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.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: June 5, 1916

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In my experience, “libertarianism” is whatever the person standing in front of you with a dog-eared copy of “The Fountainhead” says it is. And no two are the same. I chalk that up to the fact that, like “originalism,” it’s a bullshit philosophy that is rarely applied as described.

    1. Harsh, but I can see why you would think that. But there are nuts of all sorts in every political party, just look at the Republicans and Democrats. Hell, many of the Republicans I talk to lately seem the think these nationwide riots are a mass conspiracy funded by Gates or Soros or … Who the fuck knows, but it’s insanity is only exceeded by their frothing single minded support of President Trump. And the Democrats have their moments, though currently they pale next to this dumpster fire that used to be a democracy.

    2. And how does that make libertarianism different from any other of our favorite isms?
      Communism, socialism, populism, liberalism, constitutionalism, democracy-ism, authoritarianism, anarchism, plutocracy-ism, racism, etc. etc. They are all bullsh*t terms by the same measuring stick you’re using — they are defined by the person who professes to belong to whatever group. Come to think of it, Judaism seems to suffer the same problem, there are many varieties of that and you wonder what they have in common except a Jewish mother. Islamism has its problems too, and many of them don’t seem think much of each other. So, I don’t think we should put too much stock in trying to pin down exact definitions of any particular ism. I think we all know what they have in mind, broadly at least. And that’s enough for civil discussions, don’t you think?

  2. The police should take a week off as a trial run for defunding.

    1. Great idea, as long as they let people borrow all their weapons during the week off. I’m sure they’ll be returned in good order.

  3. Prof. Bernstein, thank you for pointing out this nuanced position. Even though Trump and his ignorant followers believe things are black and white, in real life they’re rarely – if ever – are.

    1. “Even though Trump and his ignorant followers believe things are black and white”

      Its not Trump nor his followers who want to abolish police.

    2. Apparently ‘things’ are black & white for you, as you are unable to comment w/o smearing Trump & his supporters. In-group bias is motherfucker that you just can’t overcome.

  4. It is quite disorienting to agree with Professor Bernstein. But what he suggests is not only “libertarian.” It’s sensible policy.

    1. The Founding Fathers would agree with you about the sensibility of libertarian (classical liberal) policies.

  5. Just remember that the leaders of America’s largest cities could have shown leadership in curbing police violence and militarization decades ago.

  6. Police unions have contracts that prevent other remedies. Judges enforce those contracts with no regard to the hardships they cause the public. Elected leaders can’t fix ruinous pension systems and can’t fire abusive officers. Courts and prosecutors let police get away with murder (literally).

    A reformed police would be better than no police. Show how a few US cities succeeded in reforming their police.

    If reforms can’t happen or don’t happen, then disbanding the police is the only option left. Elected leaders can replace them with an entirely new agency with new rules.

    1. Also, defund the police is needed as a counterpoint to the let’s not do anything position.

      There’s a sizable crowd who likes the way things are: the police can do what they want. They’re only hurting people who are not like me. We need them to arrest people who (are not like me ) and want to own a gun. Or who leave their house without a mask. Or who say mean things to the very special diverse people who must be protected and celebrated.

      If no one is pushing for changes that are too extreme, you end up compromising on changes that don’t really change anything.

      1. I’ve seen no evidence – can you present any? e.g., polling – showing that most or many people believe the “police can do what they want.” Who says this? Anyone who does will be thoroughly and completely denounced by others.
        Professor Bernstein listed about 8-10 things that can be done to “change things”, to perhaps mitigate police misconduct and hold officers more accountable. You completely reject them out of hand. Over the decades cities and states have passed enormous reforms on law enforcement. Hiring more black and minority officers, training changes, community out reach. Enormous improvements have been made. This is not the 1960s or 1970s when police like those in Philadelphia or the South could literally act with impunity.
        Over the past two decades the violent crimes rates in America has dropped dramatically. Thousands of black men and women
        are alive today who were being killed before. Saved by, in part, the very police departments you wish to throw aside. Do you want to return to those days? I hope not.
        Yes, there clearly are abuses. The militarization of police departments is absurd. Reason magazine has documented where policies have gone wrong. But we need to view this in full, not in a one-sided “everything is corrupt let’s throw it out” view you have.

        1. A list of ideas that would improve things is not a list of actual policies that can actually be enacted and implemented. If a judge says it violates the union contract and can’t be implemented, then how does it get implemented?

          Disbanding them is a last resort option. Threatening it seriously might help overcome resistance to the other more measured reforms on Bernstein’s list.

    2. Reforms don’t happen because politicians don’t want them to happen. Certainly that is true in cities with “strong mayor” systems.

  7. My question is more pragmatic. So, after we defund the police and achieve the acme of social justice, are we supposed to haul the carcasses of the guys we shoot breaking into our home to the curb for the regular trash pick up day? Or will there be a number to call and Soylent Green stickers for body bag pick up, they way we do for grass clippings, leaves and tree branches? Or just Colt, Kimber and S&W branded wood chippers for recycling?

    1. The acme of social justice would be not disbanding the police force but repurposing it to go after peaceful citizens (for made-up crimes, like saying mean/insensitive things), while leaving real criminals roam free.

      1. I hear that in England the acme of social justice has been achieved.

    2. You’ll still pay protection money, you’ll just pay it to BLM or a BLM-approved gang affiliate.

      1. “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi”
        — Il Gattopardo –

        1. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, n’est ce pas? I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere.

  8. Here’s one version of libertarianism worth pondering seriously:

Please to post comments