Ferguson, Black Rage, and The Libertarian Critique of State Power


Why have events in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of Michael Brown catalyzed a long-overdue conversation about the militarization of local law enforcement? As I write at The Daily Beast, the deaths of unarmed citizens (particularly black men) during police encounters happen all the time without starting such national discussions (google John Crawford III to see what I mean).

Part of the reason Ferguson exploded was because the authorities there have misplayed virtually every decision they made since Saturday, August 9. But something else is also at work and deserves serious attention:

In Ferguson, minority outrage at police mistreatment has intersected with the libertarian critique of state power in a way that has brought the concerns of both groups to a national audience. Most interestingly, the coverage of Ferguson hasn't been dominated by figures such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Even a few years ago, they would have been at the forefront of the coverage. Now, the people at the center of this conversation have been journalists on the scene and local community spokespeople.

And when it does come to the political class, Rand Paul's op-ed in Time was far and away the most trenchant (and early) sustained commentary on Ferguson and the issues it raises. "There is a systemic problem with today's law enforcement," he wrote. "When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands. Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."

Indeed, what Ferguson demonstrates is how tightly related abstract concerns libertarians have about the government's power and the very real-life fears of police harassment that many African Americans have really are. So too are other issues of interest to both groups, ranging from school choice to sentencing reform to occupational licensing. As these sorts of newly recognized common causes filter through the culture, all sorts of new coalitions and possibilities can come to fruition. Glimpses of this are already visible in actions such as the nearly successful effort by Republican Rep. Justin Amash and Democratic Rep. John Conyers to defund National Security Agency surveillance programs last summer.

Read "The Libertarian Moment in Ferguson."

As my colleague and co-author Matt Welch has pointed out, eminent-domain abuse is another area in which the overlap between longstanding concerns of African Americans and libertarians is particularly strong. And as Reason's Damon Root, author of the tremendous forthcoming book Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court, has noted, the NAACP filed an amicus brief in Kelo v. New London. Read Root's great essay on the classical liberal Moorfield Storey, one of the NAACP's founders, here.