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Archive for the ‘Government Thuggery’ Category

I don’t think I’ll ever stray from libertarianism. But if I ever get tempted by the siren song of statism, I’ll bolster my resistance by reminding myself of how people have been victimized by venal government.

And if that doesn’t get my libertarian blood boiling, I’ll revisit some of my columns on so-called civil asset forfeiture. This is the policy that allows the government to steal your money.

I’m not joking. Bureaucrats can take your money (or property) simply by concocting a claim that it may have been associated with criminal activity.

They can grab your cash even though you haven’t been convicted. Heck, they don’t even need to arrest you.

Let’s look at some new examples of this odious practice. We’ll start with this video clip from a local news station in Sacramento, California.

And here’s another example from West Virginia, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A West Virginia State Police trooper issued Dimitrios Patlias a warning for failing to drive within his lane, just before seizing more than $10,000 in cash from him and his wife. …The trooper pulled them over, Smith said in an interview, …accusing them of smuggling cigarettes, to having drugs in the car, to gift card fraud. After searching the car, their persons, and Smith’s purse, the trooper let them go with a uniform warning citation. However, he also took the $10,478 in cash, the 78 “gift cards” in the car, and Patlias’ smartphone, according to a property disposition report. …Patlias and Smith wound up returning to their home in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, stripped of all their cash but $2, without ever having been charged with a crime. …The seizure was part of a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement officers have the right to lay claim to property they argue was used in the commission of certain crimes. …the law seems to incentivize bad behavior from otherwise good police officers.“To me, this law, now that I’ve learned of it, it turns police officers into dishonest crooks,” she said. “I feel like I was in a movie.”

Yes, indeed, the cop was a crook in this instance. That’s because civil asset forfeiture creates a horrible incentive called “policing for profit.”

Efforts to curtail this disgusting tactic have not been successful in West Virginia.

In February, the state House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would tie civil asset forfeiture to its respective criminal proceeding, i.e., if you’re acquitted criminally, the seized property cannot be forfeited. The bill died in committee.

But this story does have a happy ending. When this example of theft-by-government began to get publicity, the bureaucrats decided to return everything they stole.

After the Gazette-Mail reached out to the state police Monday with inquiries about the seizure, and after weeks of Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned her and Patlias’ possessions in full Thursday evening.

Speaking of good news, some governments around the country are curtailing this venal practice.

And the Utah Supreme Court also is taking a jaundiced look at civil asset forfeiture, even if only for procedural reasons.

The Utah Supreme Court has sided with a man pulled over in a traffic stop where police seized more than $500,000. In a unanimous ruling published Wednesday, the state’s top court ordered a lower court to reconsider who has jurisdiction over the money seized when Kyle Savely was stopped in a 2016 traffic stop. A drug dog alerted to the presence of narcotics, but none were found. Instead, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper found cash and seized it despite never charging Savely with any drug crime. …The libertarian-leaning think tank Libertas Institute, which jumped into the case, praised the ruling. They argued that state and federal agencies often split seized money. “The public is rightly outraged by laws that allow the government to take property from people not charged with a crime, as was the case here. It’s even worse when state laws designed to protect a property owner’s rights are not followed by state agencies, which is why we’re very pleased to see the state’s highest court unanimously holding them accountable,” Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said in a statement.

What we really need, though, is for the Supreme Court to decide whether governments have the right to steal.

And that’s exactly what may soon happen, according to Jibran Khan of National Review.

Did you know that, in most states, the police can take your money and property without even charging you with a crime? Mundane actions such as having cash on hand have been cited as grounds for seizure, as a young man moving to Los Angeles to start a business discovered when his life savings were seized. He wasn’t detained, or charged with any crime — but he was left with nothing when the Drug Enforcement Agency took his cash. In any other situation, we would label this theft… Stories abound of abusive seizures justified under civil forfeiture. …A new Supreme Court case, however, might change that. …Justice Thomas has hoped for a civil-forfeiture case to come before the Supreme Court, so that this practice, which he views as incompatible with the due-process clause, can be analyzed on constitutional grounds. When it considers Timbs v. Indiana later this year, the Court will be able to do just that.

Kudos to Clarence Thomas for wanting to protect our rights.

If you need more evidence, Khan goes on the summarize why civil asset forfeiture is so reprehensible.

The system incentivizes policing for profit, rather than for public safety. The way that seized money is spent is just as disgraceful as the takings themselves. Departments have used forfeiture funds to buy Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Corvettes, Hawaiian vacations, and ski trips — just to list a few. They have also used these funds to buy military equipment, which has contributed to the dissolution of Sir Robert Peel’s concept of good policing that held the police should be well-integrated with the public rather than seeing itself as a military force. It’s no surprise that Brad Cates, who headed up asset forfeiture at the Department of Justice in the 1980s, describes it as “a free-floating slush fund.” The taking of property from citizens who are not charged with crimes to fund lavish lifestyles for government officials sounds like something out of the most dysfunctional Third World regimes. It’s heartening to see that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The practice is an affront to both constitutional and cultural norms, and has empowered law enforcement to engage in what would be considered criminality by any other measure.

