The PJ Tatler

Any Law Could Kill: a Principle Addressing #BlackLivesMatter

On Monday’s episode of the Fightin Words podcast, I interviewed Craig Westover, a retired journalist and former communications director of the Republican Party of Minnesota, regarding a piece he wrote calling on the party to take a stand on the #BlackLivesMatter protests which have erupted around the nation. While Westover confessed to “having a dog in the fight,” he stressed that it was important for some sort of stand to be taken no matter what it is.

[These protests] are big news. This is front page news. And yet, as a Republican, if I’m talking to somebody in the inner city and I’m trying to say, “Well, the Republican position on this is—” I don’t know where to go from there.… When you’re trying to build an image of the Republican Party, and they don’t have a stance… you’ve got to know that if you’re going to try an be a Republican activist and get a message out that says this is what our party stands for, this is what you can expect from Republicans.

Nationally, Westover pointed to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who has taken a distinct stand on the legal environment which has spawned the current protests. Particularly, Paul has criticized the law against selling individual cigarettes which cops enforced in their fatal confrontation with Eric Garner.

In an op-ed published last week in the Chicago Tribune, law professor Stephen L. Carter takes Paul’s point to the next level:

The problem is actually broader. It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Carter offers a good principle for evaluating legal prohibitions:

On the opening day of law school at Yale, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.

If there were to be a definitive GOP stance in answer to the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Carter’s principle stands as a worthy candidate. Let’s push for fewer laws and ensure those which remain are worth killing someone to enforce.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)