First post and the NAP

I’ve been told to stop spamming Facebook and start my own blog, so here it is.

Been thinking a lot about politics since forever, but my opinions rarely stay the same. Currently I’m leaning pretty strongly libertarian and am supporting Rand Paul in the US presidential race. But I like having my views challenged, so I welcome all manner of comments, as long as they’re civil.

The basic idea behind libertarianism is the Non-Aggression Principle. This holds that the government should avoid any kind of coercion, except to protect the individual against coercion by others. It seems like a great principle when considered in the abstract, but many people balk when the full implications of the NAP are drawn out, e.g. progressives don’t like how no coercion means no taxation to support welfare programs, or conservatives don’t like how it means limiting our defense to countering actual invasions, rather than promoting “regime change” in order to prevent possible future threats.

One theme I’ve discovered to be distinctive between the libertarian and the non-libertarian mindset is the importance given to prevention and preventative measures. The libertarian believes government should only intervene in order to respond to some violation of rights, whereas non-libertarians believe the role of government is to prevent harm from occurring and that this sometimes necessitates suspending people’s freedoms.

I was recently involved in a discussion on the proper role of the police in a free society, where I maintained that it should not, ultimately, be the police’s job to protect the people, since that would involve giving the police the power to neutralize perceived threats, but before any actual crime has occurred. This is the thinking behind New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy: police are allowed to stop and frisk people with fewer grounds for suspicion than are required for an arrest. While the legal justification for stop-and-frisk, is “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, this can mean things as vague as “loitering” or “acting strangely”. Can one really argue that “acting strangely” (but NOT “criminally”) constitutes grounds for a reasonable search and seizure of the person in question?

Now, there may be evidence that such policies help reduce crime, but often a “law and order” type will treat that as the end of the discussion. It appears that, according to that kind of mindset, maintaining order is the ultimate purpose of government, even if it means suspending the right to be free from unreasonable search or seizure. I absolutely agree that order is vital to a functioning society, and that is one reason I believe the state should be given the power to arrest and prosecute criminal suspects. But is losing our freedom really the price we want to pay for having a more ordered society? Can we not trust society to order itself without giving the government that kind of power?

I don’t have a good answer yet to this question. Some things I want to investigate include: why was stop-and-frisk determined to be constitutional in 1968 in Terry v Ohio? What did police do before that date to deal with what they considered to be threats? If society felt at that point that they needed to give police more power to stop and search suspects, what had changed in society to give rise to this idea? What are the ways in which we can lower crime while preserving our freedoms?

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6 thoughts on “First post and the NAP

  1. I would have found that discussion of the police’s role interesting, I think. Not having heard all of the points brought up, I might be missing something essential, but it seems to me that the ideal would be in some way finding a happy medium. I’d hope to, on the one hand, not become the victim of a crime, but on the other hand, not find myself in a world (which I think I recognize from a work of fiction, though I can’t remember which) in which simply because data about me predict I might one day commit a crime, I am arrested. It’s tough. It would be nice if we could find ourselves political representation that has figured out the best way of living in that happy medium, but it seems all of the candidates probably find it as difficult as we do.

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  2. Wasn’t that the premise of Minority Report? That you could be arrested for a crime they knew you would commit in the future?

    The original discussion on the police actually veered off into a discussion about gun control and people’s right to arms and self-defense, which I don’t want to get into yet here (though I do at some point want to talk about that). In this discussion of the merits of letting cops stop and search people without the kind of evidence they would need to actually arrest you, I’m focusing on typically conservative arguments for suspending liberties on “law and order” grounds.

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  3. It’s a question of economics.

    Since police to not know ex ante who is criminal and who is not, they can only deduce expected outcomes. Based on the little information that is available (being black and dressed like a gangster), they then surmise that the chances you are in fact a gangster is high. The marginal return to society by stopping and frisking the gangster is therefore higher than if one were to frisk the author of this post.

    Therefore in the interest of lower taxes, you should be in favor of this policy.

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  4. How do you know I’m not black and dressed like a gangster? 😉

    But to be serious, I’m suspicious of arguments for suspending liberties on utilitarian grounds like these. Not that such arguments are inherently invalid, but I think we need to restrict as much as possible how often we appeal to the “greater good of society” in order to justify taking away individual liberties. Like, I’m sure we both agree that being black and being dressed like a gangster should not be treated as crimes in themselves. So by arguing that being black and looking a certain way justify a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, you are basically arguing for giving the police powers to prevent criminal activity, rather than respond to crimes that have already occurred, which I think is a misguided way to interpret the police’s functions in a free society.

    I’m not quite sure I follow your argument about lower taxes.

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    1. What matters most to you? A crime-ridden society where you ignore common sense in order to preserve abstract liberties, or do you prefer using the information available to maximize the impact of law enforcement by targeting the most crime-prone groups – black men? You must pick one or the other.

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  5. The way you phrase it, you seem to be advocating the targeting of black men simply because they are black. Leaving aside the fact that this is blatantly racist, it doesn’t even make sense as policy, since most blacks are not violent criminals. It’s punishing the innocent in order not to spare the guilty, which is the opposite of the way our criminal justice system should work. I’m sure if you had black friends who were being harassed by the police simply for being black, you would not be promoting this kind of policy.

    If you are simply observing that more black men will be targeted for suspicious activity than one would expect based on their demographic preponderance, then that’s another issue. Progressives and liberals like to point to disparate impact as if that constitutes evidence in itself of racism, without taking into account that violent crime is not distributed evenly among different racial groups. But that’s not what I’m talking about; rather, I’m talking about a policy where the police are allowed to stop and search people for something other than criminal activity. If suspicious activity can include something over which the individual has no control, like being black, then there’s a problem with how suspicious activity is defined.

    I think it’s worth remembering that the whole justification behind these stop and search policies is based in the criminalization of activities that really should not be criminalized at all in a free society, such as concealed possession of firearms or possession of drugs. If a local jurisdiction decides to make crimes out of these activities, then for sure that probably necessitates more coercive policing techniques such as stop-and-frisk, with all the consequences for individual liberties.

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