At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Libertarianism and “The Militarization” of the Police

A line that has become all too common in some libertarian circles is that the key problem, or even a problem, in Ferguson, Missouri is a problem facing the rest of the nation.

This problem is what these libertarians have taken to calling “the militarization” of the police.

The charge that police forces have become “militarized” is almost as perplexing as the charge—also increasingly common among these same libertarians—that “racism” is alive and well among America’s police officers and white Americans generally.

And this, I believe, is because the term “militarization,” in this context, is about as meaningless as that of “racism.”

For starters, above all people, it is the libertarian who defends the right of the average, law-abiding citizen to own firearms.  Furthermore, the libertarian thinks that, in principle (even if not always necessarily in fact), the average, law-abiding citizen has a right to own whatever kind or kinds of firearms that he chooses—regardless of whether his neighbors think that he “needs” them or not.


So, if there is nothing objectionable about the hairdresser next door owning a bazooka or an M16, then why is it objectionable for the police—the police who exist solely for the purpose of shielding civilization from barbarism—to own and, if need be, use bazookas and M16’s?

Surely, it can’t be the mere presence of such weaponry in the hands of uniformed police officers that has the libertarian howling about “militarization.”  If so, then the libertarian sounds eerily similar to his leftist counterpart who can’t resist personifying inanimate objects like guns and SUV’s.

Maybe what’s got the libertarian’s goat is the fact that, as the law currently stands, police are permitted to possess weaponry that are forbidden to citizens: the latter should be permitted to own, say, machine guns, but they are not.


Now, if it is this that has the libertarian apoplectic, then he is in desperate need of new terms in which to cast his position, for it isn’t “the militarization” of the police at all to which he objects.  He is unhappy that citizens aren’t also allowed to be “militarized.”

It is as sensible for the libertarian to go on about “the militarization” of the police because it is illegal for citizens to bear comparable arms as it is sensible to become outraged over the practice of rewarding and punishing because, sometimes, individuals don’t deserve the rewards and punishments that they receive.

It is the distribution of benefits—in this case, arms—to which our laws lead, and not the benefits themselves, to which the libertarian objects.


Another consideration regarding the libertarian’s position against “the militarization” of the police is that it requires the drawing of precisely the sorts of arbitrary lines when it comes to distinguishing permissible from impermissible weaponry for police that the libertarian abhors when the discussion shifts to, say, the topic of drug legalization.

Since (as I too believe) the most significant argument for drug legalization adduced by the libertarian centers in an affirmation of the liberty of the individual (adult) to engage in self-destructive conduct, he rightly regards as capricious the decision to, say, legalize marijuana for recreational purposes while criminalizing other, “harder” drugs.  Similarly, if the police can be said to be “militarized” when officers are armed with, say, “rocket launchers,” then on what grounds can we deny that police are “militarized” when officers are armed with hand guns?


Were police “militarized” when, back during the Prohibition era, officers were armed with machine guns while combating Al Capone and his goons? If the libertarian answers this question in the negative, then we must inquire into the basis for his determination that police are non-militarized when packing machine gun heat but “militarized” when armed with more than this.

However, there is one final critique of the libertarian’s position, and, from his standpoint, it is by far and away the most important reason for why he should relinquish talk of police “militarization.”

England, for instance, is a place that is even more socialist and multi-cultural obsessed than the contemporary United States.  For this reason, it is more of a genuinely militarized society than is America.  That police in England are forbidden from carrying firearms changes this not one iota.


When a state—a “nation-state,” a “society”—is imagined to be, not a “civil association,” as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes what we’re inclined to call a “free society,” but an “enterprise association”—an organization animated by a grandiose vision toward the realization of which all members are coerced to contribute—there is, necessarily, militarization.

But the militarization is not to be found in the actual presence or possession by government of weaponry of one sort or another.  The militarization consists in two inseparable facts: (1) the society defines itself, or is defined by its self-styled representatives, in terms of some lofty goal or ideal—Equality, Virtue, Human Rights, Multi-Culturalism, Piety, Social Justice, Security, etc.; (2) the government is assigned, or assigns to itself, the role of “leader,” i.e. the role of “leading” (compelling) citizens toward the fulfillment of the ideal.


It is the existence of laws of a certain type, accompanied by the self-conception of a people that permits these kinds of laws to arise—not the apparatus in place to enforce those laws—that differentiates a militarized society from a non-militarized one.

