Libertarians and Police “Militarization”

Posted: Aug 26, 2014 12:01 AM

A line that has become all too common in some libertarian circles is that the key problem, or even a problem, in Ferguson, Missouri is a problem facing the rest of the nation.

This problem is what these libertarians have taken to calling “the militarization” of the police.

The charge that police forces have become “militarized” is almost as perplexing as the charge—also increasingly common among these same libertarians—that “racism” is alive and well among America’s police officers and white Americans generally.

And this, I believe, is because the term “militarization,” in this context, is about as meaningless as that of “racism.”

For starters it is the libertarian who defends the right of the average, law-abiding citizen to own firearms. Furthermore, the libertarian thinks that, in principle (even if not always necessarily in fact), the average, law-abiding citizen has a right to own whatever kind or kinds of firearms that he chooses—regardless of whether his neighbors think that he “needs” them or not.

So, if there is nothing objectionable about the hairdresser next door owning a bazooka or an M16, then why is it objectionable for the police—the police who exist solely for the purpose of shielding civilization from barbarism—to own and, if need be, use bazookas and M16’s?

Surely, it can’t be the mere presence of such weaponry in the hands of uniformed police officers that has the libertarian howling about “militarization.” If so, then the libertarian sounds eerily similar to his leftist counterpart who can’t resist personifying inanimate objects like guns and SUV’s.

Maybe what’s got the libertarian’s goat is the fact that, as the law currently stands, police are permitted to possess weaponry that are forbidden to citizens: the latter should be permitted to own, say, machine guns, but they are not.

Now, if it is this that has the libertarian apoplectic, then he is in desperate need of new terms in which to cast his position, for it isn’t “the militarization” of the police at all to which he objects. He is unhappy that citizens aren’t also allowed to be “militarized.”

It is as sensible for the libertarian to go on about “the militarization” of the police because it is illegal for citizens to bear comparable arms as it is sensible to become outraged over the practice of rewarding and punishing because, sometimes, individuals don’t deserve the rewards and punishments that they receive.

It is the distribution of benefits—in this case, arms—to which our laws lead, and not the benefits themselves, to which the libertarian objects.

Another consideration regarding the libertarian’s position against “the militarization” of the police is that it requires the drawing of precisely the sorts of arbitrary lines when it comes to distinguishing permissible from impermissible weaponry for police that the libertarian abhors when the discussion shifts to, say, the topic of drug legalization.

Since (as I too believe) the most significant argument for drug legalization adduced by the libertarian centers in an affirmation of the liberty of the individual (adult) to engage in self-destructive conduct, he rightly regards as capricious the decision to, say, legalize marijuana for recreational purposes while criminalizing other, “harder” drugs. Similarly, if the police can be said to be “militarized” when officers are armed with, say, “rocket launchers,” then on what grounds can we deny that police are “militarized” when officers are armed with hand guns?

Were police “militarized” when, back during the Prohibition era, officers were armed with machine guns while combating Al Capone and his goons? If the libertarian answers this question in the negative, then we must inquire into the basis for his determination that police are non-militarized when packing machine gun heat but “militarized” when armed with more than this.

However, there is one final critique of the libertarian’s position, and, from his standpoint, it is by far and away the most important reason for why he should relinquish talk of police “militarization.”

England, for instance, is a place that is even more socialist and multi-cultural obsessed than the contemporary United States. For this reason, it is more of a genuinely militarized society than is America. That police in England are forbidden from carrying firearms changes this not one iota.

When a state—a “nation-state,” a “society”—is imagined to be, not a “civil association,” as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes what we’re inclined to call a “free society,” but an “enterprise association”—an organization animated by a grandiose vision toward the realization of which all members are coerced to contribute—there is, necessarily, militarization.

But the militarization is not to be found in the actual presence or possession by government of weaponry of one sort or another. The militarization consists in two inseparable facts: (1) the society defines itself, or is defined by its self-styled representatives, in terms of some lofty goal or ideal—Equality, Virtue, Human Rights, Multi-Culturalism, Piety, Social Justice, Security, etc.; (2) the government is assigned, or assigns to itself, the role of “leader,” i.e. the role of “leading” (compelling) citizens toward the fulfillment of the ideal.

It is the existence of laws of a certain type, accompanied by the self-conception of a people that permits these kinds of laws to arise—not the apparatus in place to enforce those laws—that differentiates a militarized society from a non-militarized one.

A society with no military and police armed with sticks and stones can be more militarized than one with a standing military and cops armed to the teeth.

To be sure, America is, to an alarming degree, a militarized society. But this is the point: America is militarized. To speak of its police forces as being militarized totally misses the mark. It’s like a person who’s dying of lung cancer complaining that it is his lungs, not himself, that’s sick. Yet even this analogy fails to capture the crux of the difficulty with this reasoning. More illustrative is the case of a cancer patient who identifies the chemo-therapy with which he’s treating his sickness with the sickness itself.

Moreover, complaining about “the militarization” of the police actually trivializes the real militarization, the marshalling of citizens’ resources in time and treasure, blood, sweat, and tears, for purposes of “National Greatness,” “Equality,” etc, in which our government has been engaged for a long, long time.