Amen.

By the way, Brad Cates is one of two former officials who were in charge of asset forfeiture who now reject the procedure.

Sadly, this is an issue where Trump and his team are definitely on the wrong side.

P.S. Defenders of civil asset forfeiture sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t get upset because many of the people who lose their property are criminals.

I’m willing to acknowledge that some of these folks may not be model citizens, but I make two basic points.

  1. Our Constitution has a presumption of innocence, so people shouldn’t be punished unless found guilty by a jury of their peers. In other words, I side with the Founding Fathers rather than Jeff Sessions.
  2. Something shouldn’t be against the law if there isn’t a victim. This is why asset forfeiture laws, just like drug laws and money-laundering laws, are misguided and should be repealed.

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It’s a judgement call, of course, but I think the IRS’s suppression of the Tea Party was the worst of all the Obama-era scandals.

Some people say the green-energy scams like Solyndra should be at the top of the list, but steering taxpayer money to campaign donors was just routine corruption. And the fast-and-furious scandal at the BATF was reprehensible, but did not have systemic impact on society.

Lois Lerner and the other hacks at the IRS, however, did something profoundly worse. They actively used the coercive power of government to suppress political speech.

The bad news is that Lois Lerner didn’t get punished. She’s now enjoying a fat taxpayer-financed pension. And other IRS officials successfully stonewalled with no adverse consequences.

Heck, Republicans actually rewarded the IRS with a bigger budget. And the Trump Administration so far has been AWOL on curtailing IRS abuses.

But that may be about to change. One of the President’s appointees has expressed support for protecting donors to nonprofit organizations.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this topic.

….a Congressional hearing this week offered potentially good news to nonprofits whose donors are under political threat. …Montana Republican Steve Daines asked Acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter whether the agency is considering the necessity of IRS 990 Schedule B. These are the forms that nonprofits must supply to the IRS listing donors who contribute more than $5,000. Schedule Bs are supposed to remain confidential, but AGs in New York and California have sought to require nonprofits to file them at the state level. Many Democrats see the form as a gift-wrapped list of donors to target, and a way to chill donations to conservative nonprofits. …Mr. Kautter acknowledged that he was “actively involved” along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at offering more donor protection. …Nonprofits would still be required to keep their donor details, and if the IRS or other authorities had valid reason to suspect fraud they could demand to see the records. But requiring nonprofits to provide names each year to partisan AGs or tax bureaucrats is an invitation to repeat the scandal of the Obama years when Lois Lerner and the IRS targeted conservative nonprofits.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity also weighed in on the issue, pointing out that government has a sorry track record of persecuting political dissent.

…robust protections for speech were listed first among the Bill of Rights and have long been a cornerstone of our republic. …Like the secret ballot, respecting donor privacy and thus anonymous speech and association is essential to prevent majoritarian abuse and intimidation that subverts democracy. This was a lesson learned in the civil rights era after the shameful attacks on the NAACP and its supporters. …Lois Lerner was found to have illegally shared confidential Form 990 taxpayer information with the Federal Election Commission.

The solution is to not let the government get the information in the first place, especially since it isn’t needed to enforce any tax laws.

Unfortunately, invasive donor reporting requirements instituted by the Internal Revenue Service threaten to chill this critical democratic tool. …Schedule B requires 501(c) organizations to include certain contributors’ names and addresses with their annual Form 990 reports. Yet the IRS has acknowledged that this information has no enforcement value. Instead, its collection creates opportunities for abuse and chills speech and civic participation. …there’s good reason to question the ability of the government to protect sensitive taxpayer information given the history of inadvertent disclosures and information leaks at the IRS. …For minority viewpoints, public exposure can lead to intimidation… Several years ago, the IRS was said to be considering dropping the unnecessary Schedule B reporting requirement, which it was never required by statute to collect in the first place. Unfortunately, the agency did not follow through under President Barack Obama… The Trump administration should do what the Obama administration would not and ensure the right of Americans to participate in the political process without fear that they will be made vulnerable to targeting based on their political views.

Well said.

Though I think both Brian and the WSJ should have gone even farther and called for the abolition of the charitable deduction in the tax code as part of a shift to a simple and fair flat tax.

Then there would be zero rationale for the government to know about our donations. And since there’s plenty of evidence that nonprofits would prosper without a special preference in the tax code, this would be a win-win reform.

