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.

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  1. Good article. Both racist policing practices and bad policy contributed to this tragedy. Its somehow not surprising that some people think these causes are mutually exclusive. I've come to expect stupidity.

    1. Over the top, stupid, police thugs, but racism? No proof of that what so ever.

      1. It's quite hard to prove racial intent with violent acts, but the numbers prove that you are far more likely to be shot by the cops in America if you are black. Call racism, or call it whatever you want. Either way, it has to end.

        1. Walkthejosh... Could that be because too many young blacks walk around with a chip on their shoulder and think it's being tough to resist arrest?

          look at Ferguson. The rioters are animals. You want to see racism? Walk through a black neighborhood.

    2. Its good that there is so much stupidity among the subjects of us in government. Its what makes you people so easy to control. If you were smart you might rebel - thats why slavery is so much harder to enforce than cattle ranching - human slaves are smart enough to fight back.

      Either way this is right, our place in government grants us the rights we have over you people.


      BTW the policies you refer to are made by government and for government, and they are not bad for us in government.

    3. Ignorant comment. What racism? What policy? He died as a result of resisting arrest. Fool.

  2. While I don't agree with the law, this is a lazy partisan trap to fall in for a hack like Harsanyi. Blaming the law for his death is as valid as blaming guns for violence. In the end it comes down to people and the choices that they make. I blame the cop who made the choice to choke and tackle him, no one else.

    1. So you shouldn't blame Nazi ideology, just every single Nazi who actually escorted a Jew into the gas chamber?


    2. No, not just that cop. It didn't look like his action alone was enough to cause the death. A bunch of them jointly, esp. the supervisor.

    3. Blaming the law for his death is as valid as blaming guns for violence.

      Not really. Owning a gun doesn't require using it.

      Having laws requires their enforcement. With violence.

      Guns merely have a purely passive potential for being used wrongly. Laws don't just create the possibility of violence, they justify and even require it.

    4. blaming the law is wrong?!

      I'll state this unequivocally. If there was not a lame ass law against reselling legally purchased cigarettes in New York, Eric Gaener would not be dead, period.

      Yes, that fucking law got him killed.

      You have to be an obtuse willing government lover to not be able to realize this.

    5. How about blaming the man that decided to resist arrest? You are doing what Harsanyi did.

  3. I've been having a field day with this on The Daily Beast.

    Even the biggest derp experts in the world struggle justifying this nanny state tax when they see the consequences. They can't right out say that the guy should have followed the law for his own good, else they sound like conservative police fellators.

    If they say the laws are not the problem, police are the problem, I come back with them that police are human beings. They naturally go after the easiest targets. Those targets are the poor and the minorities. So your nanny state laws are nothing but institutionalized racism.

    Then they usually start calling me names, but if there is anything I've learned at reason, it is how to call some fucktard a name that will make him cry for his mommy.

    1. Pig squeal loudest when you have them by the balls. I ask them how they want laws enforced. So would it have been just for the police to use nonlethal means to lock Eric Garner in cage? How about fining the hell out of him for selling a cigarette? What punishment do they want?

      If you advocate making free association illegal, you advocate forcible restraint of free individuals and are indeed a fucktard.

      1. Fool. What do you suggest? A Taser? They were afraid he would have a heart attack.

  4. if there is anything I've learned at reason, it is how to call some fucktard a name that will make him cry for his mommy

    I'm so proud.

    *wipes manly tear from eye*

  5. Good article. I like Harsanyi and he's absolutely right. This guy was a big guy. Once the police decide they need to arrest him they can't back down in public. This guy probably wasn't going to come voluntarily. So they have to go in big and in the process something 4 sigma happened and they killed him. And all over the tax on a few lousy cigarettes (New Yorks police state is showing). The National Review has said the police screwed up over this.

    1. So Reason's response is to ignore illegal activity if it may be difficult to enforce the law?

      You idiots still don't get it. He is dead because he resisted arrest. No one mentions he had been arrested 31 times before. He was a criminal.

  6. Bouazizi was a poor man trying to engage in commerce to make a better life. His brother Salem told de Soto the meaning of Bouazizi's death: "He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell."

    Eric Garner could spark American Spring

  7. I would add the caliber of cop you get when you ask them to police every aspect of others lives is severely diminished. Only those with personality disorders would enjoy hassling people over petty BS. Good cops would either become detectives or leave, of course everything I know of cops I learned from The Wire.

  8. Cigarettes for Effigies ? Tobacco Addiction -
    Being a former tobacco addict myself, I as a Scienfoologist can tell you, this is a VERY hard addiction to shake off! I have been trying, and trying, and trying, EVER so hard, to devise a Scienfoological effigy-based ritual, to allow my EFFIGY to do my smoking for me, so that I wouldn't have to. And it has just never worked for me. I have tried (as stand-in cigarettes for my effigy) pickles, bananas, carrots, pencils, screwdrivers, wieners, wiener dogs, even more kinky devices that I shall not speak of (this being a family-oriented website), what have you. Then I thought, maybe you actually have to light them up. I tried paper cigarettes, cloves cigarettes, all sorts of things, coffin nails, shit cigarettes included, and none of them worked. I STILL needed my own, personal nicotine fix! Then it finally downed on me: In order for the Sacred Scienfoological Rituals to work, I have to have my effigy smoke REAL, honest-to-GAWD cigarettes! And now that my effigy does my smoking for me, all is well! Praise GAWD! A simple solution at last! And as Fearless Leader (and founder) of the Church of Scienfoology, then, I must COMMAND you Scienfoological followers out there, in all of your trillions, then when you try to kick your nicotine habit via effigies powers, then, by sheer practical effectiveness criteria alone, you must use REAL cigarettes!

