Eric Garner

The tragic death of Eric Garner provides an important lesson about the consequences of illegitimate laws.

To review the essential facts surrounding Garner’s death: On July 17, 2014, Garner came into conflict with New York City police because he had been selling individual cigarettes on the black market and thus avoiding payment of taxes on them to the city government. When police tried to apprehend Garner for this “offense,” he resisted, and one of the officers employed what some allege was a chokehold on Garner, who repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” while the officer (along with a few other officers) held him facedown on the sidewalk. After Garner reportedly stopped moving, the police called an ambulance, and Garner reportedly died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital. On December 3, a grand jury declined to bring the officer in question to trial on any charge, sparking public outcry.

This incident highlights an important truth that everyone who cares about individual rights and liberty must come to see: Government ultimately enforces laws by the threat or use of physical force. This is one reason it is so vital that lawmakers pass only laws that protect individual rights by banning the use of physical force, fraud, and the like—and that they repeal all laws that forbid peaceful activities. When a law against a perfectly peaceful, non-rights-violating activity such as selling cigarettes is passed, it will be enforced with physical force. And, as Garner’s death shows, such force can be fatal.

Fortunately, journalists, law professors, and intellectuals are increasingly recognizing this fact. Here are a few instances from recent days.

Radley Balko writes for the Washington Post:

Every law, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is enforced with the threat of violence: If you fail to follow it, the state is saying it reserves the right to use violence to force you to comply and/or force you to submit to a penalty for violating the law. Every law passed also creates more opportunities for interaction with police officers, the people entrusted to use the violence necessary to enforce the laws.

Yale law professor Stephen Carter explains in Bloomberg View: “Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence.” In the Washington Post, George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin quotes Carter, warning, “Don’t support laws you aren’t willing to kill to enforce.” And, in National Review, Jonah Goldberg sums up the point thusly:

The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs.

Government is force. And laws invariably are enforced with force.

Although Garner was breaking a law by selling cigarettes on the black market, he was not violating anyone’s rights by doing so. The law he broke was an illegitimate law, and the existence and enforcement of that law is why he is dead.

It is long past time for federal, state, and municipal governments to repeal laws that forbid peaceful, non-rights-violating activities. Countless people have been imprisoned or killed because of such laws, and countless more will be imprisoned or killed as long as such laws remain on the books.


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