P.S. Privacy is an under-appreciated benefit of fundamental tax reform. Not only would donors and nonprofits no longer have to share information with the IRS under a flat tax, we also wouldn’t need to tell the government anything about our homes since the mortgage interest deduction would vanish. And since the death tax and capital gains tax are abolished, the government would have no need to know about our assets. And since all capital income is taxed at the business level, we wouldn’t have to tell the government about any stocks, bonds, or bank accounts we own.

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On several occasions, I’ve shared horror stories of government brutality and asserted that all decent people should be libertarians.

If you still are not convinced, today we’re going to look at seven stories about so-called civil asset forfeiture, which is a sanitized term. Most people call it stealing.

Or “policing for profit.”

Let’s look at how this third-world scam operates, starting with a disgusting example of asset forfeiture from Reason.

Rustem Kazazi, an American citizen, was just trying to get on a plane to return to his native Albania last October, from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He was initially flying to Newark where he’d catch a connection to Albania. …Given facts about the Albanian banking and finance system and the advantages of cash there, he chose to turn his life savings into U.S. dollars and bring them with him to cover expenses related to the above house needs and his long stay rather than deal with bank transfers… Kazazi ran his carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, like we all must. In that luggage was his life savings in cash, $58,100. There was zero attempt to be clandestine or smuggle-y about it. It was divided into three labeled and marked stacks of $100 bills, all in one envelope with $58,100 written on the outside.

Here’s how despicable bureaucrats reacted.

TSA agents noticed the money. …They called Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on Kazazi, who took him off to a private room to grill him, as well as strip him naked… They kept his money, without telling him why, then tried to get him to just get on his flight without it. The receipt they handed him made no reference to the specific amount they’d confiscated. When he refused initially to just go on with his day as if he hadn’t just suffered a horrible crime, they escorted him out of the airport. …In December CBP finally formally informed him via a “Notice of Seizure” that they’d taken $57,330 from him, $770 less than he insists was actually taken. The Kazazis filed all the officially required forms and notices to proceed with trying to get their money back… CBP agents tried to finagle the Kazazis into withdrawing their demand for federal court action, but failed.

The good news is that the invaluable Institute for Justice has intervened.

Kazazi and his family today filed a formal motion for return of property…with the assistance of consistent civil-forfeiture-justice fighters from the Institute for Justice… Let’s hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money.

And here’s a nauseating example of theft-by-government from Texas.

For nearly a decade, Anthonia Nwaorie dreamed of starting a medical clinic in her hometown in Southern Nigeria. Last October, the 59-year-old nurse was boarding a plane in Houston with medical equipment, supplies, and about $41,000 in cash — which had taken her years to save — when Customs and Border Protection officials stopped her. …Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money. …CBP took the money because Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen since 1994 who lives in Katy, had not declared that she was taking more than $10,000 out of the country — a technical requirement that her lawyers say is not well-publicized…six months after her money was taken, Nwaorie has not been charged with a crime.

Once again, the great people at IJ are involved.

Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest law firm, say her case demonstrates just how abusive the practice of civil forfeiture — which allows the government to take property that is believed to be tied to a crime — can be. ….the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency on Nwaorie’s behalf, demanding that CBP return her money without forcing her to sign any written agreement. They’re also asking a federal court in Houston to void all such agreements that might have been signed by others trying to get seized property back.

George Will opined about another reprehensible example from Texas.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Serrano drove to the Eagle Pass, Tex., border crossing, intending to try to interest a Mexican cousin in expanding his solar panel installation business in the United States. …they searched his truck — this was unusual for a vehicle leaving the country — and one agent said, “We got him!” …Having found five .380-caliber bullets in the truck’s center console — he has a concealed-carry permit but had no weapon with him — they handcuffed him and seized his truck under civil forfeiture, saying it had been used to transport “munitions of war.”

The heroes at IJ are on the case.

Assisted by litigators from the Institute for Justice (IJ), whose appearance on the West Texas horizon probably panicked the government into pretending to be law-abiding, Serrano wants to make the government less larcenous and more constitutional when it is enriching itself through civil forfeiture. …Serrano is suing for restitution but also seeking a class-action judgment on behalf of others who have been similarly mistreated. …Robert Everett Johnson is one of the IJ lawyers… Johnson says: “Imagine being detained at an airport checkpoint because you innocently forgot to take a tube of toothpaste out of your luggage. But rather than asking you to throw it out or put it in a plastic bag, the TSA agents told you they were seizing all of your luggage, including the toothpaste tube.” That happened to Serrano at the hands of a government — the one north of the border — that felt free to say, “You have no rights here.”

Here’s an example of this despicable practice from Wyoming.

