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It's Not Just Liberals: Conservatives Also Have Good Reasons for Abolishing the Police

It's Not Just Liberals: Conservatives Also Have Good Reasons for Abolishing the Police

Outside of the mainstream debate surrounding the recent murder of George Floyd and the ensuing weeks of protests, a minority of conservatives have vocalized sincere support for the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to defund, deconstruct, and ultimately abolish the police. Their voices can be heard in small corners of 4chan’s /k/ forum, a forum devoted to guns and weaponry, and various Facebook groups of libertarians. Some of the people in these groups even find their cause in the emerging faction of the Boogaloo Bois association network, a recently formed right-wing civil war apocalypticism movement with a structure similar to the left’s Antifa. The group is in the midst of a debate about the role of racism within the movement. Some of the forum-goers see the Boogaloo Bois as a white supremacist movement at its core, while others see it as fundamentally a libertarian liberation revolution. It is in the beliefs of the latter faction and others on the right who recognize a comradeship with the BLM movement (or at least profess to) that a robust conservative argument for abolishing the police can be found.

To see the argument, we must first denude it of its apocalyptic rhetoric about a coming civil war in which American society collapses. Removing that, what remains is this simple argument: it is the nature of the government to grab power where it can; the government already has too much power and violates the rights of citizenry constantly; the system cannot be reformed; most, if not all operations of the government can be reduced and eventually eliminated with enough imagination and work. Small government conservatives and classical libertarians will recognize this argument as essentially their own, with slightly more emphasis on the 'not having a government at all someday' part of the argument. Small government conservatives and libertarians tend to espouse the need for some government in order to provide civil order. What this new faction of conservatives is asking (aside from the apocalyptic nonsense) is whether society would be more orderly without the police. 

The conservative argument for abolishing the police goes like this: the police are asked to handle too many responsibilities, and the position of a police officer should be broken up into many separate roles to match each responsibility. For instance, some of what police officers do can be delegated to social workers. Other responsibilities can be given to mental health professionals, medical staff, parking meter attendants, noise complaint responders, and any number of other positions that would not need to have the power to use force. After all, most tasks that police officers perform on the job are peaceful. Society has taught us police officers “catch the bad guys; they chase the bank robbers; they find the serial killers,” said Alex Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, in an interview with Jacobin. But this is “a big myth… The vast majority of police officers make one felony arrest a year. If they make two, they’re cop of the month.” 

Instead of putting police in so many non-criminal situations that do not require the use of lethal force and creating the opportunity for police to escalate these otherwise nonlethal situations into crises, society should delegate these tasks out to government staff who do not have the power to use lethal force. The use of lethal force should be the sole responsibility of a small number of specialized responders. But where things get really enticing for business-oriented conservatives is in the notion that these various staff members could be contracted out to private organizations. And for second amendment enthusiasts, the dissolution of police into various specialized roles could dovetail nicely with a plan to increase training programs for gun owners in order to give people the ability to protect themselves without relying on a police force to do it for them. For values-oriented conservatives, the idea that people would become more independent and less reliant on the “nanny state” for personal protection – the notion of a country of Americans taking personal responsibility for their own defense – is a proposition that most conservatives could support.

The argument is surprisingly well-grounded in constitutional thought. After all, the Founding Fathers were not fans of government. They thought of the government as a necessary evil. As Thomas Paine wrote in his famous revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil...” He continued, “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.” The great hope of the Founding Fathers was that the people of the United States of America could one day reach such a level of high-mindedness that the government itself would no longer be necessary. 

To that end, the Founders built a crucial feature into the constitution: a mechanism for change. The constitution allows for amendments to redress areas of the law where the Founders themselves fell short. From the conservative perspective, the great innovation was in the document’s ability to adapt over time and to change with the citizenry. But the Founders did not want the constitution to expand the powers of the government; they wanted to expand and protect the powers of the people. Remember, to Paine and others, governments were necessary evils to be tolerated only so long as they were required. Therefore, the goal of the constitution as they conceived of it is, in some very real sense, to give the people more power as they develop the capacity for individual civility and eventually become obsolete as the nation develops into a “more perfect union.” 

Thomas Jefferson advocated that the constitution be rewritten every ten years. Such a rhythm of change would be destabilizing, perhaps, but in any case, we do not need to make such drastic changes to achieve the conservative dream of small government. As Paine noted, humanity “finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” Providing protection from each other is the core purpose of the government, and that executing that maxim is the fundamental purpose of the police in society today: to protect us from each other. The problem is that the police, like the rest of the government, is composed of flawed humans, and injustices find their way into the police as insidiously as it works its way through all human institutions. A conservative answer to the problem of unjust police action, therefore, would be to eliminate the police as a government institution, distribute most of their duties across various other private professions, and reduce the size of the government accordingly.

Whether or not this argument gains popularity on the right, it is a viable path forward for conservatives who support the fundamental grievances that the BLM movement has brought against police, namely that the police, and by extension, the government, are killing people and violating our rights. Conservatives, such as many of the anti-racist Boogaloo Boys, who want smaller governments and who value personal responsibility as well as second amendment rights, should find this line of reasoning compelling. The bottom line is this: the effort to abolish and deconstruct the police need not be a purely leftist movement. There is plenty of room for conservative views in the debate around the future of an America without police.