TNP Podcast 8: Localism and Secession

Samuel Wonacott joins us today to offer some challenges to the ideas of political decentralization. What is the role of individual liberty? Are guarantees of limited government enough to ensure freedom in a large polity? When is secession justified? This is a discussion you’ll definitely profit from giving a listen.

We encourage you to give your opinion in the comments. You don’t know how it warms our hearts to get your feedback.

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Policing: A Job for the Public or Communities?

Is this how real communities achieve safety?

Two recent events in northern Idaho illustrate very well the downside of empowering police departments to act aggressively in their day-to-day activities. The first is an encounter over whether a young man uttered the words “nickel sack” or “Nickelback.” The second is the police shooting of a dog in a van. A brief scan of the articles’ comment sections yields no surprises; many people recognize that policing as we know it is deeply flawed. But beyond calls for lawsuits – which only punish taxpayers and therefore do nothing to fix the system – and “more training” for officers, there are few suggestions on what ought to be done.

As with any social or political problem – especially a relatively new one – the most crucial step is identifying the true causes. If the causal origin of the problem is misidentified or misunderstood, we are unlikely to find a genuine fix. Excellent work has been done regarding “the militarization of the police” – the names Radley Balko and William N. Grigg come readily to mind – and insofar as informing people is the first step to change, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this work. But once we have a clear enough picture of the problem, we should strive to address it in the most complete and sensible way possible.

To do this, I want to employ a distinction made by farmer/poet/essayist Wendell Berry between public and community. He writes:

As I understand the term, public means simply all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging…A community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, “We belong to our community,” but never “We belong to our public.”

Berry goes on to note the following characteristics of a public:

A public government, with public laws and a public system of justice, founded on democratic suffrage, is in principle a good thing. Ideally, it makes possible a just and peaceable settlement of contentions arising between communities. It also makes it possible for a mistreated member of a community to appeal for justice outside the community. But obviously such a government can fall short of its purpose.[i]

There is another important point, which is only implied in Berry’s remarks on a public system of justice; the use of force – i.e., physical coercion – should be within the public domain, where every person is equal in his rights before the law.

What has this to do with policing, which – I assume – almost everyone understands to be the job of the public rather than of communities? As always, we must keep in mind what policing is meant to accomplish. At the very least, its goals include (1) the equal treatment and pursuit of justice, and (2) ensuring safety.

The first leads us to designate policing as a public function, and (in this context) rightly so. We all recognize that communities have the potential to mistreat individuals, so we must insist on pursuing justice (i.e., using force) without partiality. The second has long been treated as a public matter, but since we are talking about responsibility to ensure mutual safety rather than enforcement[ii], it is properly the job of communities. What we have lumped together in contemporary policing, then, is at least two distinct functions that ought to be carried out by two distinct forms of human interaction.

In light of these somewhat abstract considerations, let us examine our current policing situation. As functionaries of the public, police agencies (at every level and jurisdiction) are expected to be impartial, objective, and protective of individuals against community biases. Yet, as Mr. Grigg tirelessly documents (albeit exclusively from an individualist-libertarian perspective), such agencies wield special privileges and powers in a monopolistic capacity. The tax-funded justice system has itself become a perverse sort of “community” in which special treatment of all kinds is routinely afforded to members. This condition is so widespread that equal treatment has become a newsworthy item.

Police agencies do maintain the most important aspects of public character – they are free from “any personal responsibility or belonging” and routinely employ force. “Qualified immunityinsulates officers from personal liability, and the Supreme Court has ruled that police have no legal responsibility or duty to protect anyone.

And yet so much of what police spend their time doing has less to do with objective public good than using force to uphold community standards. Noisy neighbors, loose dogs, and illicit drug use (to name a few) are issues best resolved by tacit neighborhood agreement and (especially in the case of drug use/addiction) moral encouragement or disapprobation. When actual damages against person or property are committed, it becomes a matter to be solved by an impartial judge.

Spontaneous community response to flooding in Nampa last year

Let us return to the pair of recent events. The “Nickelback” encounter is absurd because police attempted to enforce a community standard against using marijuana. Such community standards can be legitimate, but do not rightly sanction the use of force on behalf of the public. We can imagine a concerned neighbor politely confronting the young men about their suspected activities in the community, but we cannot imagine such a neighbor threatening them at gunpoint without coming to stark conclusions about his sanity and exercise of judgment.

The second story offers a similar lesson. No diligent citizen, investigating a suspicious van on behalf of his community, would be justified in approaching with his weapon drawn, instinctively shooting the moment he was startled. In fact, no person with the sense of belonging and responsibility to his community would even consider behaving in such a way.

What is particularly troubling is our toleration of aggressive police enforcement of community-level issues apart from any community (and often legal) responsibility. The rising outcry against this new norm is almost universally framed in terms of “rights violations,” and such violations abound to be sure. But the deeper problem, as I see it, is that something ostensibly public – policing specifically and the justice system generally – has supplanted the job of communities in numerous ways.

A real correction to abounding police abuse will be possible when individual responsibilities to community – in addition to individual rights – are recovered. In some places, it is already occurring. Dale Brown’s success story in Detroit is well worth a listen, and it confirms what advocates of healthy communities have long argued: It isn’t about money or equipment; it’s about self-sacrifice and devotion to a place you care about.

You can’t experience that through the public. But you can in a community.

[i] Berry, Wendell. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” in The Art of the Commonplace, ed. Norman Wirzba. Counterpoint Berkeley, 2002, pg. 161-162.

