Defund the Police?

Jeffrey Miron

This article appeared on Substack on August 10, 2023.

The Defund the Police (DTP) movement raises an interesting question for libertarians. On the one hand, libertarians abhor excessive police violence, against minorities and generally. On the other hand, libertarians, and others, might worry that slashing police budgets could increase crime.

The way to balance these concerns is to repeal laws against victimless crimes, meaning bans against drugs, sex work, vagrancy, loitering, and the like. These laws serve no role in protecting people from violence or theft, and they generate their own negatives: underground markets, corruption, violence, and excessive overdoses.

In addition, laws against victimless crime exacerbate racism by empowering those police with racist attitudes to impose their views on minorities.

In a homicide investigation, police and prosecutors must prove means, motives, and opportunity; they cannot just say, “This person looks like a murderer, so lock him up.”

Under prohibitions of drugs or sex work, police can and do assert, “This teenager looks like someone who deals drugs, so I can stop and frisk.” Or, they demand sexual favors from alleged prostitutes. If some police are racist, this power gets applied in racially disproportionate ways.

Racism can also arise even when police address real crime (e.g., the Charles Stuart case). For violence and theft, however, procedural checks and balances, and the presence of multiple observers, lowers the scope for racism. Legalizing victimless crimes also helps attract police who want to serve and protect rather than “bust heads.”

DTP shares this perspective, opposing laws against buying or selling drugs, sex work, or nuisance offenses.

Libertarians and DTP do differ on a related issue: how to use the funds freed up by legalizations. DTP would transfer these to treatment and other social services; libertarians would lower taxes instead.

Libertarians and DTP nevertheless agree on a crucial issue: to make policing less racist, society must eliminate laws that criminalize private, consensual behavior.

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