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Rand Paul Right, Tax Lovers Wrong on Garner Killing

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Speaking on the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD for selling loose cigarettes, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) attempted to provide an insight as to the root cause of this tragedy. While on the MSNBC show “Hardball with Chris Matthews”, Paul indicated that:

“I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of
$5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that’s driven cigarettes underground
by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct
the police to say, ‘Hey we want you arresting people for selling a
loose cigarette.’ For someone to die over breaking that law, there
really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our
police in a difficult situation with bad laws.”
The left then responded to Paul’s assertions with harsh criticism and outright mockery. Salon’s Joan Walsh asked “What kind of heart do you have to have to use the Eric Garner tragedy to rail against cigarette taxes?” Media Matters ran the headline “Right-Wing Media Parrot Rand Paul’s Absurd Assertion
That Cigarette Taxes Are To Blame For Eric Garner’s Death.” The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart followed up a clip showing the aforementioned Paul quote by asking “”What the f— are you talking about?” And The
New Republic
‘s Danny Vinik wrote “pointing to Garner’s death as evidence that those
taxes are bad policy isn’t meaningful.”

Obviously the taxes themselves didn’t kill Garner. Paul acknowledges this since he cites overly taxed cigarettes in New York City as the cause of them being “driven underground” and into a black market. One that Eric Garner was participating in. Considering the risks involved with any black market, there must in turn be a reward that is to the advantage of those who participate in it that is worth the risks. The $5.85 tax on a pack of cigarettes in NYC creates a greater opportunity for financial gain to those who sell them illegally since it is so easy to undercut the price of fully taxed cigarettes sold there. This was the opportunity that Garner (and many others I’m sure) seized upon.

Notice also in Paul’s quote that he is not absolving those who implemented the actions which directly killed Eric Garner. When he states that “then some politician also had to direct
the police to say, ‘Hey we want you arresting people for selling a
loose cigarette,’ he is clearly identifying the effect of the bad tax policy as it relates to those who crack down on the black markets it creates. The police become the enforcement arm that deal with the consequences of bad laws. Sometimes enforcing bad laws can turn violent or even deadly. Thus we have the case of Eric Garner.

The left’s criticism of Paul’s comments seems to be especially strange when entertaining the following thought experiment. Let’s say Eric Garner had been killed in the same way, by the same police officers. But let’s also say rather than selling black market cigarettes, he was selling marijuana. Now suppose Rand Paul took the opportunity when asked about Garner’s death to criticize pot prohibition (which he’s done in the past, to a certain degree) and the black market it creates. Would the left be talking about Paul’s “absurd assertion that illegalized marijuana is to blame for Eric Garner’s death?” Well, probably not. This is because many on the left understand the unintended consequences of the war on drugs. They understand how making a substance illegal causes an underground black market, violence and a police state. Thus many on the left can come to some common ground with libertarian leaning politicians like Paul (and libertarians in general) when it comes to resisting the criminalizing of drug use.

So why the disconnect from the left when it comes to Paul’s actual comments about the real case? If both drug prohibition and excessive drug taxation cause the same black market and the same overly aggressive use of force from the police, why can’t the left see the folly of one bad government policy but not the other? I believe that the answer is simple, yet disturbing. Even though high taxes on legal drugs lead to much of the same problems that the left is so critical of when it comes to the drug war, they can’t criticize the overtaxing of cigarettes (or anything else really) because it goes against their very nature. Despite the clear consequences of sky high cigarette taxes staring them in the face, they must brush them off as being absurd, having no heart, or, if you’re Jon Stewart, just drop an f-bomb and hope your audience thinks it’s funny.

So the left is fine criticizing the government when that government enacts laws it doesn’t like, such as making pot illegal, which can get people killed. But in a case where highly taxed legal drugs brought the same fate upon a man, that same left is so wedded to a fondness for taxation that they cannot even entertain the thought that an additional $5.85 added to a pack of cigarettes could be a culprit for his downfall. No matter what the intention of New York City and New York State’s combined tax on cigarettes, one should be able to see how it was directly responsible for the fate of Eric Garner regardless of what tax structures we may favor.

-Matthew Doarnberger

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