Every few months, after more publicized malfeasances cops, the debate about the moral stature of police officers gets fired up. On one side are folks critical of the cops, quick to rehash the long list of abuses and the short list of police ever charged with anything befitting their crime. On the other side are those who eagerly come to the defense of the cops, quick to point out that most cops are good people and the exception should never prove the rule. The debate then morphs into a battle by numbers and personal experience as we argue over whether bad cops are endemic or whether there are just bad departments, where the causes of such corruption come from, and what can be done about it if such things exist.
The libertarian looks on this vibrant Areopagitica in amused dismay. For the libertarian, the entire foundation of the debate starts on the wrong foot, for it matters not whether corruption exists. Even if it could be reasoned to the satisfaction of all involved in the debate, that the virtue of every saintly cop surpassed the expectations of Captain America, libertarians would still distrust the police. The reason being that it is not the cops, as individuals, that are being judged from the libertarian perspective, it is their profession. And if a profession is inherently unethical then the ethics of the person holding that profession do nothing to disprove this fact. The occupation of the policeman is unethical for a very simple reason: it requires the adherent to initiate violence, or aggress, against the person and property of his fellow man. In short, it forces him to violate the non-aggression principle.
According to the theories of John Locke, theories which largely established the ideological underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence and its brother the Constitution, the government receives its birth and legitimacy from a group of sovereign individuals, existing in the state of nature, deeming it in their best interest to surrender their powers of judge, jury, and law-making into the hands of one collective entity with the aim of protecting their life, liberty, and property. Therefore, any power that a governing body, or representative thereof, exercises that would be unethical to be carried out by an individual, is not a legitimate power. For how could an individual surrender a power that he does not have to a governing body that does not yet exist?
As it happens, the list that contains all the powers that a cop may, by law, exercise is long and inexhaustible, and fails to adhere to this standard. Let us consider a simple “offense”: seatbelt laws. According to ghsa.org there are currently 34 states that have seatbelt laws in their books against citizens with penalties ranging anywhere from $10 to $200. Seatbelt laws have become normalized. Yet, how would we respond to a friendly neighbor finding that we are driving without a seatbelt, flagging us down with annoying flashing lights, and then writing on a piece of paper telling us we now owe him $200 dollars, or even $1? Be honest, would you not laugh in his face? The incredulity of the circumstance branches immediately from its unethical nature. It is always wrong to demand money from someone, especially when that demand is backed up with a threat of force, simply because they are behaving in a way you deem unsafe.
This travesty is especially evident in cannabis and drug legislation. There is perhaps nothing that brings more pride to police departments than the seizing of cannabis. Every police department that boasts about their marijuana and drug money seizures is essentially boasting that they have disrupted the free exchange of value between mutually consenting persons with a threat of violence. In what other industry is this invasion seen as virtuous? The addict harms nobody but himself, yet we have decided that for this habit his life must be destroyed.
A common counterpoint is that drug habits are dangerous, addictive, and make citizens unproductive, so it makes sense for the government to outlaw them. But those are things that could be said of almost any habit imaginable. What if the habit wasn’t drug addiction, but obesity? After all, obesity in adults has risen significantly since the 1960s and often leads to type 2 diabetes, which is always high on the list of leading causes of death. We have a health crisis! Suppose in response to this awareness the government declared a War on Obesity. The state begins banning food with a high calorie count. Gangs and dealers begin to traffic in these foods with prices that have skyrocketed due to an added cost of not only obtaining items that are government banned but also of skirting the law, which is a high cost indeed. But it’s much worse than that: most of these high calorie foods have an expiration date leading to a desperate positioning of both the dealer, eager to sell his hot product, and the addict, eager to buy.
The competitive market becomes full of dealers that can’t launch public ad campaigns, for obvious reasons, so they instead opt for the gun to control their customer base and run off their competition. Violent crime increases. Because of the high price, addicts must commit a large amount of crime to feed their addiction. The habit becomes associated with a life of crime. Addicts are sent to jail and come out having a hard time getting a job because of their conviction record, so they go back to their former life of crime. Police departments stage raids and sting operations to seize the substances and food money, money which then gets absorbed into their budget. All this because the government decided it would now be a crime to voluntarily exchange value for a high calorie food product, a crime which police officers are expected to punish. Does this sound familiar? Is this a picture that strikes anyone as a pleasant society in which to live?
It will be said that this is no fault of the cop. He is following the law. It is the citizens’ responsibility to change the law, which he is duty bound to follow. This assumes the law has some inviolable property of purity that can’t be resisted. But this is no defense at all, for it is not as if anyone forced him into this position. He chose it for himself knowing full-well the types of laws he will be expected to enforce. But even if he didn’t, his ignorance was surely cleared in his training for the job, at which point he had every right to leave said occupation. That he doesn’t leave is reason enough to suppose he has no moral qualms about the laws he is to enforce. With his presence he testifies that it is right and good, or at the very least of neutral ethical value, for him to invade the person and property of individuals who are not aggressing against anyone else. In any event, it is a dangerous argument that pins the conscience of a cop upon the law. Furthermore, there exist plenty of officers that state plainly that they would resist any charge to violate the Second Amendment. If the Second Amendment is enough, why not the fourth? Man is not absolved from turning his conscience off by saying he is adhering to the law.
It is clear to most reasonable people that the only time it is not wrong to initiate force against someone’s person or property is if they themselves are currently aggressing against other persons or their property, making it entirely appropriate for a cop to arrest them. Absent this event, the cop, equally as with every civilian, has no place to involve himself in the personal habits of another except to coach and advise his fellow neighbor out of respect for their shared humanity. While it remains in the purview of police officers to violate the non-aggression principle, the libertarian censure of the cops will continue unmoved, despite any corruption that may or may not be evident.
* Tyler Maas works in the meat-packing industry and is currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in English. He is co-administrator of the Libertarian Gentleman, and co-founder of the Liberty Twins. In his off-time he enjoys reading and writing about theology, manhood, and liberty.