Phil Parhamovich…had spent years restoring and selling houses, cars, and musical instruments, often clocking 12-hour workdays, to save up more than $91,000. And now it was all going to pay off: He would buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin… Then came the police stop… By the time it was over, police in Wyoming would take all of Parhamovich’s money — the full $91,800. Parhamovich, who has no criminal record, was not accused of or charged with a serious crime; he only got a $25 ticket for improperly wearing his seat belt and a warning for “lane use.” …state officials said they consider the cash “abandoned.” The state has even moved to forfeiture the money without notifying Parhamovich of the relevant court hearing until after it happened.

You won’t be surprised to learn who got involved to protect Parhamovich’s rights.

According to Parhamovich and his attorneys with the advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, this is another classic example of policing for profit and the problems it causes. Police initiated the stop for a minor traffic violation, but quickly escalated it further and further until they took a man’s life savings — all to use that money for their own law enforcement purposes.

This story has a happy ending (except for the fact that the cop isn’t in jail for stealing).

Wyoming lawmakers, citing this story, have now banned the roadside waivers that police used to wrongly take Phil Parhamovich’s $91,800. Previously, Parhamovich…got…his money back during a court hearing.

The IRS also participates in this thuggish racket, as reported by the Washington Post.

Oh Suk Kwon, who left South Korea for America in 1976, served as a fleet mechanic in the U.S. Army. After four years in the military, decades of working in an electrical plant and as an auto mechanic, after raising the kids and seeing them off to their adult lives, Kwon finally bought a gas station in Ellicott City in 2007. It meant everything to him. Just a few years after he opened it, zealous government investigators…seized all of the station’s money on a hunch — and wiped the family out. No, they weren’t money launderers or terrorists or mobsters or tax evaders. The government found no evidence of criminal activity. …the gas station went under, and Kwon’s wife died amid the stress of it all…the agency won’t give Kwon his money back. …He’s heartbroken that the country he loves is treating him this way.

The story has additional examples.

…fervent investigations targeted scores of small businesses in Maryland. The best known of these was South Mountain Creamery… the creamery was accused of structuring — farmer Randy Sowers also said his bank teller told him to keep the deposits under $10,000 to cut paperwork — the farm’s entire operating budget was seized. …The government eventually found out that the cows weren’t drug mules and the chickens weren’t gangsters and allowed Sowers to sign a settlement agreement to get back half of about $60,000 that the IRS took. Sowers did it because he needed that money to keep the farm going. Another Maryland farmer, Calvin Taylor, had about $90,000 seized in 2011 after the government snagged him in a similar investigation. He couldn’t take the time to fight the charge, either, and agreed to a settlement where the government returned about $41,000.

Once again, the IJ people are fighting to protect people from rapacious government.

The farmers didn’t walk away from the fight. Backed by the libertarian Institute for Justice, Sowers, Taylor and others testified before Congress, petitioned and fought for three years to get their cash back.

The awful thugs at the IRS also stole money in Connecticut.

David Vocatura watched $68,000 disappear. He was at his family’s bakery in Norwich, Connecticut, when a squad of armed IRS agents filed into the store. The agents wanted to know if Vocatura and his brother Larry were trafficking drugs or running a prostitution ring. The brothers had no idea what they were talking about. …the IRS refused to believe Vocatura’s Bakery was operating on the up and up. Agents said the business raised red flags because of a series of cash deposits in sums under $10,000, the amount at which banks are required to report transactions to the federal government. …The agents had no evidence of other wrongdoing, but thanks to a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture, they didn’t need any to seize every penny in the Vocaturas’ bank account… The IRS has…[been] subjecting David, 53, and his brother Larry, 69, to a series of increasingly aggressive legal maneuvers — including threats of significant prison time and additional fines — in an attempt to strong-arm them into permanently forfeiting their assets.

Naturally, IJ is riding to the rescue.

…the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on behalf of Vocatura’s Bakery, demanding that the IRS promptly return their money. …Hours after the suit was filed, the IRS said it would finally give the Vocaturas their money back.

But the jackboots in government are vindictively going after the family.

Peter S. Jongbloed, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, served the Vocaturas a grand jury subpoena calling for them to turn over every financial record from the six years between March 2007 and April 2013, so the agency could finally begin investigating the business’s tax and regulatory compliance. …“At this point, the government is in so deep, they’ve put these guys through three years of hell — and held onto their money for three years — and so they feel like they need to justify it,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice who is representing the Vocaturas. “So now they’re going to conduct this investigation into the bakery in some effort to try to find something that will make it look like they were doing the right thing all along.”

Let’s review one final example of banana-republic law enforcement, this time from Alabama.

