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Opinion: Columnists

Iraq, Ferguson, and the 'libertarian moment'

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Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,Iraq,Iraq War,Conservatism,Civil Rights,Law Enforcement,Libertarianism,Civil Disobedience,ISIS,Ferguson

The “libertarian moment” has arrived, the New York Times Magazine proclaimed this month, to the guffaws of many liberals and a few conservatives.

The other news on today’s front pages – unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and new bloodshed in Iraq – bolsters the claim. Americans may not be eager to abolish the minimum wage, legalize prostitution, or repeal the New Deal, but libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.

As the Islamic State terrorist group wreaks havoc across Iraq and threatens to establish a caliphate in the region, most Americans say it’s not their country's “responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq” (55 percent to 39 percent in a July Pew survey). More telling, 55 percent of Americans say the 2003 U.S. invasion “contributed to the current violence and instability in Iraq.”

Invading Iraq was “the wrong thing to do,” said 61 percent of Americans in a June Quinnipiac poll, compared to 32 percent who said it was the right thing to do. That 29 percent difference is the highest Quinnipiac has ever reported. A record low 18 percent of Americans thought the Iraq War was worth the costs and losses, a CBS News poll found in June.

Americans haven’t grown to love Saddam Hussein. They have instead come to realize that when government uses its might to fix one problem, it often creates bigger problems.

This wariness of big solutions, this skepticism of government’s ability to right wrongs, is at the heart of the wiser strains of libertarianism and the more consistent forms of conservatism.

The bloodshed, destruction, and strife in Ferguson highlight how America’s struggles with race and poverty are far from resolved. But they also teach a few libertarian lessons.

The picture of the young, unarmed, black man staring down the barrels of M-4s wielded by helmeted cops donned in camouflage, combat boots, and gas masks makes an obvious point: It was folly for our federal, state, and local governments to turn our police forces into mini-militaries.

Throughout the week, combat vets have remarked that St. Louis County’s finest were better equipped for combat than some U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tear gas filled the air as police roamed the streets in armored vehicles.

Federal grants helped arm hundreds of police departments like St. Louis County for war. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all supported federal money to arm local cops for an invasion of Fallujah.

Against this insane armament, libertarian Radley Balko was the clearest, most consistent voice. Other libertarians and a few conservatives joined Balko, the author of books on the militarization of police, and they found common cause with many liberals.

There’s another problem in Ferguson that calls up some wisdom shared by libertarians and conservatives: When you consider the police shooting of Michael Brown, the riots that followed, the crackdown in response, and the heightened protests after that, the whole situation between the town and the police was one of Us vs. Them.

But for the people of Ferguson, or of any town, shouldn’t a policeman (or any public servant) be “one of us”? Ferguson is 70 percent black. Its police force is almost all white.

This is a cause of some problems, but the result of another: The people of Ferguson don’t see their neighbors when they look at the police. Ferguson’s cops aren’t merely armed occasionally like an invading army; they are, every day, outsiders.

“If you can find a single person in this community who trusts the police,” Corey Crawford of Ferguson told the Washington Post last week, “that is like finding a four-leafed clover.”

Why aren’t Ferguson’s cops just the people from Ferguson who wanted to be cops? In my hometown, for instance, our former varsity football linemen wear the badges and police our streets.

But for more than a century in America, there has been a push to professionalize our public servants. States create police forces, and then deploy them throughout the state.

Many municipalities handed local control to professional, out-of-town town managers instead of elected officials. Steadily, on local, state, and federal levels, we’ve replaced rule of the people with the rule of experts.

Libertarianism and conservatism (some strains of them, at least) provide a counterweight to this technocratic push.

Conservatives and libertarians in general need to grow in empathy and understanding for racial minorities in this country, and for the poor and powerless. But now would be a good time for everyone to listen to one another — including the libertarians.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.
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