Radley Balko writes, apropos of the Michael Vick indictment, “I don’t think there’s anything unlibertarian about laws against animal cruelty.” Balko thinks Vick should go to prison if he’s convicted on federal charges related to a dog-fighting enterprise allegedly run out of the NFL quarterback’s property in Virginia.
Whether you agree with Balko that government laws against animal cruelty are consistent with libertarianism–and if the war in Iraq can be libertarian, what can’t be?–he’s misstating the question. The federal government did not charge Vick with animal cruelty. As is often the case in today’s prosecutor-based judicial system, Vick and his co-defendants are charged with a vague derivative offense of dubious constitutionality. If Balko wants an honest debate, he should ask, “Are laws against ‘Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture’ unlibertarian?” The indictment identifies three key components of an alleged conspiracy to commit “offenses against the United States”:
Taking Balko’s endorsement of the Vick prosecution at face value marks a radical departure from traditional libertarian views on the limits of federal power. First, you must accept that the state may charge “conspiracy” without proving an underlying offense. Second, you must accept that Virginia may ban the voluntary act of wagering–regardless of the event–and that the federal government may intervene to enforce said law when the state declines. Third, you must accept the New Deal Court-era proclamation that Congress may invoke the Commerce Clause to regulate any person or object that touches (or may touch) interstate commerce at any point. Finally, you have to find that animals are not property, but hold quasi-legal status akin to humans. That’s a lot to swallow.
UPDATE: Balko recants in reply to my post above. He restates his animal cruelty thesis as follows:
My approach to animal cruelty laws would be about the same as my approach to the abortion issue. Most people would agree that many animals deserve more moral consideration than, say, a table. Exactly what animals have what rights, and how those rights should be protected, are matters of line-drawing–police powers. And police powers are best left up to as local a jurisdiction as possible, so they can write laws that best reflect each state or community’s values.