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I Love Loosies and the People Who Sell Them

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The cops who ganged up on Eric Garner, got him into a chokehold, and mashed his face into the sidewalk didn’t intend to kill him. They intended only to show him who’s boss on the streets of Staten Island — and show him in a way he would never forget.

As a Facebook friend of mine put it, instead they showed him in a way he will never remember.

This pretty much explains the cops’ reckless disregard for Garner’s life that day, and it is what makes the grand-jury sham especially appalling.

This was about power. Yes, to an extent the fatal confrontation was about race — although it’s no great feat to imagine something similar happening to a low-income white guy. It was also about class. An obviously affluent and likely well-connected person probably need not fear being accosted on the street by the police.

Let’s remember what the police say Garner was doing: selling cigarettes that had not been subjected to the high taxes imposed in New York City and State: $5.95 in all. (The feds add another buck.) Thus, a pack costs at least $14. As a result, entrepreneurial cigarette smuggling from low-tax states is big business. Whenever the tax goes up, so does the smuggling.

In fact, smuggling used to be an honorable American profession. In colonial times and into the early national period, the entrepreneurial smuggler who served consumers by defying the customs agents was celebrated. It was the government agent who risked being tarred and feathered, then rode out of town on a rail. Had Eric Garner been set upon by Red Coats on colonial New England streets, many people might have come to his defense. Today the best we can hope for is that someone will video the confrontation with a cell phone.

The fact is that Eric Garner was a threat to no one. He was just a guy trying to make a few bucks by selling loose cigarettes — loosies — to low-income smokers harmed by the state’s and city’s tax collectors.

Well, let’s amend that. Garner, like other practitioners of his trade, was indeed a threat — to the politicians who need that revenue to play their destructive games and to assure they remain in power. Come to think of it, in the eyes of those politicians, threatening the steady flow of taxpayer money is about as serious a crime as anyone can commit. Without that money they would be nothing.

That’s why New York City officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of those phony men-of-the-people, have ordered the police to crack down on sellers of loosies.

The city’s accomplices in this highway robbery of smokers are the licensed retailers. The police provide the protection racket that shields the retailers’ cigarette business from free competition.

To great fanfare de Blasio announced a program to prevent a recurrence of the confrontation that killed Eric Garner. The police will get new training, blah, blah, blah.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor, but that won’t do it. Some truly radical things need to be done — such as eliminating the top-down, militarist model of policing, and moving to a decentralized system of community governance. But something significant can be done in the meantime: halt police confrontations with nonviolent persons suspected of committing victimless so-called crimes. These are acts that in themselves violate no one’s rights, such as selling or possessing drugs and guns, taking bets, and participating in other prohibited but peaceful, consensual activities.

This won’t guarantee there will be no more Eric Garners, because police have long harassed, beaten, and killed people using low-tech weapons and without the cover of victimless-crime laws. But it would help. If fewer people are harassed on the street, fewer people will become fed up and resist — if we must stretch the word resist to describe what Eric Garner did that fateful day.

Low-income minority neighborhoods experience what the rest of us can usually grasp only abstractly: the police force is an occupying army. Its ostensible purpose is to protect innocent life and property, but what it does day to day is monitor everyone with a suspicion that the sovereign’s decrees are not being respected.

This has got to change.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.