Liberty is for Everyone: Brandon Davis on How We Can Restore Trust in Our Institutions

Brandon Davis
Brandon Davis

When liberty is not equally applied, it ceases to mean anything. One of the major streams of discontent within our social and political landscape stems from a lack of freedom and respect in disadvantaged communities. Brandon Davis, professor of law and society at the University of Kansas, seeks to address the disparate nature of liberty in communities where freedoms are unequally exercised.  

Over the years, Davis has received many IHS grants and fellowships, including the Humane Studies Fellowship, the Hayek Fund for Scholars, and the Summer Graduate Research Fellowship. He’s also participated in many IHS events and

workshops, experiences he says helped to shape his professional development.

In addition to research support, IHS events and programs gave Davis the chance to explore ideas in areas beyond his immediate field of study. “It was almost like getting a supplemental education,” he notes, “the seminars and readings were in many ways another degree in classical liberal thought.” At each event, Davis extended the network of scholars from whom he could learn, and in turn, shared his own thoughts on research he was conducting.

After receiving IHS support, Davis recommends that graduate students interested in classical liberal scholarship apply to IHS programs given the wide array of opportunities available. “Your IHS experience doesn’t have to be the same as mine,” Davis says, “some will enjoy the seminars, others will find the lifelong connections invaluable, and still others will enrich their research at professional workshops.” To Davis, all these features make for a well-rounded experience, and they supported him as his research agenda was beginning to take shape.

A major focus of his research examines the effects of carceral contact on well-being and political participation in poor and minority neighborhoods. What he finds is that as citizens in these communities interact with the carceral system, their measured sense of well-being dramatically declines, which can actually lower the probability that they will participate in the political process. This finding is even more disquieting when indirect contact with the criminal justice system is taken into account.

“There is a political spillover effect for people who live in communities that are overpoliced. For example, if someone has a bad interaction with police, it not only adversely affects them, but also their family or someone they know. These types of interactions can lower reported measures of well-being, which can indirectly reduce levels of political participation.”   

– Brandon Davis

For example, carceral contact lowers feelings of civic duty and governmental trust, thereby suppressing political participation among these groups. Each negative encounter with the criminal justice system in underprivileged communities disenfranchises the very people who make them up. In other words, a bad interaction can reverberate throughout the community, disempowering people who seek to alter the institutions that create such toxic interactions in the first place.

Davis summarizes his research through the lens of his personal mantra: Liberty is for everyone. Although simple it may seem, the unjust and lopsided treatment of minorities by police and other law enforcement in disaffected communities has generated unproductive and adversarial relationships which ultimately harm the poor and people of color the most.             

I want to expose the areas in this country where individuals do not have the same opportunities or the same access to liberty as other individuals. My ultimate goal is to expand the idea that liberty is for everyone and to point out how we can expand liberty to those areas in a non-paternalistic way. In other words, how do we widen liberty to individuals without becoming their caretakers?

– Brandon Davis

In addition, Davis admits that classical liberal ideas don’t focus enough attention on the issues that are at the forefront of political and social discourse, like race and social justice.

I don’t think we do enough in the area of race and ethnicity. I don’t think [classical liberals] speak to the younger generations coming up on race and ethnicity, which is the growing segment of the population. We need to think more about how to market their ideas and policy objectives to people of different backgrounds.

– Brandon Davis

Lastly, according to Davis, there are several reforms that can improve the quality of police interaction in poor and minority communities.

First, police need to “reduce the amount of contact” they have with people in communities where bad interactions are most likely to occur. Second, there needs to be a sweeping correction of traffic codes, which are used habitually by police to pull over minorities for the most minor offenses on the books. Finally, Davis believes, police departments need “to improve training at the leadership level and increase accountability.”

These bold reforms will serve to root out the low-quality interactions that lead directly and indirectly to reduced levels of reported well-being and political participation among minority groups. If communities are buried under the weight of the criminal justice system, reforms need to begin at the level of contact between citizens and law enforcement. This is the only way liberty can truly be for everyone.  

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021 with spotlights on scholars, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas. For more stories like this one, visit TheIHS.org/60.

IHS 60th Anniversary

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