    1. Once Government Almighty gets involved, though, this "simple solution" gets rapidly quite complex. Yes, as a GAWD-fearing Scienfoologist, I have nothing but Absolute Faith that Government Almighty Loves me, and wants to help me kick my bad addictions. Yet GAWD taxes my cigarettes, heavily, even though I am using them for good RELIGIOUS purposes, and for controlling my addictions! GAWD just needs to be educated, is all. But this is a complex topic, so for more details, see a particular sample of APPOSTASY ?

  9. I said the following here:

    No Party stands against this because to do so risks their favorite employment of force to make people live according to their views.

    We couldn't have become a police state without the complicity of both Parties.

    "We can force you" is the theme.

    And to think that Liberty was once our highest value. Long gone.

    BTW the opening scene was once the theme of the anti-Nazi movies during and post WW2. I grew up on that. And now we have a police state and one half of the country or the other cheers.

    And how does it continue? "Their idea of a police state is bad. My idea of a police state is good." No one questions the police state. Just the particular implementation. Clever boys.

  10. "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."

    Are you sure about that, David? It has always seemed to me that high cigarette taxes are a deeply cynical attempt to exploit nicotine addiction by imposing an excise tax on a specific class of consumers who will be compelled to purchase the taxed product no matter how high the price rises.

  11. Tax something enough and it becomes a prohibition. Does anyone remember Canada's experiment a few years ago with raising taxes prohibitally high on cigarettes? In one year they had created a one billion dollar smuggling crisis involving mom and pop store owners, biker gangs, housewives, and organized crime groups. The Canadian Parliament lowered that tax.

    If an adult (not minors, as they don't have full adult rights) wants to take a chance on destroying their health by smoking tobacco, among other things, then that is their right. Unless, of course, their body and mind belongs to the government rather than to themselves.

    And also remember this: "We're from the government and we're here to help you"...even if we have to kill you to do it. Rather reminds me of "We had to destroy the village in order to save the village."

    1. Quebec has a massive black market for various things mostly because of high taxes.

      We have a 15% sales tax and we believe in all these stupid things like New York and Vermont does from green policies (carbon taxes) to hiding cigarettes behind ugly panels - all for the children.

      The Natives are making a killing selling cigarettes on the reserves.

      Here's the thing. People who don't smoke don't give a shit. All they see is A) it's bad for you and B) or don't see how it hurts people below their pay scale.

      It's a vicious retarded cycle of stupidity. People like Cuomo are the equivalent of the mentally disturbed person who repeatedly bang their heads against the wall.

      1. It's had to argue with your last statement.

  12. Democrats entrust a Govt with their Healthcare explicitly.

    Govt killed Eric Garner because he didnt pay a .23 cent tax on a single Cigarette.

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  16. I have always thought that critique must come with real solutions.....let me explain.

    Let's say I have a shop selling cigarettes - or anything for that matter. I pay rent or own my shop, pay employees, pay taxes, health care and everything else.

    BUT, some guy decides he'll take advantage of my reputation and my store location and traffic to stand outside and sell the exact same product(s), either singly or in bulk. Of course, he has none of those "real world" expenses, so he can sell as cheap or cheaper and make much larger profits.

    So the real question, then, is who protects my "property and trade" rights? I thought Libertarians were big on the protection of an individuals property (and by extension, commerce) rights?

    Do we need an entirely new layer of government - a "property police force" which does not deal with the violent stuff, but helps make certain my merchant and property rights are not stolen?

    If so, that's another institution - more "big gubment" that Libertarians claim to dislike!

    How about a "hands off" policy which pertains to any enforcement that does not involve violence.?

    So, the cops come and tell this dude to move. He says no - so they take a picture of what he is doing and a couple witness statements and file it against him at the office. He still doesn't move.

    I'm not saying all that happened in this case, just that you have to set up a system which can handle what actually happens.

  17. I'm asking any who sympathize with tobacco-dependent citizens both ostracized and "sin taxed" ever more unfairly to "Share" this song if they like it.
    (We've had it on the internet since 2012.) "If You're Not Buying Cigarettes, then What Kind of Citizen ARE You?"

  18. I agree the law is stupid. It is the classic example of progressive thinking and attempts to dictate the actions of supposedly free people. However, the law only set up the potential for the event,it was not the cause. The cause was Garner refused to comply and resisted arrest which prompted the officers to then use physical restraint to put him under arrest. There a alot of factors that lead to the death of Mr. Garner. However, that does not excuse the grand jury being led to no bill the officers by the DA. Although I do not think for a minute the Feds need to be sticking their noses into the state judicial system, this event was clearly a miscarriage of justice. However, the real focus by Libertarians should be to point out that if the stupid law were not one the books, then the entire event would have never happened because the police would have be engage in dealing with real crimes and criminals.

  19. I'm asking any who sympathize with tobacco dependent citizens who get ostracized (and get "sin taxed" at rates ever more cruel and unusual) to "Share" or link to this song if they like it. ("If You're Not Buying Cigarettes then What Kind of Citizen ARE You?" We've had it posted since 2012.)

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