David R. Henderson  

Welcome to the Police State

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If all you've got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves "solving" social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where "the War on Crime" and "the War on Drugs" are no longer metaphors but bland understatements. There is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war. (All of this is ably reported on journalist Radley Balko's blog and in his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop.) But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter.

These are the opening paragraphs of a powerful article that first appeared on the TomDispatch website and then appeared in Mother Jones. It's appropriately titled "How Every Part of American Life Became a Police Matter." The author is attorney Chase Madar. I had not heard of him but from now on I will look out for his other pieces.

Here's the last paragraph:

A hammer is necessary to any toolkit. But you don't use a hammer to turn a screw, chop a tomato, or brush your teeth. And yet the hammer remains our instrument of choice, both in the conduct of our foreign policy and in our domestic order. The result is not peace, justice, or prosperity but rather a state that harasses and imprisons its own people while shouting ever less intelligibly about freedom.

It's interesting how widely recognized, even if only implicitly, Madar's point is. Two stories:

1. In the first month or two of Barack Obama's presidency, some of the commentators on ESPN were joking about things. One of them was, I believe, guest commentator Bobby Knight. If I recall correctly, one of them said something slightly negative, but totally in fun, about Obama. Knight said that the guy should watch it because Obama could "squash him like a bug." They all laughed but it seemed that they all had a sense of the modern U.S. president's incredible, and often arbitrary, powers over us.

2. I was at a Hoover Institution dinner a few weeks ago with some Hoover fellows and some journalists. One of the people I hit it off with was Hoover fellow Jim Mattis, recently a Marine Corps general. He told me about being caught in a bar at the the tender age of 19. He was ready to fess up and go along with the cop but then the cop jabbed Mattis hard in the back with his club. Mattis reacted and decked the cop. He went to jail for 21 days. The next morning in class, I told my students, all of whom are officers in the U.S. military, the Australian military, or the U.S. Coast Guard, the story. One of the students said, "If he did that today, there would be a good chance he'd be shot." I looked around the room and noticed a number of the students nodding sadly.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Re: #1 If you can make that joke with no negative consequences (and there were none for the ESPN commentators), you're not living in a real police state.
Re: #2 If a drunk 19-year old punched a cop in any period of US history, nevermind today, there'd be a good chance he'd end up in the hospital.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Re: my previous post, I'm not arguing that the police reaction would be commendable or acceptable, but that the "don't hit cops" standard is universal in all countries and time periods, not a sign of our current state.

Callum McPherson writes:

It isn't true that you are likely to get shot anywhere however. Over here in Britain most cops don't have guns or tasers. This is something that has taken a lot of political will to preserve.

john hare writes:

The increase in DUI arrests has become a topic of conversation around here. It seems that everyone has a story about someone arrested while asleep in the car with keys not readily available. Then there are the DUI arrests for bicycle riders and even people mowing their lawn while drinking a beer. It seems that some cops are looking for points that are most easily obtained by busting the easy targets, as the difficult ones drag down their score.

The sad thing is that the above paragragh will almost certainly be considered a defense of drunk driving by some, when my point is that accusing people of unacceptable actions in inappropriate situations has become common.

John B writes:

@ Lynx Pardinus.

In the Anglo-Saxon Common Law Countries the 'cops don't hit citizens' is also standard.

A Cop is no different to any other citizen under the Law: he/she may use 'reasonable force' in defence of self or another, or to detain somebody for an arrestable offence, but otherwise it is assault.

Tom Jackson writes:

I was interested that Professor Henderson did not know who Chase Madar was. I couldn't find David Henderson on Twitter, and i wondered if that was why; on Twitter, the libertarians and the progressives interested in civil liberties tend to get to know each other.

Thucydides writes:

In a world where moral constraints on personal conduct have grown weak, everything must be referred to the law for resolution. Libertarianism has played an important role in this process.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom Jackson,
I was interested that Professor Henderson did not know who Chase Madar was.
I do now. He friended me on Facebook this a.m.
I couldn't find David Henderson on Twitter, and i wondered if that was why; on Twitter,
My twitter is davirdhenderson. I don’t tweet much. I probably should.
the libertarians and the progressives interested in civil liberties tend to get to know each other.
That’s good. Thanks, Tom. That’s an additional reason to tweet.
In a world where moral constraints on personal conduct have grown weak, everything must be referred to the law for resolution.
I disagree that it must be. I agree that it is.
Libertarianism has played an important role in this process
I actually think that the welfare state and government schools have played the main role. Libertarianism, to the extent it has had an effect, which I think is not huge, has pushed back against the welfare state, the drug war, government schools, etc. I also think that George Wallace’s 1968 campaign for president pushed Nixon to advocate “law and order.” Nixon’s steps to keep his campaign promises were important in getting the federal government into subsidizing local police.

MingoV writes:

The militarization of the police began with the frequent riots in the 1960s. Police acquired helmets with face shields, protective body pads similar to baseball umpires, shotguns, and tear gas. After riots decreased in frequency, the police returned to their previous patterns of operation. Given what's happened recently, I find that nearly miraculous.

Right-wingers, for the most part, initiated the war on drugs. Apparently, the fading away of the cold war required the invention of a new one. The drug war, like almost all other wars, used massive doses of untruthful propaganda to convince the populace to support it.

Militarization of law enforcement began with the DEA. DEA agents would accompany local police on raids and split the acquired cash and assets with them. Many police officers (particularly the younger ones) were envious of the well-equipped DEA agents. But, even with drug money spoils, SWAT gear cost too much for widespread use. This problem was 'solved' in the Pentagon. The military brass worked with politicians to create a program for providing low-cost or free military equipment to police forces. Police forces could be heavily armed without breaking their budgets, the military could replace older equipment with newer, the military contractors would have increased sales, and retired generals could get cushy jobs with those contractors. A four-item win!

Police forces discovered that there were few situations that required military equipment. Most were reluctant to mothball their new toys, so they used the equipment any time there was the slightest chance that someone could be armed with a gun. In these unlikely-to-be dangerous situations, they also would seek a tame judge who would sign a no-knock warrant. Randy Balko has documented the many tragedies and travesties from these actions. His recent book should win the Pulitzer prize.

Harfold Cockerill writes:


Please explain how a thought system that puts maximum emphasis on personal responsibility can be weakening the moral constraints on conduct.

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