[ii] Safety, after all, is not a law but a general condition, and so cannot be “enforced.”

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Donald Livingston on the Tom Woods Show

livingston-bannerRecently, Donald Livingston of the Abbeville Institute appeared on the Tom Woods Show to discuss secession and the Southern tradition. You can listen to it here.

Professor Livingston frequently writes and speaks about a topic that is heavily emphasized at The New Polis: the concept of human scale. We believe the political order in the United States (as well as most of the world) exists at a dysfunctionally large scale, where individuals claiming to have political authority over the intimate details of our lives have essentially no accountability to us. Jackson and I have mentioned several examples of how more localized decision making would provide more accountable governance, including the effect the federal government has had on the militarization of the police, the EPA’s lack of understanding of local issues, and how it would be extremely unlikely for Butch Otter to spy on our emails.

 

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Place and Politics: Idaho’s Spirit of Localism

Tim Woodward

Last year, former Idaho Statesman political writer Dan Popkey demonstrated his willingness to shill for a corrupt sheriff in more than one way. But despite aiding and abetting an illegal release of information for political purposes, Popkey continued to write for the Statesman until very recently. Thus, it was with my faith in the newspaper’s integrity and judgment severely damaged that I recently picked up a book by now-retired Statesman writer Tim Woodward. Like Popkey, Woodward has been formally recognized for his writing achievements; fortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Continue reading

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TNP Podcast 7: Militarization of Police

 

Floyd Noel joins us in a talk about militarized police departments, their negative effects, and what more humane, local solutions have to offer.

The Salon article mentioned can be found here.

(If you have trouble with the embedded player, click here to download the file.)

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The Cato Institute on Nullification

I enjoy much of the work done by the Cato Institute. I have recently been able to visit their facility and enjoy lectures by experts in different policy areas and the classical liberal tradition. However, one wonders if being too close to the Potomac fogs one’s thinking when it comes to federalism and the 10th Amendment.

In a policy analysis called “How States Talk Back to Washington and Strengthen American Federalism,” John Dinan excoriates the legitimacy of state nullification of unconstitutional federal laws and tells states how they ought to properly grovel before the federal government. The paper could have just as been easily been entitled, “How States Can Beg Washington and Be Properly Subordinate.”

To be clear, Dinan is specific in what he considers nullification: a state declaring a federal law null and void. Organizations like the Tenth Amendment Center tend to be more expansive in how they use the term, including things like state noncompliance with unconstitutional federal laws, such as Missouri not allowing state and local law enforcement assist federal agencies in enforcing federal gun laws, or outright contradictory laws, such as marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado. Dinan considers these latter measures not to be nullification, but legitimate uses of state power. He hopes that they will eventually lead to disputes in state and federal law being “resolved” in federal courts. Anyone who has any familiarity with federal judges and values individual freedom ought to be very skeptical that giving the federal government a monopoly in deciding disputes between itself and the states will result in a net increase in freedom.

Just consider the case of Gonzalez v. Raich (2005), where the Supreme Court decided that a woman growing medicinal marijuana for her own consumption with a license in California could be regulated by the federal government under the Commerce Clause. That is, an act that fully performed within one’s own home and involves no transactions, can be regulated by the federal government as interstate commerce. Regardless of what one thinks of the use of marijuana, one should realize that such nonsensical, Orwellian stretching of terminology in order to maximize the power of the federal government is not good for freedom or the 10th Amendment. We should put no faith in the federal courts to restrain the federal government. And yet, this is what John Dinan and folks at the Heritage Foundation would have us do.

Putting aside the historical arguments about James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the constitutionality of nullification, I find Dinan’s argument to be internally inconsistent. He believes that the constitutional method of deciding what is constitutional is through judicial review – giving the federal government the monopoly on constitutional interpretation. However, “judicial review” appears nowhere in the text of the US Constitution, nor does the Constitution grant a monopoly to the federal courts to decide what’s constitutional for the federal government to do. Rather, judicial review came about through practice; the US Constitution doesn’t really explicitly state what remedies are to be pursued when the federal government claims powers not delegated to it. In this sense, I don’t see why, when the federal government abuses the Constitution to such an extent that the republic is essentially unrecognizable, that the practice of nullification would be any less legitimate than judicial review.

Ultimately, I don’t know why supposed advocates of freedom are so quick to dismiss nullification. They argue that it’s unconstitutional, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is. My question is, “Why do you support the Constitution?” I would assume because it is meant to preserve freedom. But, clearly, the Constitution as the Supreme Court has interpreted it has become a justification for the US mega-state. For people like Dinan and those at Heritage, the Constitution has then morphed from a means to an end. As I argue at the Tenth Amendment Center blog, if we support the Constitution, we should also embrace the most promising means of defending it: nullification.

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American Revolution or American Secession?

I have touched on this theme before, but it seems especially important on July 4th to remember that the American War for Independence was not a revolution at all. It did not seek to overthrow the British Crown, nor to refashion society altogether. Life in America was expected to go on as before, but under different, self-chosen leaders.

There is only one proper name for this kind of action – secession. Unpopular and foreign as the idea is to some, our Founding Fathers were first and foremost secessionists. Donald Livingston has even argued that secession is “a specifically American principle.” Obviously, there is nothing specifically American about the principle of revolution, and the most significant revolutions in recent history have turned into blood-soaked nightmares.

With the true meaning and significance of July 4th, 1776 in mind, I hope Idahoans understand that, should rule by Washington, D.C. become as intolerable as rule by the British, a peaceful act of secession would be the quintessentially American thing to do.

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