The morning of June 29, 2010, began much like any other at FAR Computers in Ensley. Frank Ranelli, who has owned the computer repair business for more than two decades, was doing some paperwork in his windowless office when he heard loud banging on the front door. When he answered it, he was unaware that about 20 officers with the Homewood and Mountain Brook police departments were surrounding his store, some wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles. Within moments, a Homewood police sergeant had declared a room full of customers’ computers, merchandise and other items “stolen goods,” Ranelli recalled. …The police proceeded to confiscate more than 130 computers – most of which were customers’ units waiting to be repaired, though some were for sale – as well as the company’s business servers and workstations and even receipts and checkbooks. …Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally. Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.

The article references the stellar work of IJ.

Alabama’s laws, however, still provide the state’s citizens with few protections from the practices, earning the state a “D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws” in a November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia nonprofit advocacy law firm. Alabama laws stack the deck against victims of asset forfeiture by establishing a “low bar to forfeit” and not requiring a conviction to do so; offering “limited protections for innocent third-party property owners”; and letting “100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement,” the report stated. …In a time of increasingly tight budgets for many law enforcement agencies, seizing property offers an opportunity for them to increase revenue without politicians having to raise taxes.

The good news (relatively speaking) is that some states are trying to curtail this evil practice.

The bad news is that cops in some states have figured out how to steal regardless.

In theory, New Hampshire has reformed its asset forfeiture laws. The state passed a bill in June 2016 to keep police from seizing and keeping people’s property unless those people have been convicted of a crime. And yet New Hampshire Public Radio reports this week that the state’s cops are still trying to keep stuff seized from people who have been accused but not actually convicting of criminal behavior. …when the reforms were passed…there was a big loophole. The U.S. Justice Department’s “Equitable Sharing” program allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with the feds for busts, then funnel the forfeiture through the looser federal program, which doesn’t require convictions, back into the local police budgets. Doing this allows them to skirt any state-level restrictions on asset forfeiture.

In other states, the establishment is going nuts trying to preserve their shady scam.

…a local prosecutor and police officer say the state will be welcoming violent drug cartels if a Republican lawmaker gets his way. State Sen. Kyle Loveless has been trying to muster support this year for a bill that would reform a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture. …Loveless sees this as a fundamental violation of people’s rights to due process and property and says the lax standards have gotten innocent people in Oklahoma caught in the civil asset forfeiture net. On Thursday, he sparred with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Eric Dalgleish, a major at the Tulsa Police Department, over the merits of his bill to require a criminal conviction to permanently take someone’s property. …Kunzweiler, the district attorney, said the extra level of protection was unnecessary and that raising the bar for forfeiture would effectively roll out a welcome mat to ruthless drug traffickers from Mexico. …Dalgleish later said that cartels were keeping a close eye on Loveless’ legislation and even lobbying for its passage.

Shame on Kunzweiler and Dagleish. What reckless and dishonest demagoguery.

And three cheers for Sen. Loveless, who deserves a lot of love for putting the principles of the Constitution first.

Sadly, the Trump Administration is on the side of theft-by-government, which is especially disappointing since there was a small move in the right direction during the Obama years.

P.S. Just like intrusive and ineffective money-laundering laws, wretched asset forfeiture laws are largely the result of the foolish War on Drugs. One bad policy generates another bad policy. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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For the past 30 years, I’ve been criticizing both the tax code and the IRS. Which raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question about who should be blamed for our nightmarish tax system.

Should we blame IRS bureaucrats, who have a dismal track record of abusing taxpayers? Or should we blame politicians, who have been making the tax code more onerous ever since that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted?

In this exchange with Stuart Varney, I take an ecumenical approach and blame both.

As you can see, I am slightly conflicted on this debate.

There are plenty of reasons to condemn the IRS, and not just because of what I mentioned in the interview about its deplorable campaign to suppress political speech by Tea Party organizations.

Yet there is an equally strong case to be made that politicians are the real problem. They are the ones who created the tax system. They are the ones who make it more complex with each passing year.

And they are the ones who constantly give more power and money to the IRS in hopes of generating more cash that can be used to buy votes.

Indeed, the most important thing I said in the interview is that the IRS budget has dramatically increased over the past few decades. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So while I’m surely not a fan of the IRS, I’m probably even more critical of politicians since they’re the ones responsible for the bad laws that empower bureaucrats.

But that doesn’t really matter because the solution is the same regardless of whether one blames politicians or the IRS. Throw the tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax (or, if there are ever sufficient votes to undo the 16th Amendment, replace the internal revenue code with a national consumption tax).*

Let’s close with some humor. First, here’s a painful reminder (h/t: Reddit‘s libertarian page) of the relationship between taxpayers and politicians, though it’s worth noting that they want to grab your income regardless of whether there’s a lot or a little. In other words, the taxpayer could be holding a minnow and nothing would change.

Maybe I should add this image to my archive of IRS humor, which already features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

*In my libertarian fantasy world, we would return to the limited government created by the Founding Fathers, thus eliminating the need for any broad-based tax.

