Domestic Policy, Government

Abolish the Police, not the Policeman

Theodore Roosevelt as New York City Police Commissioner

If the police power is used oppressively, or improperly, let us by all means put a stop to the practice and punish those responsible for it; but let us remember that a brute will be just as much of a brute whether he is inefficient or efficient. Either abolish the police, or keep them at the highest point of efficiency.

The Works of Theodore Roosevelt (1917.) Scribner’s Mem. Ed. XXI, pg.73; Nat. Ed. XIX, pg. 63

After the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin case, I am republishing this article from 2020 on how Theodore Roosevelt might have approached the modern policing crisis. Unfortunately, the lessons still ring true even after a year.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, this blunt observation of Theodore Roosevelt is particularly timely and provocative. As police commissioner of New York City, TR knew the difficulty of preserving the legitimacy of a police force in an ethnically diverse city.  Police corruption, whether in the form of bribery or brutishness, sapped that legitimacy and needed to be swiftly and certainly punished.  He also knew that such corruption often arose from systemic failures in society that were foisted on the average police officer to solve.  Whether the slogan is Roosevelt’s or today’s “defund the police” chant, any sustainable police reform movement must address these past policy failures.

The Militarization of Police Departments

After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government decided that every metropolitan police department needed to be prepared to deal with a terrorist attack. This ended a successful era of neighborhood policing based on increasing the number of police officers walking a beat or otherwise regularly connecting with city residents. Instead, cities stocked up on military-style equipment, which had the effect of separating the police from the public and glorified the use of force over early intervention. Hollywood then further glorified it through television shows like “SWAT” and a host of police buddy movies.  This resulted in a culture that ruled by fear instead of respect.  It is past time to reverse course and reinvent the policeman as a community problem solver and give him or her the necessary support and resources.  To do so, though, we must face another reality.

The Reduction in City Police Forces

The calls to abolish or reduce police forces are gratingly ironic in light of Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that two-thirds of the 50 major police departments reduced the number of officers per capita over the last two decades.  Smaller police forces were cheaper because of the lower personnel cost, as opposed to riot gear and other equipment that do not demand employee benefits. We cannot implement neighborhood policing without more policeman, which requires more funding, and soon.

It is equally ironic that the relevant model may be the “surge” in military force that temporarily pacified Afghanistan and Iraq.  The federal government should fund a similar surge in the number of city police over the next ten years subject to strict rules to insure it results in more and better-trained officers on the beat. Cities would then be expected to pick up the funding for this increase afterwards.  Accepting the higher federal and local taxes necessary to achieve this more humane and sustainable form of policing would be the most concrete way to show our commitment to remedying past police abuse of poor minority communities.  However, even this change will be insufficient if we neglect another crisis in law enforcement.

The Expansion of Criminal Law

Roosevelt’s police force was plagued by bribery caused by the attempt to enforce Sunday blue laws that were deeply unpopular among poor immigrants and which he personally opposed. Today’s police officers are asked to not only keep order, but also enforce a myriad of new financial and economic rules.  George Floyd was being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, which is a federal, not local, crime.  Eric Garner of New York died while being arrested for failing to pay the state cigarette tax. If the police become identified with laws that have little legitimacy in their communities, they will inevitably face resistance and a lack of cooperation in enforcing other laws.  Many cities already refuse to assist in enforcing the federal immigration laws in order to encourage illegal immigrants to cooperate with police in preventing violent crime. 

The accretion of federal, state and local criminal laws over the years has placed all of law enforcement in an increasingly untenable position. All levels of government should conduct a thorough review of their criminal codes with the goal of either repealing minor criminal statutes, converting them to civil violations or developing new enforcement methods.  Local police could then return to enforcing laws that preserve neighborhoods rather than disrupt them.


For most of this year, our nation has been concentrating on breathing freely by avoiding the coronavirus.  Both the yearning to reopen and the George Floyd protests show that breathing freely is not enough for Americans. We must also be able to breathe free. Resisting arrest is never excusable, but resistance will occur more frequently if Americans believe they are not free.  Blaming the police without examining the policy failures that affect all of us regardless of color will only sow the seeds of more resistance and a less efficient police force.

Domestic Policy, Immigration

Immigration – The New Slavery

19th-century New York City tenement dwellers escaping the heat

If I could I would have the kind of restriction which would not allow any immigrant to come here unless I was content that his grandchildren would be fellow-citizens of my grandchildren. They will not be so if he lives in a boarding house at $2.50 per month with ten other boarders and contracts tuberculosis and contributes to the next generation a body of citizens inferior not only morally and spiritually but also physically.”

