America is becoming a police state. Each year, more and more actions become either officially forbidden or officially required. The scope for individuals to decide how to live their own lives grows steadily narrower. The list of crimes grows longer and longer, and any deviance may subject the citizen to the wrath of the police, the courts, and the prisonsnot to mention the fiery violence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
No one knows when the state will strike, for no one can possibly know whether he is violating the lawthere are far more laws, regulations, and ordinances than anyone can possibly comprehend, much less obey. Citizens are now being punished for such crimes as filling in mud puddles or cutting down trees on their own land, selling vitamins and herbs, and charging to braid someones hair without a license. Many are punished for no crime at all, when their property is seized without due process of law in so-called civil forfeitures.
How can Americans stop the expansion of the police state? There is no simple answer, but some prerequisites are clear.
First, people must come to a clearer understanding that using government to impose their personal preferences on everybody leads inexorably toward a society dominated by those in authority. One may disapprove of many things, including the use of dangerous narcotics or quack medicines, the reckless disregard of some developers for flora and fauna, the decisions of teenagers to quit school, and the uncivilized opinions expressed by certain entertainers. But one cannot justify using the power of the state to crush those whose actions strike him as merely foolish or unaesthetic.
Second, people must come to a clearer understanding that, in politics, things are seldom what they are represented to be. Government thrives on sham: often it does not do what it claims to do, such as protecting life and property, and often it does what it is pledged not to do, such as singling out certain groups or individuals for selective punishment because of their unpopular attributes or beliefs. Because government and mendacity go hand in hand, it is always risky to trust government. To trust it to carry out conscientiously thousands of important activities far more than anyone can monitoris utterly foolhardy.
As a practical political strategy, it might be worthwhile to concentrate exclusively on the repeal of existing laws. We are entangled in so many and such unjustified restraints that the most immediate need is to cut through some of these chains. For some people this may seem to be an unappealingly negative program. But nothing is more positive than our liberties. With each chain that we cut, we become a little freer. There is so much that deserves to be demolished. To rest content with our present condition is to accept government officials as our masters, and freeborn men and women can never make that concession.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institutes quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.
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