Power & Market

“Defund the Police” and “Thin Blue Line” Activists Are Both Wrong

The deep political and moral divisions between Americans were plainly exposed during the controversy over the police sparked by the death of George Floyd. The Left further radicalized, while conservatives dug their heels deeper into the status quo, staunchly defending what appeared to them a hallmark institution of Western civilization. Calls for “defunding the police” became mainstream on the left, while the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” represented by a black American flag with a thin blue line (henceforth referred to as Thin Blue Line or TBL), soared to great popularity among conservatives. Many libertarians sided with the Left on this issue, seizing the opportunity to score political points and scavenge for a few more votes from disaffected “socially liberal” voters.1 According to them, the Left in this instance was advocating a libertarian policy and the Right was showing its statist side. However, libertarians who threw their support behind the Left failed to recognize the intellectual foundations of each position. If their misunderstanding persists, it could have disastrous results vis-à-vis the future establishment of a free society.

At first glance, it appears that libertarians should side with those calling for “defunding the police” over those wishing to increase taxation (the alternative to defunding is increasing funding) and enhance the authority of the state. However, the intellectual divide between libertarianism and all properly leftist ideologies is so profound that it necessitates their dissociation. The disagreement centers on the concept of property rights, a theory of which must form the foundation of libertarianism.2 The significance of this disagreement is underscored by the fact that any definition of the terms “liberty” or “aggression” ultimately falls back on a definition of property. Consider what a leftist would think about a man who beat up someone robbing his store. They would see the store owner as the aggressor, because, according to a common rationalization for looting, “destroying property is not violence.”3 But the true aggressor is the robber; the store owner merely defended what was his. Leftists either completely reject the libertarian concept of property or theorize it in an antilibertarian manner.

If libertarianism is contradictory to the theoretical foundations of nearly all strands of leftism, then how can the apparent similarity between their positions on policing be explained? This apparently confusing fact is due to two misunderstandings, the first of which is the belief that the United States is a completely free market nation. This myth is treated as fact by the majority of people on both the left and the right. However, the very existence of tax-funded police, not to mention innumerable other socialistic American institutions, makes it impossible for the United States to be a purely capitalist nation. The fact that the United States is one of the most capitalist nations on the planet does not imply that it is fully capitalist. Belief in this myth is widespread on the left; after all, it allows them to promote various statist programs and then simply blame the issues caused by the programs’ inevitable failures on capitalism. This myth is also commonly accepted on the right, and is exhibited most clearly in the talking points of mainstream conservatives, who like to call the United States capitalist but cannot even define the term. The falsity of this myth is implicitly recognized by many conservatives when they make such statements as “The country has been ruined by X.” But when they go on to defend every aspect of the United States, they seem to return to the belief that their nation is nearly perfect.

The second misunderstanding is the failure of TBL conservatives to recognize the distinction between natural law, which derives from man’s nature and upholds his inherent notion of justice, and positive law, which is legislated and enforced by the state.4 Natural law is discovered; positive law is imposed. This explains why many conservatives will simultaneously raise TBL and Gadsden flags and see no contradiction. Police, as agents of the state, are enforcers of positive law. But if there is no distinction between positive law and natural law, then any law enforced by the police is just, and the police become the embodiment of justice. On the other hand, libertarians contend the state commits numerous and severe violations of natural law, and that it is the very institutionalization of injustice.

Due to these two misunderstandings, both the Left and the Right have mistakenly associated capitalism and private property rights with the police. Both sides see the police as the enforcers of the capitalist order; if police were abolished, the country would supposedly be chaotically overrun by socialists and criminals.5 This idea accounts for the failure of the Left to ask, “Who will enforce redistribution of wealth?,” and for the Right to ask, “Who will enforce gun control laws?” The police are the answer to both questions, and recognition of this should impel each group to reconsider its stance on the police. The police are not enforcers of natural law or private property rights, but of positive law and the edicts of the state. They will act in accordance with the incentive structure created by a state-run monopoly. Even when local police happen to resist federal edicts, it is only because the state or local governments have created a stronger incentive in the opposite direction, not because they are inherently enforcers of justice. If TBL conservatives can see this, they may reconsider their unquestioning faith in the agents of the state.

We now must ask who is the greater enemy of the free and just society: those who claim to uphold liberty and private property rights yet fail to see the role of the police in suppressing those values, or those who reject private property in the first place? I contend that the first group is more aligned with libertarianism. While there is surface-level agreement between libertarianism and leftism on the issue of police, this is not based on shared theoretical foundations but on two less profound misunderstandings. The contradictions in the TBL conservatives’ position should be pointed out, and hopefully will impel some of them to reconsider their views. However, we must recognize that, on the broad spectrum of political ideologies, American conservatives are closer to libertarians than it might appear, while leftists, who hate our very civilization and values, are becoming irredeemably distant.

  • 1Some even threw their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement and its slogans. For example, see the Twitter post of 2020 Libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen, who wrote, “It is not enough to be passively not racist, we must be actively anti-racist.” Interestingly, these are the words of Ibram X. Kendi, a man who calls for a “department of antiracism” to be created in the United States government which will deem racist anything which produces “discrepancies,” i.e., any result other than complete equality of outcomes, while recommending measures to enforce such total equality. See also the Twitter post of the official Libertarian Party, which wrote, “Remember Michael Brown.” Michael Brown is the man who was said to have been shot while his hands were up, prompting the popularization of the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It was later shown that this was false; Brown assaulted the officer, attempted to take his firearm, and never had his hands up.
  • 2See Murray N. Rothbard, “Justice and Property Rights,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, 2d ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), pp. 89–114.
  • 3These are the words of Nikole-Hannah Jones, popular leftist author and creator of the infamous 1619 Project, who said, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things… I think it’s really not moral to do that.”
  • 4See Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 2d ed.(New York: New York University Press, 1998), chap. 3.
  • 5See the mission statement of the Thin Blue Line Foundation, which claims, “The Thin Blue Line represents the men and women of law enforcement that stand between good and evil, order and chaos. The black stripe above the blue line represents the law abiding community and the bottom black stripe below the blue line represents the criminals who want to cause destruction and chaos.”
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