This week has seen significant developments in the City of Seattle, most notably the declaration of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (now often referred to as CHAZ), and many folks are asking: “What’s the Libertarian position?” (See this excellent summary from Reason magazine for an overview.)
As with many issues related to the ongoing COVID crisis and demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, the answer requires an appreciation of nuance and no small amount of discernment in the face of a tidal wave of information and a genuinely mixed bag of outcomes.
In principle, Libertarians support and celebrate the resistance of free people against an increasingly intrusive and overbearing state. While on its face the CHAZ does represent a stand against the state, one has only to take a look at the demands of those responsible for the declaration to understand that their ultimate aim is to achieve a set of defined outcomes through state action, which are inevitably enforced at the barrel of a gun – meaning less freedom, not more – however noble they believe their intentions to be.
In practice, there’s at least some reason to believe that the zone and those supporting it are engaging in questionable tactics at their checkpoints and with the businesses and individuals within the Zone itself. That said, we can and should take these reports with a proverbial grain of salt.
It’s also clear that the CHAZ is not a place that welcomes (in principle or in practice) a heterodoxy of political or social views, as evidenced by both their demands, and tangible examples of behavior like this recent graffiti/tweet at the offices of the Stranger targeting Katie Herzog (who doesn’t even work there anymore), and there’s at least some sign of tensions between the CHAZ crew and those who feel the action is counterproductive to the message that groups like Black Lives Matter are trying to send.
Let’s not forget how we got here either - the decision to withdraw law enforcement from that section of the city, and most notably, the SPD East Precinct, was made directly by Mayor Durkan – so what we have here is more accurately described as city government choosing to abdicate power in favor of CHAZ in that section of the city. While utilities and services like garbage removal appear to be continuing (so far), there are legitimate concerns about the risk of the tactic spreading to other neighborhoods. City Hall itself was briefly occupied by Kshama Sawant and a group of protestors.
One could be forgiven for questioning whether if it’s permissible for this to happen in Seattle, that the calls for civil disobedience against questionable COVID restrictions, onerous and oppressive “gun control” legislation, and an increasingly profligate and irresponsible government in Olympia would be permissible (see the recent Employment Security department scandals as a prime example).
While perhaps logically the same, the reality is that the state allows this because it serves their ends, and advances the narratives they use to promote them. This isn’t about autonomy, freedom, or justice – it is about fear, and the state is sending a clear message – do as we say, and accept our politics, or we will put these individuals in charge.
Make no mistake, they would respond forcefully and with violence to any similar action at odds with their objectives. Libertarians believe in true autonomy, not trading one flavor of coercion, corruption, and incompetence for another.
Libertarian Party of King County