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There’s an easy way to judge whether countries have good economic policy or bad economic policy. Simply look at the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and check out a nation’s absolute score as well as how it ranks relative to other nations.

The EFW report even allows readers to see how nations score in the five major policy areas the are used to produce the overall grade. These categories are:

  • Size of Government – A measure of the burden of taxes and spending.
  • Regulation – A measure of intervention and red tape.
  • Sound Money – A measure of monetary stability and financial freedom.
  • Freedom to Trade Internationally – A measure of liberty to engage in cross-border commerce.
  • Legal System and Property Rights – A measure of the quality of governance.

This last category sometimes doesn’t get enough attention. I sometimes refer to it as the rule-of-law measure. It’s basically a way of trying to estimate whether government is doing a good job with institutional public goods. The variables used include 1) Judicial independence, 2) Impartial courts, 3) Protection of property rights, 4) Military interference in rule of law and politics, 5) Integrity of the legal system, 6) Legal enforcement of contracts, 7) Regulatory costs of the sale of real property 8) Reliability of police, and 9) Business costs of crime.

Let’s look today at property rights. And I’m motivated to address this issue because of some horrifying news from South Africa. The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue this morning.

No country ever became rich through its government’s seizure of private property (exhibit A: the Soviet Union), but politicians in South Africa want to give it another go. That’s the disheartening news from Cape Town this week, where the National Assembly voted 241-83 on Tuesday to start a process to amend the constitution and allow land expropriation without compensation.

When I saw the headline and read the opening paragraph, my initial instinct was “so what?” After all, the whites probably stole the land from the blacks in the first place.

But then I found out that issue already has been handled.

Post-apartheid, the government bought land and offered compensation to South Africans whose property had been forcibly seized after 1913. Many of those claims are now settled… According to a 2016 Institute of Race Relations survey, less than 1% of South Africans think land is one of the country’s “serious unresolved problems.” Unemployment, public services, housing and crime rank far higher.

What’s actually happening is hard-core leftist populism. And it may turn South Africa into another Zimbabwe.

Julius Malema of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party…believes the state should be the “custodian” of the nation’s property… His party says the expropriation “should apply to all South Africans, black and white.”

Huh? Stealing property from everybody, regardless of race, while calling your party Economic Freedom Fighters?!?

I guess their idea of freedom means freedom to loot, which is sometimes called – rather perversely – positive liberty. But I shouldn’t laugh too hard because the United States actually had a president with the same twisted mindset.

In any event, the WSJ reminds us that this won’t produce good results.

The idea is likely to duplicate the awful experience of Zimbabwe during the Robert Mugabe era, a case study in the reality that bureaucrats can’t distribute resources more efficiently or productively than private markets. Mugabe’s confiscations spooked investors, the agricultural industry collapsed, and a once prosperous country became known for hyperinflation and poverty. …the ruling African National Congress is supporting the measure to distract attention from its own failed statist economic policies, which have produced subpar growth and denied opportunity to poor South Africans. …South Africa needs more capital, more investment and a favorable business environment. Seizing private property has produced misery everywhere it has been tried.

This is very troubling, especially since South Africa, compared to other nations on the continent, maintained semi-decent policies after dismantling the racist apartheid regime.

I wrote back in 2014 about South African economic policy and shared data about the nation’s EFW score. I was worried about the trend, and I’m now even more pessimistic.

Since today’s topic is property rights, let’s look at the global scores from the International Property Rights Index, which is published each year by the Property Rights Alliance.

As you can see, South Africa currently is in the second quintile. Best score of any African country, and above some European nations as well.

But if the South African constitution is changed and land expropriation is allowed, it’s a foregone conclusion that the country will suffer a precipitous fall in the rankings.

And here’s the map accompanying the study. The bottom line is that blue is good and purple/maroon (or whatever that color is…mauve?) is bad.

Switching to other nations, notice that all the Nordic nations are highly ranked. Indeed, they hold three of the top five slots. No wonder they score highly in that part of Economic Freedom of the World. Moreover, they also get very good scores for monetary policy, regulatory policy, and trade policy. Which explains why their economies get decent performance notwithstanding very bad fiscal policy.

And I’m certainly not surprised that New Zealand has the top spot.

The United States also does reasonably well. Not in the top 10, but at least in the top quintile.

P.S. In addition to moving in the wrong direction on property rights, South African politicians are making the tax code more destructive.

P.P.S. There is a country in sub-Saharan Africa to emulate.

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I periodically fret that individualism is dying in the United States and that Americans are morphing into handout-loving Europeans.

Well, the spirit of 1776 is not completely dead. There are still some Americans who stand up against the greedy, grasping, and oppressive state. I heartily applaud the guy in this video (and not just for personal reasons) for doing what I have thought about many times.

