Sowell Contra Steyn?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In a column arguing against the notion that shows of force by the police  exacerbated rioting in Ferguson, Thomas Sowell, notes that, "Any force sufficient to prevent riots from getting out of hand is almost certain to be characterized as 'excessive force' or 'over-reaction' by people with zero experience trying to stop riots." This is a conclusion he reaches after examining historical evidence, such as from the 1960's. For example:

[F]or those who are still so old-fashioned as to rely on facts, here are a few: Back in the 1960s when ghetto riots broke out in cities across the country, the region with the fewest riots was the South, where racial discrimination was greatest and police forces least likely to show restraint.

In Detroit, with a liberal mayor in the city and a liberal governor in the state, where the police were warned against shooting during the 1967 riots, there was the largest death toll of any city during any riot during that whole decade -- 43 people dead, 33 of them black.
Sowell raises a good point -- which he also makes by examining the correlation between armed guards and murder rates (9% for U.S presidents!), and alluding to an absurd, correlation-based conclusion one might draw. "Does anyone seriously believe that leaving presidents unguarded would reduce assassinations?" he asks.

This is hardly to say that warnings (such as one from Mark Steyn) against the militarization of our police are unwarranted. Rather, we should be careful to distinguish between incorrect calls for "restraint" when the government should properly wield force (of the retaliatory kind, in defense of individual rights) -- and warnings to the effect that the government is headed down a slippery slope of laying the ground work for ever more intrusive instances of improper, rights-violating initiatory force. Things like the latter were going on long before Ferguson. There is no objective need to equip every police department like a military unit or to treat routine police work like a SWAT raid or an incipient riot.

Since I have observed both leftists and conservatives making the mistake of treating both kinds of government action as equivalently desirable or not (although usually in different contexts), let me cite a clarifying quote from Ayn Rand:
The principle of using force only in retaliation against those who initiate its use, is the principle of subordinating might to right.
This distinction, which is at the root of what made American government distinctive at its outset (and must, again, one day), is potentially one of the greatest casualties of the debates ignited by the Ferguson riots. Leftists wrongly condemn the government (properly) quelling a riot as "violence", and yet encourage government looting (an initiation of force, no matter how bloodless) for redistribution. On the other hand, conservatives often seem tone-deaf to such matters as policemen needlessly escalating encounters (e.g., the alleged profanity used initially against Michael Brown I recall from one account) or the police aping the military they rightly admire. Both seem to think that enshrinement in law (e.g., cries against (improperly) "illegal immigration" from the right, or support for entitlements from the left) is some sort of ritual blessing on an action a proper government would not take.

Thomas Sowell's and Mark Steyn's respective comments about the police in the wake of the riots might initially strike one as antithetical, but when one considers them in light of the proper role of the government, it becomes apparent that they actually make complimentary points.

-- CAV

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