Speech to the National Americanization Committee, February 1, 1916

This quotation from Theodore Roosevelt came only 50 years after the end of the Civil War – a war fought to end America’s original sin of African–American slavery.  It echoes Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master”.  Lincoln and TR knew the temporary benefits of exploitation of an underclass weakened the nation in the long run, both morally and economically.

Yet our current lax immigration system shows we have still not learned this lesson. By failing to effectively enforce the immigration laws for the last 30 years, the federal government has created a new and perpetually renewing socioeconomic underclass.  We essentially have a de facto policy of importing foreigners to perform work for wages below the likely prevailing wage for Americans and with no practical recourse for violations of basic laws governing wages and working conditions.  It is a system that smacks of slavery and betrays our values as Americans. 

This exploitation is not confined to low-wage blue-collar jobs. The H1B visa program has been abused by high-tech and other industries to keep the wages of IT technical workers down by bringing in cheaper workers from Asia and elsewhere and then discriminating against those workers after they are hired.  This often leaves them with high student debt or other expenses and no way to pay it off without postponing for years such basic goals as a family and home ownership.   

The conventional justification for this policy is that companies cannot find Americans who will work at these supposedly low class, inferior jobs. Many who make these arguments claim to be advocates of free market economics. They conveniently overlook the most basic rule of supply-and- demand economics; i.e, that while changes in personal preference can change the equilibrium point on the supply-demand curve, there is always a price at which supply will meet the demand.  In short, as a Federal Reserve Board President pointed out, they can solve the problem by paying more.  Instead, they believe certain jobs have an inherent value that is lower than what the market will bear and it is the government’s job to reduce their wages to this assumed inherent value.  The result has made it more difficult for all workers at the lower end of the labor spectrum to climb the ladder of success and achieve the American dream. 

The recent influx of Central Americans has provided a new source of laborers and a new rationalization for allowing their entry – their potential status as refugees.  Advocates of refugee status for Central Americans ask us to sympathize with them because of the unrest and high murder and crime rates in those countries.  Here are the 2017 homicide rates in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador compared to the same statistic for the deadliest American cities during the same period:

2017 US Major City Murder Rates vs. Central America (per 100,000)

  • El Salvador 81.2
  • St. Louis 66.1
  • Honduras 59
  • Baltimore 55.8
  • Detroit 39.8
  • New Orleans. 39.5
  • Baton Rouge 38.3
  • Guatemala  27.3

Sources: Pew Research Center; Council on Foreign Relations

Thus, the advocates of granting refugee status are offering to “shelter” these immigrants by settling them in a country with crime rates that are often worse than the countries they are fleeing from.  Their sympathy for crime victims seems to end at the other side of the American border.

Our high national debt and urgent domestic needs means redistributive taxation cannot solve this inequity.  First, the 11 million immigrants who have lived and worked in the shadows with our implicit consent need to be given legal status and an eventual opportunity for citizenship. We then must say “never again” to such exploitation by adopting strict new limits on immigration and effective enforcement mechanisms. Annual immigration limits should be enacted that are inversely related to the unemployment rate.  The higher the unemployment rate, the lower the immigration limit. Employers should be required to use the E-verify system to insure their workers are here legally. Far from creating more paperwork, it simply would require companies continue to report the social security numbers of new hires as they currently do for withholding tax purposes.

The border needs to be secured, but the best way is with an adequately funded Border Patrol that has sufficient resources to interdict both illegal immigrants and drug smugglers (see this article by a retired agent about the current reality).   We also need more immigration judges and facilities that are flexible enough to quickly adjudicate immigration issues. 

In the end, the most effective and humane way to prevent illegal immigration is to help Mexico and our Central American neighbors control the violence and create more economic opportunity in their countries.  Mexico has begged us for years to stop the exportation of American guns arming the drug gangs against the military. We should set an example of border control and do so. President Trump has failed to fund Obama Administration programs to fight violence and rebuild civil society in Central America.  We should fully fund and expand those programs if we are serious about protecting their citizens and encouraging them to stay in and develop their home countries.

Ending this new slavery will not be easy. Our economy has been built on this exploitation for decades. However, end it we must if we are to be true to our values and secure an opportunity for the American Dream for all Americans.

