When students returned to Yale this fall, they were met by renovations in Saybrook, the Broadway Redevelopment Project, and “welcome back” greetings from Annette Walton, “The Flower Lady”. However, the Yale University Police felt that the latter two developments could not and should not co-exist. Seemingly bothered by the image of a homeless woman selling flowers in the wake of a massive rebuilding plan to make New Haven safe for yuppies, they decided to arrest Walton on charges of disorderly conduct.
Walton faces an impending court date and a possible jail sentence. The Left on campus has been supporting Walton in her struggles with the police. They cite racism, discrimination, and other motives for the police’s actions, including pressure from Yale. They are right to do so, but their prescriptions for more government programs for the poor demonstrate that they have misidentified the source of the problem.
Many on the Left have the illusion that the state could be just and comprehensible, if only the right people ran things. However, what they don’t realize is that cases like Walton’s demonstrate the inherent nature of all regimes, not just some idiosyncrasies of our oppressive one.
Equality under law
So how do we choose which laws to enforce and who to arrest for breaking them? By acknowledging the necessity of compromise in deciding to enforce only some of the laws some of the time, the state gives the enforcer the power to make arbitrary decisions regarding whom he will punish for breaking the law. This question poses the biggest problem to proponents of a large centralized state. Whether it is against the poor homeless lady whose image does not mix well with the larger plan of making New Haven more like Cambridge, or against the potential licensees in a closed profession, the enforcer can selectively enforce the law against the person he does not like, or otherwise exploit the law to his advantage.
Some will make the claim that various sensitivity programs and hate crime legislation will end discrimination, thus rendering the problem of arbitrary enforcement obsolete. However, this is an illusion. We cannot force people, via the coercive power of the state, to be nice and like each other equally.
Even if we could catch all criminals on a consistent basis, the poor would be hurt more by such a situation, because all criminals are not prosecuted equally in our legal system. The wealthy would still be able to hire better lawyers to defend them, pay a fine in order to stay out of jail, or even break bond. None of these are options for poor people like Walton. Even if Walton were not treated unequally by the police, she would have an unequal ability to avoid severe punishment from the judicial system.
The problem of selective enforcement is a problem of all regimes, not just ours. It is the nature of government to selectively enforce and punish the breaking of the laws that it creates, and this leads to abuse by enforcers.
Clearly, the policy maker can try his best to make decisions from the limited data that he has. However, the problem of unintended consequences always arises. The permit law that Walton broke has the additional unintended consequence of hurting potential small business owners, who might not have the initial capital to pay the filing fee, unlike large corporations that have sizeable liquid assets.
Even the most well-meaning policy maker faces problems of knowledge, but there also is the problem of insidious motives underlying policies. It can be quite reasonably argued that the law Walton broke regarding vending permits probably came into existence so that the government could track merchants and collect taxes. Even worse, the law might have been created to hurt smaller enterprises in favor of large companies who hold sway with government officials. Obviously, we cannot rid the government of people with bad intentions. Even if we attempt to elect leaders who we think are good people, we cannot guarantee that they are, given that we, too, lack perfect knowledge.
We can decide as a society that we are willing to accept certain bad laws, or bad consequences of good laws, as long as enough of our laws are good. However, it would be foolish to refuse to minimize the possibility of harmful laws.
We are now faced with the question of how to structure the state to prevent cases like Walton’s – and worse– from occurring. The answer is an unpopular one: create fewer laws and move towards a freer society in order to minimize the pernicious effects of even well intentioned laws on innocent people. Fewer laws will decrease the opportunities for selective enforcement.
For now, Annette Walton must leave her fate up to the courts, which may very well make her situation worse. If this occurs, Walton will become another victim of our massive government and bureaucracy. Her situation, which the left cries out against, is in fact the byproduct of the very structure of government that they endorse.
—Yevgeny Vilensky is a sophomore in Trumbull College.
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