Sonny Bunch, writing for the Washington Free-Beacon, applauds pro-liberty vandalism.

Obviously we shouldn’t cheer all those who destroy the state’s property or all those who circumvent efforts to enforce the law. But some laws are unjust. Some of the state’s property serves to oppress. Sometimes you need a hero. …some laws are good and just. Prohibitions against rape and murder, for instance. We need them. Without laws we are savages. But speed cameras are not included in the “good and just” category. They are revenue-producing monstrosities designed to suck people of their money in order to fill the coffers of bureaucrats… If the corruptocrats in D.C. try to imprison this hero, I promise to lead the resistance in an effort to spirit him southward. We shall protect you, brother. You are one of us now.

I fully concur.

Moreover, this apparently wasn’t a one-off gesture. Washingtonian reports that numerous cameras were knocked out of action.

An unidentified man suspected of smashing 11 of the District’s traffic cameras that produce tickets for drivers who speed or run red lights is being celebrated by some as a hero after DC Police released footage of one camera’s violent demise. Police say that the cameras, located mostly around Northeast DC, were reported to be malfunctioning last Tuesday. When officers checked out the locations, they found the cameras damaged as a result of vandalism.

By the way, I have no objection to cameras that nail jerks who blow through an intersection 3 seconds after a light has turned red. Those are people who risk innocent lives.

But the cameras I’ve noticed are set in spots where the speed limit is set absurdly low. In other words, they are the modern-day version of the speed traps that used to characterize corrupt small towns.

Some people object to speed cameras but think red-light cameras are okay. As already noted, I agree with their safety concerns, but that’s not how government operates.

They’ve turned red-light cameras into a scam, as explained in this Reason video. Greedy politicians actually do dangerous things like shortening the yellow light simply because they want to produce more cash. No wonder they actually cause accidents!

Moreover, Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal explained several years ago how cameras are first and foremost set up to generate money, not to promote safety.

And here’s something else that irritates me. I’m guessing that the cops will put a lot of time and energy into tracking down the guy who knocked the cameras out of commission. Why? Because this is an issue that generates revenue for politicians.

Which raises the bigger issue of whether law enforcement resources are wisely allocated. We saw in Florida that local cops ignored dozens of calls and warnings about the nutjob loser who killed the students in Parkland, Florida (the FBI also dropped the ball as well since they were tipped off). I wonder how often those same cops were busy operating speed traps, engaging in asset forfeiture, and otherwise shaking down residents for cash?

The good news is that the heroic vandal who has gone after D.C.’s cameras is just the tip of the iceberg. Arizona residents basically killed a revenue-camera scam with civil disobedience. And Houston voters voted to shut down the shakedown being operated by their city government.

This spirit of resistance should be nationwide.

Here are three closing observations.

  1. Let’s hope this guy doesn’t get caught.
  2. Let’s also hope that other motorists follow his example and destroy other speed-trap cameras.
  3. Finally, let’s hope that a jury will engage in nullification if the guy is caught.

P.S. There’s also a group of people in England who are acting to thwart greedy, grasping government, albeit in a less revolutionary way.

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Centralization of government power is generally a very bad idea.

But this does not mean that state governments and local governments do a good job.

I’ve previously shared many examples of “great moments in state government” and today I’m going to augment my similarly sarcastic collection of “great moments in local government.”

We’ll start with one of America’s most poorly governed cities. Yes, we’re talking about Chicago.

The city can’t be bothered to stop real crime (indeed, it encourages and enables criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens), but it will nail small business owners with heavy fines for things that shouldn’t even be illegal.

A number of neighborhood small business owners are complaining that the city is overzealously policing sign permits, saying they’ve had to pay thousands of dollars in fines for words painted on their shop windows. “It just seems unfair to make you get a permit for every window panel,” said Scott Toth, owner of Craft Pizza at 1252 N. Damen Ave. …Toth had paid a contractor to paint “boiled bagels,” the hours of a pizza by the slice daily promotion, “pastries” and Sparrow Coffee in a window. Toth got a ticket for that window panel as well as three others that featured the restaurant’s logo. …hand-painted lettering at Dove’s Luncheonette advertising “breakfast, lunch, dinner,” and window script advertising “wedding dress cleaning” and “leather repair” at Wicker Park Cleaners also earned tickets, according to owners of those spots.

If you want to know what the city has achieved, here’s a “before” photo. Obviously a clear and present danger to public safety.

And here’s the “after” picture. Feel safer? Has government protected you?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more soundly knowing that there’s a crackdown on the scourge of illegal window signs.

Here are some details on Chicago’s inane law.

