Do we need broken windows policing?

I was watching an interesting political talk show featuring, among others, a Republican candidate for Baltimore’s 1st city council district, Liz Copeland. The topic was whether Baltimore needed to change law enforcement policy in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots. There were good points on all sides and certainly brain food for me.

The idea of “broken windows policing” is that the police should rigorously enforce even the slightest infractions of the law, rather than limit their resources to investigating serious crimes, i.e. they should arrest people for breaking windows, not just for murder. The interesting question for me is more theoretical than practical: is this an idea a libertarian-leaning conservative can support?

I suppose it depends on what the law is that’s being broken. Since I believe in the right to freedom from aggression against one’s life, liberty and property, I do in fact agree that window breaking and similar property crimes should be punished. The problem arises when the same zeal is directed towards infractions of laws that I don’t believe have intrinsic merit.

One such case was referenced in the discussion: the death of Eric Garner in New York. He was arrested for selling illegal cigarettes and died after suffering a chokehold by an officer. The discussion participants seemed to agree that he was committing a crime and only disagreed on whether the police should have bothered to arrest him, but I don’t see his actions as intrinsically immoral at all. It’s the state’s fault for jacking up cigarette prices that creates this black market; on the same grounds I oppose all drug criminalization.

I welcome zero tolerance policing, but only against actual crimes.

Why a conservative should be a libertarian

Briefly speaking, I’ll define a conservative as someone who wants to use state power to control the social and cultural dimensions of society, while allowing free rein to the economy, whereas a libertarian believes in complete abolition of state power, except for the punishment of force and fraud. The standard conservative objection to libertarianism is then that only certain social and cultural norms are conducive to a healthy society and that these norms cannot be left to the whims of civil society and voluntary association; they must be codified in law and rigidly enforced by government.

The main error in this way of thinking is the lack of faith it reveals in the power of one’s own culture. Let’s say there are objectively correct social norms. If some norms promote a healthier society than other norms, wouldn’t those norms prevail in free competition with other norms? If communities that follow conservative Christian teaching thrive, while others that follow socially liberal teaching fail, won’t the conservative communities grow and the liberal ones shrink?

One objection is that, in a quasi-Darwinian world of cultural competition, the culture that prevails may not be objectively the best, but merely the best at destroying competitors. For example, violent Islamists may just blow up peaceful Christians, even if Christianity is better. But libertarianism already addresses this in allowing for the right to defense of self and property. And if a culture doesn’t even allow self-defense, what exactly makes it so great? Or why should others shoulder the burden of defending it?

All talk and no action from the President

A recent editorial in the Sun praises President Obama for a recent speech to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. The speech was full of platitudes about tolerance, but should not convince the skeptic. If Obama really cares about Muslims so much, why is he continuing the illegal drone campaigns against Muslim countries? Why did he invade Libya to overthrow their lawful government, and why has he been arming rebels against Syria’s lawful government and promoting the deaths of thousands of Muslims there?

It is typical of our politics that a politician will be respected just for saying the right thing, not for doing it. By his illegal wars, which, to be fair, are merely continued from his Republican predecessor, he foments the same terrorism that he claims to fight. This terrorism is what threatens average Americans and causes them, even if wrongly, to fear all Muslims as their potential enemies. Rather than look to his own policies and limit the damage he is inflicting on Muslims abroad, he wishes to blame the average American for his prejudice, thereby abdicating his own responsibility for creating the conditions for that prejudice.

So it isn’t just Republicans who exploit popular fear; Democrats exploit it too for their own purposes. In both cases, they shift the blame away from the military-industrial complex and the hawks who constantly push for more intervention and more war, and throw it on powerless average people who have no personal problem with Muslims but are terrified by media reports of suicide bombings and mass shootings.

Realism

I like thinking about the tension between optimism and pessimism in forming a realistic outlook on life. For example, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes, the right-winger or conservative can be characterized as one who believes in mankind’s fundamental inequality, whereas the left-winger or progressive believes in man’s fundamental equality. But both appear to be true, even within Hoppe’s conservative form of libertarianism: even if people have different abilities, they all share in equal dignity, which in libertarian thought means in particular the right to be free from aggression against their persons and property.

So I can characterize myself as a pessimist in that I believe in humanity’s fundamental inequality and in the futility of trying to engineer equal outcomes, or even equal opportunity. If people are conceived and born with different abilities, even the most meritocratic society will sort them into a hierarchy, and this would true under a utopian libertarian regime where everything is organized by voluntary contract and association.

At the same time, I am optimistic in my belief that liberty and the abolition of the oppressive state will bring about a maximization of human flourishing. So I trust in humanity’s ability to work out optimal solutions for society’s problems when they are given the maximum freedom to do so. Having said that, I still believe that liberty is morally superior to statism, and that even if free individuals cannot always work out the best solutions, and even if it were possible to engineer the perfect society, it would be immoral to take away people’s liberty by force in order to achieve this.

Thoughts about liberty

So my preferred candidate in the GOP presidential race, Rand Paul, just declared the suspension of his candidacy. My understanding is that he has not yet formally withdrawn from the race, meaning that votes cast for him in the primary could still secure him delegates at the convention. But if he does formally withdraw his candidacy, I may have to think about my second choice.

There are arguments to made for several of them. Trump is rude and politically incorrect, but his nationalism is a refreshing change from the internationalist warmongering that sadly seems to define much of the GOP foreign policy consensus. That being said, Trump has made several bloodthirsty remarks on the campaign that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, such as his support for retaliation against the families of terrorists.

Ted Cruz is the closest to Rand on most of the issues. His style is a bit too conservative and evangelical for many, but he has actually been much more forthright about protecting American civil liberties and adopting a more defensive and nationalist foreign policy than most other candidates, barring Paul and Trump. My main objections involve the evidence of his opportunism on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration, as well as doubts about his constitutional eligibility for office, given the fact that he was born in Canada.

I know Ben Carson once endorsed Rand Paul, which makes me now want to give him another look, despite the fact that I’ve been very underwhelmed by his debate performances. While Marco Rubio is very conservative on certain issues, he is far too militaristic on the one hand, and too pro-amnesty on the other.

Why are there good public schools in Baltimore?

The conversation about Baltimore schools usually revolves around their awfulness. See this piece about Freddie Gray’s allegedly “apartheid” school, so-called because it was overwhelmingly black (as if that were a bad thing!). But the city school system, while having a bad reputation generally, nevertheless boasts some isolated high-performers, such as my local Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.

Usually when public schools are compared, progressives will note that the better schools are in wealthier areas, where higher property taxes enable the schools to attract and keep better teachers and invest in more educational resources. However, while this may be a valid point when comparing schools from one city to another, Baltimore City Public Schools is a unified district; Roland Park Elementary doesn’t get more public money than schools in the poorest parts of West Baltimore just because Roland Park is a wealthier neighborhood.

The only difference must lie in the neighborhoods themselves. Wealthy neighborhoods, for whatever reason, are just more conducive to good schools, even when the rules insist they get the same amount of money. Baltimore schools in any event get much more funding than schools in the highest-performing districts, like Fairfax County, VA. This article also shows that Baltimore schools get most of their funding from the state and federal governments, meaning that the schools would still be well-funded even if local property taxes were lowered from their currently very high rate.