Do libertarians want mentally ill people involuntarily confined?

Reason‘s Zuri Davis blogs, relying on a Washington Post interview, that local sheriffs had been getting reports that Forrest Gordon Clark, who is suspected of causing a huge forest fire raging in California now, was a threat.

Milligan says, he has been warning the local sheriff’s office and U.S. Forest Service about Clark, repeatedly telling them, “You have to do something or he’s going to kill someone or burn this place down.” Milligan reports that Clark sent him several texts promising that the area was “going to burn just like we planned.” Milligan say that he attempted to alert the authorities but did not receive a response. He criticized, “Why the hell didn’t they respond? I reported this over and over again.”


Davis does not explicitly advocate anything, but there are suggestions that the government was incompetent here.

The subhead is, “Why the hell didn’t they respond? I reported this over and over again.”

The final paragraph states:

Clark’s case has some similarities to that of the accused Parkland high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz. The Sun Sentinel has posted a timeline of the complaints about Cruz’s behavior that different authorities—the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Children and Families, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation—received before the massacre. In one instance, a blogger in Mississippi warned the FBI that an account named “nikolas cruz” wrote on his YouTube page that he was going to be “a professional school shooter.”

Reason has published articles making the argument more explicitly, however. For example (Robby Soave):

Parkland Shooter Nikolas Cruz Needed Help. Bureaucratic Errors Deprived Him of It.

But the Parkland schools bureaucracy failed at absolutely every turn. We don’t know what would have happened if school officials had done their jobs properly, but we do know that they were required to make an attempt to help Cruz. They did not. They left him to his own devices, adrift in the world, despite every warning that he was a disturbed and dangerous individual. This was a colossal screw-up—arguably one of the most consequential in the histories of public education and law enforcement.

And Nick Gillespie:

How Authorities Failed To Stop School Shooter Nikolas Cruz
After missing warning signs, law enforcement and others are now quick to say they need more power to stop the next tragedy.

There are legitimate concerns about government actors who aggressively follow up on every random tip and stray hunch to bust into people’s lives. All too often, we find that people in positions of power routinely abuse their authority. And yet there are no excuses for the ways in which Nikolas Cruz slipped through the cracks of the agencies that are supposed to protect both him and us from, well, people like him.

    Giving these same agencies even more power is no way to pay our respects to the dead of Stoneman Douglas High.

I bolded and underlined two sentences to show Gillespie’s argumentation strategy: he is trying to oppose increased government power by attacking the competence of the government as a whole. The bolded sentence attacks the government for failing to catch Cruz. The underlined sentence asserts that such an incompetent government shouldn’t have more power.

From a certain point of view, it is a disingenuous argument. If the government failed to stop Cruz, one reason is the government doesn’t have the power to confine someone just because they say something violent online. The government doesn’t have the power, either, to monitor everyone’s internet comments.

And libertarians generally oppose giving the government more power. The government doesn’t have the power to stop every single crime, then the same person who opposes giving the government that power attacks the government for failing to do what it is impossible for the government to do.

The United States has the most liberal free speech policies in the world. It is very hard to convict someone for posting violent comments. Even then, the convicted wouldn’t spend very long in prison.

Many people make threatening statements and never engage in acts of violence. The person who threatens to start a forest fire goes three years without starting a forest fire. Might a sheriff think, “Oh, this guy says this all the time and doesn’t do anything”? Should he arrest the guy the first time he makes a threat and keep him in jail for thirty years?

Should the mentally ill person be involuntarily confined? Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote in 2011,

As difficult as such matters are to disentangle after the fact, it is even harder to say ahead of time which of the country’s many oddballs and malcontents will convert bizarre ideas into homicidal actions. In retrospect, every strange or off-putting thing that Loughner did or said marked him as a dangerous madman, including not just overtly crazy stuff like his video linking Pima Community College to genocide and torture but borderline behavior such as singing to himself, talking out of turn, pestering teachers about grades, smiling or laughing inappropriately, and making weird comments in class.

Although they are routinely called upon to say whether people pose a danger to themselves or others, psychiatrists are notoriously bad at it.

Should mentally ill people like Cruz be banned from purchasing firearms?

Sullum (and/or his editors) wrote in 2018:

Disarming ‘Individuals With Mental Illness’ Would Affect a Quarter of the Population
Even a narrower approach, focused on purported risk, deprives many innocent people of their constitutional rights.

In short, Reason offers no solutions to what some of its writers present as a problem.

I am no hardcore libertarian, and I might be sympathetic or even supportive to laws that take a tougher stand on unhinged violent people in order to protect the law-abiding majority. But I understand there is a necessary balancing act. We must not pretend that such proposed policies won’t catch some innocent people in the net. Nor can we pretend that absolute freedom doesn’t create opportunities for violent people to act unabated. Let us debate the balance honestly.

California wildfire photo by Flickr user Daria Devyatkina. Creative Commons.