegal sale of individual cigarettes. He was asking to be left alone before he was choked and killed by the NYPD. His incentive to sell cigarettes was put in place by the government. By imposing high taxes and raising the costs of cigarettes, an opportunity arises for entrepreneurs to take advantage of a arbitrage opportunity. Garner can hardly be blamed for responding to incentives and aiding consumers.
How can actions that don’t have any victims be considered criminal? Even if you buy the argument that police exist for the purpose of ensuring justice and protecting property, it’s difficult to justify policing actions that cause no harm to others. It’s simple; if there is no victim, there is no crime.
Even if a crime is committed, it’s unjust for police to kill nonthreatening members of our community. We are supposed to be guaranteed a jury of our peers and justice through institutional mechanisms that ensure a fair trial. When cops kill people before that takes place, they act as the judge and jury; they make a mockery of the rule of law. Then, when police are protected from facing the consequences of their actions, they demonstrate that law is a force applied against those who don’t wear a badge.
The grand jury’s decision has fueled nationwide protests against police brutality. As many protestors are pointing out, it is important to think of police violence in terms of our country’s racially contentious history.
However, it’s equally important to point out how state violence applies to economic freedom. Often times the communities that fall victim to police violence are also victims of excessive regulations. Economically marginalized, communities of color are often targets of both police brutality and the hyper-regulatory state.
By now everyone agrees that we need to reform our police departments. If we also focus on reforming our regulatory regime, we can get closer to striking the root of the problem.
Ruben Pacheco (email) is a native of Albuquerque and graduate of the University of New Mexico with a Bachelor of Arts in political science.
Edited by Fergus Hodgson.