Domestic Policy, Environment

Theodore Roosevelt and Climate Change

Theodore Roosevelt’s devotion to the preservation of American natural resources is legendary.  The challenge of climate change speaks to the depths of and potential conflicts between TR’s interests in conservation, social justice and national security.  While it is always risky to speculate about how a historical figure would deal with current issues, applying his philosophy to the problem may be helpful as we develop the national consensus necessary to address the issue.

First, as one of the foremost natural scientists of his day whose works are still used as references, TR would have accepted the basic science of global warming and been alarmed by its effect on forests and the environment.   He would have had nothing but contempt for climate change deniers. Indeed, he probably would have come up with one of his pithy insults to describe them.   

At the same time, his sympathy for the common man and inherent nationalism would cause him to bristle at the idea that Americans should bear the primary sacrifice of reducing world carbon emissions.  The man who rode with poor cowboys and led them up Kettle and San Juan Hills would have remembered the average American’s sacrifices to win two world wars, defeat communism, and build an international system that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.  He would not ask them for further sacrifices without being able to assure them with a straight face that others were sacrificing equally.

However, as a student of international relations dedicated to keeping America safe and strong, he would know he could not make that kind of guarantee while China and the rest of the world continued to increase their rate of emissions.   The man who foresaw the rise of Japan would have understood the desire of these nations to develop their economies and gain respect in the international community, as I discussed in a previous post.  He would hesitate to embark on an international crusade to force them to reduce carbon emissions if it would significantly damage American national security and create an equally damaging economic upheaval at home.

So how would he have reconciled these conflicting priorities?

Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and vitality of the nation.

Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism, August 31, 1910

Because of Roosevelt, America led the world in natural resource conservation. He would have expected it to do so again on a threat like climate change, but only to the extent other nations were willing to follow.  He would remember it was China and the developing world, not the United States, that insisted the limits in the Paris Accords be voluntary and unenforceable.  The agreement was a start, not a sacred totem, that bound the United States no more than other signatories. Instead, it freed us to negotiate as the great power we are to develop more stringent limits that were enforceable.  TR would have pushed carbon emission limits in bilateral trade and other agreements with China and other leading nations.  In particular, he would not have entered into the Obama Administration’s climate agreement with China that allowed them to avoid any real limits on their emissions until 2030, effectively ceding economic leadership to them for the next decade.

Nevertheless, he would have insisted it was our moral duty to reduce America’s emissions as much as possible.  In addition to phasing out coal generation plants, he would have pushed for stringent leak detection systems on energy facilities, though he would not have sought the immediate end to oil & gas production because of the economic shock it would cause.  Roosevelt would have been a fan of distributed electric generation in the form of rooftop and small solar and hydrogen fuel cell units, mainly because they give the common man, not corporations, control of a family’s energy supply.   Any mandates and subsidies for preferred clean energy sources would have come with corresponding utility-style rate and quality of service regulation of those industries to prevent excess profits. Displaced workers would be re-trained and new clean energy companies would have been expected to hire them at decent wages. Hopefully, these initiatives would have been accomplished through congressional legislation, though TR would not have hesitated to use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency and executive power to achieve them if necessary. 

All of this would have been contingent on the effect on the American family and our national and economic security, even if it extended the goal of carbon neutrality another few decades.  Carbon reduction goals would have been calibrated to the reductions of other nations to insure the American people were not carrying too much of the load.  The “big stick” of tariffs and other trade sanctions would always be available for use against willfully profligate countries, but it would have been used only when it did not damage other national security goals.  

These limitations, however, would have caused the scientist and political realist in Roosevelt to reluctantly admit that the Paris Accord’s goal of reducing the increase of global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius was unattainable.  To protect both our resources and our people, adapting America to global warming would have been his highest priority.  In addition to flood control and other infrastructure projects to protect communities from future sea rise and temperature changes, federal funding would have been made available to move people to safer ground.  Agricultural research would concentrate on developing crops that could withstand higher temperatures.  Smart, energy–efficient construction would be required so long as the average family could still afford their own home.  Some of these programs already exist, but they would have been a central plank in any Roosevelt political platform.

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.

Theodore Roosevelt’s career proves that responding to climate change is not just a globalist mantra.  It is an American nationalist issue that affects our own economic and national security.  Nationalist solutions exist that meet the future needs of the American people without enslaving us to globalist guilt or greed.  They are not without sacrifice, but the preservation of our independence and the American Dream for ourselves and our children are worth it.