Civil Liberties

Eric Garner's Death Shows How Stupid Laws Help Get People Killed

Why do Americans want to trust an institution that will kill you over failure to pay a cigarette tax?


After news of the baffling decision by the New York grand jury not to indict a police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, I sent out a (slightly) hyperbolic tweet that wondered why Americans would want to entrust their free speech and health care to an institution that will kill you over failure to pay a cigarette tax.

Since then, I've seen numerous tweets arguing that bringing up the tax is preposterous. It's something akin to blaming jaywalking for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.), touched on the issue in an interview with MSNBC yesterday and was, unsurprisingly, ridiculed for it by liberals—because mentioning the circumstances of a violent act is preposterous, apparently.

Though it certainly isn't close to being the most important lesson of this inexplicable case, it's not something that should be dismissed so flippantly.

Garner wasn't targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. We frame violence in this way all the time. We often talk about unintended consequences. When we discuss how women who immigrated to this country illegally can be the helpless victims of domestic violence, we also blame unfair laws for creating the situation. When we talk about the war on drugs and how it creates millions of nonviolent criminals and needless abuse by the Drug Enforcement Administration and others, liberals have little problem blaming the underlying policy that makes all of that possible. With good reason.

Some pundits have similarly blamed broken-windows policing for Garner's death. Those policies, whether they work or not, are aimed at protecting property and people. In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence—not in the short or long term. It exists to shield people from their own lawful habit. High cigarette taxes were cooked up, for the most part, to artificially inflate the price of a product politicians and voters dislike so that others would not be able to afford it. For their own good.

New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes—over 5 bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of the "Cigarette Strike Force" to crack down on illegal tobacco trafficking. A strike force. As writer Robert Tracinski has pointed out, the Garner case should remind us that "government is force" and that more government has predictable returns. If you believe cops are racists or generally out of control, why give them more opportunity?

Last month, a man was arrested on Staten Island with 500,000 untaxed cigarettes in his van. (Don't worry; New York state resells most of the cigarettes for revenue.) The more profitable circumventing taxes becomes the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling singles, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn't a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Even if your position is that government has an important role in deciding what you should ingest, cigarette smoking has been dropping for decades around the country. It was dropping before sin taxes. It's dropping in places where there are no sin taxes. Other than inconveniencing poor people, sin taxes offer us nothing. Well, maybe a little tax revenue. A bit of social engineering. And sometimes a death.