As we embark on the exciting endeavor of registering 5,000 Mainers as Libertarians, I am sometimes asked about the level of support for libertarian ideas in the mainstream of our society. The libertarian party quiz shows plainly that most people value our ideals, but sometimes a specific case reveals how these ideals apply to real life scenarios.
When the case of Eric Garner first hit the news, strong emotion and outrage prevented any discussion of the factors that contributed to his death. The only topics that seemed appropriate in the mainstream were the issues of race and police conduct. When Senator Rand Paul talked about New York cigarette taxes as a contributing factor, he was widely ridiculed by commentators ranging from serious editorialists to Jon Stewart for insensitivity to race issues and misplaced focus.
With this in mind I was surprised to hear NPR's Robert Siegel confronting New York City police commissioner William Bratton on the issue of cigarette tax in this interview on NPR's All Things Considered on Friday.
You have to listen to the audio because the text summary does not cover the most interesting part. About half way into the interview, Siegel, who is not a right wing commentator, asks Bratton about "overzealous enforcement of a petty crime." While the crime is petty, Bratton does not hesitate to reply that the totality of the crime costs the government tens and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. This response serves as an explanation for why Garner was being arrested and not just given a summons. Bratton sounds like he has done the math beforehand, and we have other reports that suggest that the revenue impact of this seemingly petty tax evasion is front and center at the NYPD. He then tells Siegel that this money could have been used for education, healthcare and, humbly, for "police protection."
In August, the New York Daily News reported in this article that the issue of cigarette tax evasion was being handled at the highest levels of the NYPD. The same Daily News report also mentions that Garner was arrested 8 times before for selling illegal cigarettes.
Garner's crime was selling "loosies," loose cigarettes that were probably purchased in Virginia for an after tax price of $6 a pack and transported to New York for the purpose of evading New York's tax on cigarettes. New York in its greed for revenue taxes cigarettes so heavily that a pack cots $13 and crime is virtually assured. It is just too easy to bring this product to New York from the south. New York then has to enforce the law with a complicated system of tax stamps and agents who track how the product reaches retail shelves. Unfortunately, just as in the war on drugs, the enforcement quickly degrades into chasing low level dealers whose arrests have zero impact on the overall problem. In the heat of these street battles, it is easy to forget that the problem was created by poorly designed laws in the first place.
It is pleasing to see that the media is taking interest in the issue of excessive taxation that then leads to heavy handed enforcement and other restrictions of liberty. The future of our movement is bright!