Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Policing for profit

A shocking news report recently documented how Tennessee police were stopping drivers on the interstate and confiscating large amounts of cash, even if the drivers were accused of no crime. The report was particularly shocking because the special unit was operating far outside of its jurisdiction in exchange for giving a cut of the seized cash to the local government in question.

This episode is outrageous enough that any regular American can see the problem. Yet most people who see the report will probably conclude that the government "went too far" in this instance, and some reforms are needed. The real lesson here is that the War on Drugs — just like every other war waged by our politicians — doesn't solve the ostensible problem, and in fact strips away other liberties.

More generally, the report is a perfect vindication of the Rothbardian point that, in a very real sense, government is a gang of thieves writ large. Such a radical viewpoint sounds crazy to most Americans in the abstract, but when they watch the video, it's hard to deny.

The Bitter Fruits of the Drug War

From a standard libertarian perspective, the government has no business interfering in capitalist acts between consenting adults (to use Robert Nozick's felicitous phrase). This includes situations where one person wants to grow a plant, for example, and sell it to somebody else who intends to use it to induce a feeling of euphoria.

To be sure, private organizations can lay down whatever regulations they want "regulating" drug use. Airlines can still subject pilots to randomized drug tests, and schools can expel students caught smoking in the bathroom if they so choose. After all, private schools can tell students what clothes they can wear on school property, so they obviously have the right to prohibit the use of particular drugs.

Yet even if we put aside such principled opposition, it should be crystal clear by now that the War on Drugs has shredded traditional liberties. The scandal on the Tennessee interstate shown in the video above is just one example. Precisely because the War on Drugs has fostered an immense black market, the authorities can now seize large amounts of cash from anyone simply on the suspicion that the person "must be" a drug dealer (or a terrorist financier).

This is a very troubling trend. Beyond the obvious inconvenience for people who don't trust banks and want to keep a large amount of cash on hand, it also takes away one of the last escape routes from the tightening vise of financial regulations and controls. As the government's interventions in the banking system and stock market become ever more intrusive, more and more individuals will want to "opt out" by conducting their operations in cash. But now that strategy entails a huge risk, because their holdings can be seized without any formal charges if they happen to get pulled over.

Another major landmark along the road to serfdom is the huge prison infrastructure in the United States. Many Americans don't realize that the United States has the largest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms and per capita (with the possible exception of China, because their government's official figures could be bogus).

If a truly nightmarish scenario ever does develop in what was once a relatively free country, the ruling elite at that time won't have to come up with a pretext for building prisons able to house millions of dissidents. No, that option is already available, courtesy of the Drug War. Most Americans have no problem funding such construction, because they are confident that they would never be locked up.

Original report here

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