September 3, 2014 by Jack Kerwick
Making the rounds through libertarian (and other) circles in the wake of the police shooting death of Michael Brown is the notion that the “militarization” of local police forces is a huge problem besetting the country.
Though I self-identify as a conservative, I have a considerable affection for libertarianism. In fact, it is precisely because of this fondness that I am compelled to put out to pasture all of this “militarization” talk.
(1)The mere possession of weaponry of a kind on the part of police is no more objectionable—no more a justification for the charge of “militarization”—than is the mere existence of guns or SUV’s objectionable.
For starters, it is unclear as to what libertarians even mean in claiming that the police are “militarized.” From what I can gather—sorry, but no self-avowed libertarian writer who I have yet encountered is clear on this—it is the fact that today’s police forces are equipped with weaponry of a technologically sophisticated sort, the sort with which our soldiers are armed when confronting enemies overseas, that warrants the charge of “militarization.”
How the mere possession of things is a cause of alarm for, of all people, the libertarian, is beyond me. In personifying inanimate objects he comes perilously close to sounding like just those enemies of liberty against whom he’s tirelessly railing, those who would personify guns, wealth, and, say, SUV’s.
Moreover, libertarians are the first to champion the (law-abiding, adult) citizen’s constitutional, even “inalienable,” right to bear virtually whatever arms he prefers. How, we must ask, does it turn out to be permissible—not “militarized”—for the janitor next door to possess a machine gun, but somehow impermissible—“militarized”—for the police to do the same?
(2) The distribution of arms among the police, on the one hand, and the citizenry, on the other, utterly fails to establish that the police, or anyone, haven’t a right to arm themselves like Rambo—i.e. it fails to supply a single warrant for the charge of “militarization.”
If the libertarian insists that it isn’t the possession by police of weaponry as such to which he objects, but the fact that, as things currently stand, the police have access to these weapons to which other citizens are denied, then it is the distribution of this access, and not the access itself, that has him upset.
But if this is the case, then the proper complaint is not, “The police are ‘militarized’!” The proper complaint is that, “We should be allowed to be ‘militarized’ too,” or something like this.
In other words, the charge of “militarization” makes no sense here.
(3) The concept of “militarization” encompasses the concepts of collective purpose and coercion.
Government, by definition, has a monopoly on force. Yet, theoretically, the libertarian, unlike the anarchist, has no objections to this: the libertarian recognizes the authority of government to both enact and enforce laws. Since police officers are government agents, the libertarian affirms their authority to deploy the power at their disposal to coerce citizens into abiding by the laws that police are committed to safeguarding.
So, the sheer fact that police are endowed with the power to coerce prospective and actual violators of the law can’t be something with which the libertarian has a problem, for he has no problem with government per se.
In other words, that police are using force to maintain law and order—precisely what police have always done and what they’ve always been meant to do—can’t be the spring of the libertarian’s howls of “militarization.”
Only if government agents—whether police or otherwise—are coercing citizens in the service of fulfilling some grand collective purpose will the charge of “militarization” apply. Coercion, in and of itself, is insufficient to constitute “militarization.”
But this, in turn, means that the actual weaponry with which the police (or any other agent of the government) are endowed is irrelevant to determining whether the police, or any other agent of government, are “militarized.” If police were armed only with clubs, but used these clubs in order to insure that citizens were exercising three days a week for the purpose of producing “The Physically Fit Society,” say, then this would indeed show that the police had a “militarized” set of mind. Conversely, if the police are armed to the teeth with the stuff of soldiers but used their arms only to insure that the rule of law was preserved, to protect the life, limb, and property of citizens from those—like the rioters in Ferguson—who are intent upon undermining civilization, this would fail to establish that they are “militarized.”
(4) Police brutality, dereliction of duty, abuse of power and the like are issues that should count for much for all decent people, especially the libertarian. But none of these things are necessarily a function of “militarization,” much less equivalent to it.
That there are police officers that abuse their authority and power is not only an empirically verified fact; it is a no-brainer to the lover of liberty who knows, along with Lord Acton, that while “absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” even a limited degree of “power tends to corrupt.”
But when police do violate their oath to serve and protect, then we can and should call out their violations for what they are. Conflating or obscuring issues with bumper-sticker friendly misnomers like “militarization” is counterproductive.