Leash the Police: A Response to Late Rothbard

Murray Rothbard’s 1992 article “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement” has once again reared its ugly head in libertarian discourse. Rothbard, for those who are unaware, is often referred to as the father of anarcho-capitalism. I still sometimes refer to myself as a Rothbardian, given my admiration for much of his earlier work.

However, near the end of his life, Rothbard made numerous strategic and philosophical slip-ups, to put it mildly. This era of Rothbard’s work, often referred to as “late Rothbard,” was the peak of the paleo strategy he developed alongside Mises Institute founder Lew Rockwell. This strategy was described by Rothbard as “outreach to rednecks” and largely consisted of pandering to some of the worst tendencies of a group of people that could be described as a precursor to the alt-right. This strategy spawned Rothbard’s apologism for former KKK Grand Wizard and downright horrible human being David Duke, Rothbard’s about-face on immigration, and the infamous Ron Paul newsletters, which many believe were written at least in part by Rockwell himself.

On top of all of this, though, was a pro-police brutality sentiment put forward by both Rothbard and Rockwell. There was Rockwell’s 1991 LA Times pro-police brutality op-ed about Rodney King, in which he lamented the fact that cops could no longer beat up accused criminals without being filmed. In the same vein were Rothbard’s musings on police in his article “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement,” the same article in which he mourned the defeat of David Duke’s campaign (that is, unless you read the version on Lew Rockwell’s site, in which the David Duke praise is curiously cut out).

Within that article, Rothbard laid out a “Right-Wing Populist Program” that he claimed would “[liberate] the average American from the most flagrant and oppressive features of [elite] rule.” One step of the program was entitled “Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals.” There, Rothbard wrote of fighting back against violent criminals by allowing police to engage in brutality: “Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.” The next step of the program, entitled “Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums,” similarly involved a call to “unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants.”

This rhetoric, far from being libertarian, is essentially fascistic. The idea that police should be able to roam the streets, brutalizing those that they believe committed crimes (even violent ones) sounds far more like something from an authoritarian dictator’s wet dream than something put forward by a man who was nicknamed “Mr. Libertarian.” Making this even worse is that Rothbard is not talking of some far-off anarchist society, in which police work is taken out of the hands of government and features greater checks on power from the market, communities, and individuals. Rothbard’s call to unleash the cops refers to the cops who are doing the dirty work of the state as we speak. The same cops who murder and brutalize innocent people in the course of enforcing unjust laws, have a code of silence in protecting each other from punishment for their misconduct, and act as if they themselves are above the law that they are more than happy to enforce upon others are supposed to be trusted with the power to use gratuitous violence against arrestees who will already face the possibility of being held accountable in court for any violent actions they may have committed.

Fans of Rothbard’s later work like to bring up the fact that his unleashing the cops is seemingly qualified by “subject of course to liability when they are in error,” as if this wipes away any of the issues with his proposition. The first issue with this is the idea that a cop being forced to pay damages, for instance, after wrongfully brutalizing someone in any way fully compensates the victim. While the money received can surely be useful and a nice consolation prize, a person who is wrongfully accused of a crime and attacked by violent agents of the state may face mental and physical trauma that could take years or even a lifetime to recover from. Compensatory damages, while a useful way to pay back victims and punish wrongdoers, are not a reset button.

In addition, as I previously alluded to, there exists a culture within many police departments that consists of officers covering for each other when others in the department commit wrongdoing. This culture is a large part of the reason why police accountability is such a difficult objective to achieve, to this day. If it meant saving a fellow officer from losing his job or facing civil or criminal liability, there is no doubt that many police officers would cover for their colleagues, allowing those cops who use brutal force “in error” to escape responsibility.

I also take issue with the idea that there is anything libertarian about beating up violent criminals who have already been apprehended. The non-aggression principle (NAP), which is central to many libertarian ideologies (including anarcho-capitalism), states that the initiation of force is inherently wrong. This does not mean, however, that force can never be used; force in self-defense or in defense of one’s property, or force in defense of another or their property, is permissible under the anarcho-capitalist interpretation of the NAP. In addition, there are various common justifications for the permissibility of using force to compensate a victim of initiatory force (essentially righting a wrong) or, more controversially in some anarchist circles, imprisonment of those who would seek to use force against innocent people (the debate over the pros and cons of the prison abolition movement is a topic for another day).

However, in the situation Rothbard is referring to, it seems as though the suspected violent criminal would already be in police custody; if not, the phrase “instant punishment” would have been replaced with something about police using the force necessary to apprehend them. The violence from the police, in that situation, would not serve to compensate the victim, nor would it serve to protect the victim or anyone else, as the suspect is already incapacitated by virtue of being in custody. Instead, the beating of the suspect serves a bloodlust that should be rejected by libertarians and non-libertarians alike. There already exists an issue with those who look to rule over and dominate others becoming police officers for the opportunity to do so; expanding the ways in which police can utilize this raw violence would only make things worse.

Mises Caucus comedian Dave Smith recently brought up Rothbard’s rhetoric on a podcast episode entitled “What We Can Learn From Late Rothbard,” saying (in reference to the “unleash the cops” quote), “So, I… to me… even though this is viewed as such a controversial statement, I don’t really see anything wrong with it, and I think it’s completely reasonable for libertarians to support that, particularly in the face of what we’re seeing… uh… in the streets right now.” Smith had previously mentioned the idea of essentially unleashing the police in regard to the BLM protests, writing on Twitter in reference to an incident involving protesters surrounding Senator Rand Paul that “the mob should be put down by any means necessary.”

I will let what I said above stand alone in response to Smith’s praise of Rothbard’s pro-police brutality sentiment. However, I think Smith’s idea about stopping the mob “by any means necessary” also deserves a response.

There are numerous issues with Smith’s thoughts on and representations of the Black Lives Matter movement, which for the sake of brevity, I will not get into here. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Smith is correct about his depictions of what is going on “in the streets right now,” meaning that there is a glaring issue with mobs related to the protests causing property damage and harassing people. As a libertarian, I do not condone damage to the property of innocent people, nor do I condone harassment of innocent people. But is the idea of stopping it by “any means necessary” an acceptable one?

I would argue it is not. Smith likes to argue that when he says “any means necessary,” he’s saying that up to what would be necessary to make “the mob” stop (and no further). But suppose, as may often be the case, that those who are causing damage to the houses, restaurants, and stores of innocent people are using the guise of the protests to act as they please and commit acts of violence. And suppose that the only way to stop the bad actors would be to use force against those who are there to simply peacefully protest against police brutality, whether by arresting or fining them for simply being there, or worse, by brutally beating them or even shooting them. If this is the means “necessary,” this would clearly not be justified by libertarian principles, as using force against innocent people for the actions of others is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle. Just as Rothbard’s did, Smith’s rhetoric serves to both encourage violations of libertarian principles and pander to the worst factions of the far-right, who often celebrate violence against Black Lives Matter protesters in an effort to “own the libs.”

If anything, given the violence we’ve all seen them use against protestors during the most recent round of protests and the unjust laws we’ve seen them faithfully and brutally enforce, libertarians should be talking about further limits on police power. Leash, not unleash, the police.