A society with no military and police armed with sticks and stones can be more militarized than one with a standing military and cops armed to the teeth.

To be sure, America is, to an alarming degree, a militarized society.  But this is the point: America is militarized.  To speak of its police forces as being militarized totally misses the mark. It’s like a person who’s dying of lung cancer complaining that it is his lungs, not himself, that’s sick.  Yet even this analogy fails to capture the crux of the difficulty with this reasoning. More illustrative is the case of a cancer patient who identifies the chemo-therapy with which he’s treating his sickness with the sickness itself.


Moreover, complaining about “the militarization” of the police actually trivializes the real militarization, the marshalling of citizens’ resources in time and treasure, blood, sweat, and tears, for purposes of “National Greatness,” “Equality,” etc, in which our government has been engaged for a long, long time.







  • Brian Kelly B Bizzle

    Fear of Marijuana Legalization Nationwide is unfounded. Not based on any science or fact whatsoever. So please all you prohibitionists, we beg you to give your scare tactics, “Conspiracy Theories” and “Doomsday Scenarios” over the inevitable Legalization of Marijuana a rest. Nobody is buying them anymore these days. Okay?

    Furthermore, if all you prohibitionists get when you look into that nice, big and shiny, crystal ball of yours, while wondering about the future of marijuana legalization, is horror, doom, and despair, well then I suggest you return that thing as quickly as possible and reclaim the money you shelled out for it, since it is obviously defective.

    The prohibition of marijuana has not decreased the supply nor the demand for marijuana at all. Not one single iota, and it never will. Just a huge and complete waste of our tax dollars to continue criminalizing citizens for choosing a natural, non-toxic, relatively benign plant proven to be much safer than alcohol.

    If prohibitionists are going to take it upon themselves to worry about “saving us all” from ourselves, then they need to start with the drug that causes more death and destruction than every other drug in the world COMBINED, which is alcohol!

    Why do prohibitionists feel the continued need to vilify and demonize marijuana when they could more wisely focus their efforts on a real, proven killer, alcohol, which again causes more destruction, violence, and death than all other drugs, COMBINED?

    Prohibitionists really should get their priorities straight and or practice a little live and let live. They’ll live longer, happier, and healthier, with a lot less stress if they refrain from being bent on trying to control others through Draconian Marijuana Laws.

  • Thomas L. Knapp

    “So, if there is nothing objectionable about the hairdresser next door owning a bazooka or an M16, then why is it objectionable for the police—the police who exist solely for the purpose of crushing any and all resistance to the the politicians’ control fetishes and revenue-stealing schemes—to own and, if need be, use bazookas and M16’s?

    There, fixed that for ya.

  • HmmmSaysDavidHume

    Lots and lots of presumptive definitions in this piece. Leaving aside an examination of those definitions to gain more precise context, there’s no libertarian difficulty whatever in the use of the term ‘militarization’. It is real, evidenced by the use of such weaponry, tactics, and culture in whatever caprcious way police define. Too often that definition boils down to the subjective ‘reasonable fear’ definition, which leads to the death of unarmed citizens, clear racial
    bias, and violent rioting.

    At this stage police routinely escalate their militaristic tactics, deploy their military weaponry, acquired from the military directly, with not only federal, state and local sanction, but with funding to ensure supplies are there. Indeed, in the wake of 2001, the largest arguments were about who was getting theirs first and was it a fair share. Sounds like militarization to me when police behave in a conquering way, even more so as tensions escalate, without regard to their own role in the escalation.

    Simply defining militarization in abstract terms and then suggesting libertarians should have difficulty with it misses the central point that it is not the equipment that gives rize to militarization per se, but rather the culture created by and for it, and without proper supervision of it, police willingness to deploy against it’s own citizens.

    While the author seems to believe otherwise, I’m reminded of a line in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket': ‘Your weapon is only a tool. It’s a hard heart that kills’. This libertarian doesn’t object to police being armed. This libertarian objects to what the armament has caused, and by extension wants the militarization dismantled, to include, among other things, reductions and restrictions on weapons of mass killing, rules of engagement, and accountability. Ultimately, government exists soley to consolidate and wield power, and no matter the constitutional makeup, will always seek this in institutionalized territorial ways. Police power,
    like government, must always be kept in check.

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