In Any Crisis, Reason and Liberty Are the Answers

by Matthew Strong

The past two weeks have been deeply troubling for our nation. The loss of life is horrifying. Narrative and emotion have dominated headlines and social media conversations. In times like these, it is important to remember a crucial fact. We’ve been here before, and the road to equality and justice, while difficult, has been mapped before.

So where is “here?” Our current location is at the end of a long road of law and rule making. These laws and rules have become so numerous and ridiculous, it was only a matter of time before some of the millions of encounters between law enforcement and the public did not go well, and turned deadly. When far left Mother Jones magazine and 19th century French political writer Fredric Bastiat (a limited government advocate) agree on a fundamental truth, it may be time to re-examine legislative motives. Let’s start with Mother Jones in 2015, after the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, trial, and unrest.

“”Essentially, these small towns in urban areas have municipal infrastructure that can’t be supported by the tax base, and so they ticket everything in sight to keep the town functioning,” said William Maurer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who has been studying the sudden rise in “nontraffic-related fines.”

Take the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale, where, among other Norman Rockwell-worthy features deemed illegal, “you can’t have a hedge more than three feet high,” Maurer says. “You can’t have a basketball hoop or a wading pool in front of a house. You can’t have a dish antenna on the front of your house. You can’t walk on the roadway if there is a sidewalk, and if there is not a sidewalk, they must walk on the left side of the roadway. They must walk on the right of the crosswalk. They can’t conduct a barbecue in the front yard and can’t have an alcoholic beverage within 150 feet of a barbecue. Kids cannot play in the street. They also have restrictions against pants being worn below the waist in public. Cars must be within 500 feet of a lamp or a source of illumination during nighttime hours. Blinds must be neatly hung in respectable appearance, properly maintained, and in a state of good repair.”

Where did this Kafkaesque laundry list come from? Maurer explains that in 2010, Missouri passed a law that capped the amount of city revenue that any agency could generate from traffic stops. The intent was to limit small-town speed traps, but the unintentional consequences are now clear: Pagedale saw a 495 percent increase in nontraffic-related arrests. “In Frontenac, the increase was 364 percent,” Maurer says. “In Lakeshire, it was 209 percent. “When (officer) Darren Wilson was called to look into a robbery, the reason he initially stopped Michael Brown was for walking in the street—in Ferguson, an illegal act according to Section 44-344 of the local code. Between 2011 and 2013, 95% of the perpetrators of this atrocity were African American, meaning that “walking while black” is not a punch line. It is a crime.

And not just a crime, but a crime that comes with fines that are strictly enforced. In 2014, Ferguson’s bottom-line-driven police force issued 16,000 arrest warrants to three-fourths of the town’s total population of 21,000. Stop and think about that for a moment: In Ferguson, 75 percent of all residents had active outstanding arrest warrants.

…When the poor come to understand that they are likely to be detained and fined for comically absurd crimes, it can’t be a surprise to the police that their officers are viewed with increasing distrust.”

Two more examples of deaths related to this issue have made national headlines and contributed to the protests in recent days. Eric Garner died in police custody in July, 2014. He resisted being arrested for selling hand made cigarettes, which was against the law in NYC, due to lack of taxation and regulatory control. Philando Castille apparently was pulled over for a broken taillight just a few days ago. While details of his death continue to be released, we now know he had been pulled over 52 times in the 14 years he had his driver’s license, resulting in 86 violations. All the citations were for petty misdemeanors or misdemeanors, such as lack of seatbelt or proof of insurance, and he had paid a total of $6,588 in fines.

165 years earlier, Fredric Bastiat, a French economist/politician in the post Revolution years was coming to terms with the exact same issue.

“…unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.

…No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.”

Was Bastiat advocating anarchy and disrespect of law enforcement officers? Absolutely not. They are doing a job given them by law makers, who deserve the majority of accountability. Conversely, this is not excusing law breakers, the rule of law means no one is above the law. So, what was his remedy?

“Law is justice. And it is under the law of justice — under the reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and responsibility — that every person will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his being. It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve — slowly, no doubt, but certainly — God’s design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.

It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion — whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government — at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty.”

The summary of new laws passed in the 2016 session of Vermont legislature (just the summaries of each new law) is 79 pages long. “Feel good” legislation and “we must do something” motives have only added thick, new layers of law which now must be enforced. Perhaps we can take Bastiat’s words to heart. But the “down side” of this is personal, individual action on our part. It means we need to speak to and work with our neighbors, taking action ourselves as voluntary groups instead of waiting for “the authorities” to do something. The next time we find ourselves muttering “there should be a law,” maybe we should pause, and get involved in a personal and meaningful way instead.

Dallas Police Chief, David Brown, said as much just a few short days after 5 of his officers were murdered. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country” said Brown.

“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve” said Brown. He listed mental health, drug addiction, loose dogs, failing schools as problems the public expects ‘cops to solve.’

When asked what advice he would give black men, Chief Brown said, “Become a part of the solution, serve your community. Don’t be a part of the problem…we’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. We’ll put you in your neighborhood – we will help you resolve some of the problems you are protesting about.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Eddie Cutler July 13, 2016 at 5:49 pm

Matthew Strong
This is one of the finest things I have ever seen in print.
I am proud to call you my friend


Penelope Keith July 18, 2016 at 11:47 pm

Your poll numbers are NOT accurate. I know of many people that wouldn’t even let the VPRIG pollsters in their house because they are so opposed to the carbon tax, including myself. Who is going to stay in Vermont and buy your expensive gas and pay your high taxes? Vermont is not a business friendly state, so you can’t tax businesses that you don’t have, any body with a decent retirement plan has left or is leaving the state. I read that more people left the Vermont than moved in last year, do you really think people want to live in a high tax state? Most of our young people go to states with jobs that will support their family and never look back. I know that a carbon tax will make sure I leave.


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