Maintaining Peace with the Police: the Deeper Problem

In recent months, there has been an uptick in national news stories about cops shooting civilians, civilians shooting cops, and an overall increase in tensions between the state and citizens.

There’s a story going around Facebook about a guy– Matt Powers– who used his own experience of peaceful interaction with the police to make a point about how easy it is to get along with them if we are just respectful and participate.  It seems that part of his point was that we can’t just blame the police for the increasing violence if groups like Black Lives Matter are going to continue to act like hooligans and downright disruptors of the peace. All it takes, argues Matt, is treating the police civilly and, in return, you will be treated civilly.

I certainly agree with this. I think that individuals should try as hard as they can to maintain peace with the police forces, and with other types of government bureaucrats as well. It doesn’t seem to help the cause of liberty, or our own personal well-being, to be intentionally disruptive and chaotic. However, I think that Matt’s entire story misses the deeper problem. After all, how did it come to pass in the land of the free that we would need to act like humble children under the almighty authority of the state? Why is it that, in a land built on the idea of private property, that we are expected by the state to happily comply as it contradicts the fourth amendment and breaches our right to privacy?

We all remember hearing the famous dictum (wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but true nonetheless): “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

Everything is backwards.

Matt recounts that he was pulled over by the police. He was pulled over because his registration sticker had expired. That is to say, the police had legal authority to stop Matt from driving even though Matt had committed no crime, because the state mandates that Matt not use his private property without first acquiring permission from the state. Matt has no problem with this lack of freedom, this loss of liberty.

The policeman asked for his drivers license (which the state mandates and manages), his registration (which the state mandates and manages), and insurance card (which the state mandates, but does not manage). We have here three components to legal driving which, in a free society, would not exist by virtue of state fiat (though perhaps by private and free market initiative), and without which Matt would have been guilty of disobedience to the law. Matt has no problem with this lack of freedom, with the encroaching of the state in this way.hqdefault

Matt reports that he immediately informed the cop that he was a legally armed citizen and that “for your safety and mine” there was a pistol in the compartment and to “please be careful.” What stands out here to me is the complete deference to the idea that we need to have permission from the government to legally own arms and that the police should know about it immediately because the reality of our present state is that the state assumes we are “guilty before proven innocent.” In a free society, Matt could have had his gun anywhere in his car and, if the policeman saw it, would not think twice unless Matt was a suspect in a crime.

Matt was proud of the fact that he had is gun permit, as if it was a legitimate role of the state to give permission to citizens to carry guns.

Moreover, we see in Matt’s asking the policeman to be careful an acceptance of the fascinating (and quite pathetic) fact that policeman treat guns as if they are grenades ready to explode. It’s amazing how both police forces and various gun owners (certainly not all) across the United States are a million times more fearful of guns than old ladies were before the rise of the Progressive movement. While this isn’t about liberty and property rights per se, it does reflect on the massive cultural degradation that has taken place over the decades. It’s quite hilarious how they are treating this pistol like it’s a toxin or a fragile grenade. It’s just a gun. Calm down.

Matt gladly offered to have his person and truck searched. The cop declined the latter.

There was nothing in Matt’s statement about his rights, about government overreach, about the entire culture of authoritarianism. Here is the most important piece of this story: Matt describes his demeanor as completely submissive and in humility before the government. But the great question is: what about those who do not volunteer their persons and property to be searched? Do those who do not happily consent have rights? And not simply rights in a “due process” way, but rather in a natural “right to live without invasion of person and property” way. Those who do not consent are not guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever. 

Does Matt believe, in contradiction to the Bill of Rights and to the tenants of the Old American definition of liberty, that the Government has a right to force a random person that it pulled over for a non-crime to be searched, and for property to be seized, without a warrant? One doesn’t somehow lose his rights if, for whatever reason, he wants to maintain his privacy or does not want to be searched.

It is true that Matt was entirely compliant, but rights aren’t written down for the compliant, they are written for the dissenters. The rights that a person has, by their nature, are to be held up as a check against a government that thinks it does have a right to breach the person and property of an individual citizen. If we lived in a free country, Matt would have been justified in saying that the policeman would have needed a warrant to search him. Matt had broken no rights, had committed no crime.

Matt was entirely correct in reflecting on the fact that if one wants to maintain peace with the state, one must act exactly as Matt did. But the real lesson, and the deeper problem, is this: one is required to act in complete deference to the will of the state in order to maintain peace with it. That is authoritarianism. The state does not have to act in complete deference to the rights of the individual. That is tyranny.  This is what the state has achieved in the 20th century: complete control over the person even to the extent that the person is entirely willing to be fully exposed to the processes and tactics of government control over the people.

It is very very easy to maintain peace with an authoritarian state: just do what they want. But what no one talks about is whether the state should be authoritarian in the first place.

It is much harder to vocalize opposition to the modern dynamic between authoritarian state and citizen. It is much harder to understand that we don’t live in a free society and the state does not have the right to do much of what it does.

I will say that I believe with all my heart that one should maintain peace with the state, contra the antagonizers like BLM. One should certainly do everything they can to say nothing that could get him in trouble. The police can legally do nearly whatever they want to do. Try to end the situation as quickly as possible. We shouldn’t try to antagonize. We indeed should, for practical purposes, try to do what they say in a situation like that. That’s what Paul meant in Romans 13. Just try to live peaceably.

But just because we ought to “turn the other cheek,” “pay our taxes,” or let the police make sure we are permitted to carry a weapon doesn’t justify slapping people, taking other people’s money, or mandating that they be approved before carrying a weapon. Just because Matt gave permission, just because we want to not get in trouble with the state, does not justify these things that the state does. They ought to just leave us alone and respect our property rights. That’s the deeper issue here: the state is too invasive.