Trayvon and the Minimal State

The state is hardly the biggest threat to individual freedom

Broom of the System

Everyone knows that libertarians don’t especially like it when the government, er, does stuff. But even the most doctrinaire libertarians generally accept that there are some functions that the state can justifiably perform. Apart from radical anarcho-capitalists like Murray N. Rothbard or David D. Friedman ’65, libertarians are generally comfortable with a state that enforces contracts between consenting parties, provides for the national defense, and, most importantly, stops individuals from violating each others’ rights. Robert Nozick, the late, great libertarian Harvard political philosopher, argued that only a minimal “night-watchman state” is justifiable. Among this state’s most important duties, he wrote in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” was “protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud.”

No one would mistake Florida for a night-watchman state, but on Feb. 26, it failed to fulfill that basic duty that Nozick identified. One of its citizens, Trayvon Martin, was pursued and fatally shot by another private citizen, George Zimmerman, and, because the police agree with Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, the killer was not arrested. As has been widely noted, this outcome likely has something to do with Florida’s extremely expansive “Stand Your Ground” law, under which one is allowed to use deadly force if they feel threatened even when they could have peacefully retreated instead.

There is some dispute over whether the Stand Your Ground statute, as written, actually renders Zimmerman criminally faultless. By many accounts, he was actually chasing Martin, and the law requires a “reasonable” fear on Zimmerman’s part of injury, but such concern appears, under the circumstances, to be paranoid rather than prudent. But in practice, laws like Stand Your Ground deter prosecutors from pursuing murderers like Zimmerman for fear that they can mount a successful case or that a trial judge will dismiss it before it even goes before a jury.

In case after case, killers have successfully cited self-defense to avoid prosecution, to a point where “justifiable homicides” have nearly tripled in Florida in recent years. In the early 2000s, the state averaged about 34 per year. In 2009, there were 105. The phenomenon gets even more disturbing when one considers that young black men are far more likely to be perceived as aggressors and thus become targets of such “justifiable” killings.

If we should demand the state do anything, we should demand it protect us from murder, or at least prosecute those who murder their fellow citizens. All but the most extreme libertarians should agree to that much. So is the libertarian movement rallying against Stand Your Ground laws? Well, no. In fact, Florida’s law was generated from a template law produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.”  ALEC has been behind all manner of conservative/libertarian legislative endeavors, from tax limits, privatization efforts and anti-union laws to school vouchers. And it’s funded by the First Siblings of the libertarian movement, Charles G. and David H. Koch, who bankroll many, if not most, major libertarian organizations, not to mention much of the Tea Party movement.

I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush here. A younger generation of libertarians, including smart writers like Timothy B. Lee and M. Julian Sanchez, has been trying hard to push the movement to take rights violations like the state’s failure to prosecute Zimmerman more seriously. The libertarian investigative journalist Randy Balko has done more than nearly anyone to shine a light on police abuses, such as excessive SWAT raids and faked forensic science, which disproportionately hurt minorities.

But as an institutional whole, libertarianism has long been more concerned with the rights of rich people to not be taxed than the rights of the Trayvon Martins of the world to stay breathing. Indeed, there’s some irony that the Justice Department has begun weighing hate crimes charges against Zimmerman just as the Supreme Court, this week, began weighing arguments that the health care mandate is an unconscionable federal power grab. It would be hard for the Court to accept the mandate, libertarian legal scholar Ilya Somin wrote, without providing a “rationale for virtually unlimited federal power.”

But the federal government’s intervention on Martin’s behalf, an action which by its very nature usurps the traditional law enforcement duties of the state of Florida, should make libertarians wonder whether their monomaniacal focus on reducing federal power, and government power generally, makes any sense. An overzealous Congress did not menace Trayvon Martin. A private individual, and an overly passive local police force, did. Liberty is not something we have until the government takes it away. It is something anyone can take away, and government is often the only thing protecting it.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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