The Volokh Conspiracy
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Is "Defunding the Police" Libertarian?
I have become increasingly cognizant of a tendency of many libertarians to conflate "libertarian" with "antigovernment." There are a variety of groups and movements in the U.S. who hate "the government" for their own reasons, but aren't by any stretch of the imagination libertarian. If you hate the U.S. government because you think is it's controlled by "Zionists" who are trying to destroy European American culture by organizing an alliance of Third World immigrants and native African Americans, you will likely support dramatic cuts in government; but you are not libertarian, because if you thought "your people" were in control, you would happily have a massive, unlibertarian federal government.
Back when Ron Paul's presidential campaign was receiving support from various racist individuals and groups, his campaign's official position was that it welcomed support from *anyone* regardless of ideology, so long as they supported limiting the federal government. That's exactly the mentality I object to.
Libertarians hopping on the "defunding the police" bandwagon once again reminds me of the crucial but neglected distinction between being libertarian (or classical liberal) and being antigovernment. Protection of life, safety, and property is a legitimate function of government. Even Robert Nozick was fine with funding the "night watchman" of the night watchman state.
There are plenty of police reforms that could be enacted from a libertarian perspective that would improve matters. Qualified immunity reform is libertarian. Holding police accountable for misbehavior is libertarian. Reducing the power of police unions is libertarian. Getting rid of overtime and pension abuse is libertarian. Banning no-knock raids is libertarian. Reducing bloated police department bureaucracies is libertarian.
Broader reforms that would reduce the need for police and reduce police/civilian encounters are also libertarian. Getting rid of victimless crimes, especially the drug war, and certain categories of criminal business regulation that should be handled civilly is libertarian. Getting rid of taxes that lead to black markets that in turn lead to police/civilian encounters is libertarian. Abolishing laws that allow local governments to put people in jail for failure to pay civil fines is libertarian. Separating forensic science services from prosecutors' offices is libertarian. Holding prosecutors accountable for misconduct is libertarian. Finding alternatives to prison for certain categories of offenders is libertarian.
By contrast, "defunding the police," if that just means willy-nilly cuts, is not libertarian. This is true especially given that police departments will inevitably follow the "Washington Monument" strategy, in which bureaucracies respond to budget cuts by cutting what is most painful to the voting public. What is very likely to suffer is the legitimate function of the state in preserving people's lives, safety, and property from criminals, while not reforming the system at all nor doing anything about abusive police officers.
If defunding the police means getting rid of the police entirely, without any remote prospect of alternative means of protecting lives, safety, and property suddenly arising in its place (and in the current legal environment, the anarcho-capitalist dream of private protection services replacing police is impossible, even if it were somehow practical), is both crudely antigovernment and stupid.