…city law enforced by the Department of Buildings states that permits are required for non-illuminated painted or vinyl advertising signs or lettering that take up more than 25 percent of any single window. The cost for each on-premise window sign is $200 per sign, plus a Department of Buildings zoning review fee that can vary from $50 to $1000 depending on the size of the sign. …The city requires that a professional contractor apply the lettering or images. Violators face fines of $350 to $15,000 per day until the signs are removed

Now let’s look at how Los Angeles is fleecing citizens.

…it is currently illegal for a pedestrian to step into a crosswalk after the red hand starts, even if there is sufficient time to safely cross. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that 17,000 people in the city were ticketed over a four-year period for stepping off the curb after the countdown had started. …”I don’t believe pedestrians should be preyed upon just to fill local coffers,” Santiago said in May.

Of course, Mr. Santiago is a politician, and I’m guessing he’s a big spender, so he presumably wants to prey on a different group of people.

Here’s a story from Arizona, as reported by Reason. It starts innocently enough, with one person wanting to buy some land but the owner rejecting the price.

For thirty years, Stapleton raised horses and plied his trade as a blacksmith while the city slowly grew up around him. During that time, says Stapleton, no one seemed to care much about his property or what he did with it. Until the former mayor of Phoenix set eyes on it. In 2006, Larry Herring, a representative for former mayor Phil Johnson offered Stapleton $225,000 for his property. Johnson intended to build condominiums next door. Stapleton told Herring his offer was much too low.

But then went awry. The property owner was threatened.

Herring, Stapleton says, told him if he didn’t sell, “bad things are going to happen to you” and that “a stone wall is going to fall on you.”

Unfortunately, city bureaucrats turned the threat into reality.

Shortly after rebuffing Herring’s offer, city officials cited Stapleton with six violations of the zoning code, everything from a fence that was too high, to vehicles improperly parked. The fines were $2,500 and came with the threat of six months in jail for each violation. Stapleton argued each of the violations were for long-standing features of his property, necessary for raising horses. “These things are farm things, and it’s a farm,” Stapleton says. “You didn’t bother me for thirty years. Now somebody wants the property, you want to bother me. And they were going to send me to jail to do it.” Stapleton chose to fight. The city rejected his request for a jury trial and in May 2007, a city judge fined Stapleton $15,000 and sentenced him to three years probation on the condition that he address his code violations or go to jail. At the same time the city was punishing Stapleton it was granting multiple variances to the ex-mayor’s development next door, one of them to allowed him to build a fence a foot higher than the one for which it fined Stapleton.

In a column for the New York Post, Walter Olson describes an insane proposal to help criminals in Philadelphia.

…in Philadelphia, …the city council will consider a bill to force owners of hundreds of small corner stores to take down glass partitions that protect their managers and clerks from being robbed and assaulted. It’s all being rationalized in the name of social justice. …Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who’s sponsoring the measure, …says…“Have you ever been served food at a sit-down restaurant establishment through a solid barrier? That is not acceptable. …What message does it send our children?”

Walter responds to the Councilwoman’s rhetorical question.

…it sends several messages. One is a moral that echoes down through the ages: Human beings threatened with violence have the right to protect themselves. …Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley, …is often quoted in the press demanding stronger government action to reduce gun violence. But that’s what the barriers deter. Philadelphia has a shooting every six hours, to say nothing of knifings and strong-arm robberies. The barriers reduce theft, too.

Now let’s close with an unbelievable story from Southern California about citizens getting abused. Let’s start by excerpting a horrifying anecdote.

Garcia got in trouble with Coachella City Hall in 2015 after a city code inspector discovered he had expanded his living room, making space to run a small day care center, without first getting building permits. Silver & Wright, a law firm contracted as Coachella’s city prosecutor, took the building permit case to criminal court, filing 29 misdemeanor charges. Garcia signed a plea agreement, brought his house up to code, paid a $900 fine to the court and moved on with his life.

Sounds annoying, right?

It gets worse. Far worse.

When Cesar Garcia pulled the letter out of his mailbox, he immediately recognized the name of the law firm on the envelope – Silver & Wright. …What did they want now? Garcia opened the letter, prepared for the worst, but was still shocked by what he found inside. The law firm had sent him a bill for $26,000. When he protested, the price climbed to $31,000.

And this sleazy firm, which acts on behalf of local governments, apparently makes a practice of targeting powerless people.

 Empowered by the city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – like overgrown weeds, a junk-filled yard or selling popsicles without a business license – then billed them thousands of dollars to recoup expenses. …an extensive review of public records…identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since the cities hired Silver & Wright… With the addition of code enforcement fees, administration fees, abatement fees, litigation fees and appeal fees, the total price tag rises to more than $200,000.

Other examples are equally egregious.

…a Coachella family with a busted garage door and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500. An Indio man who sold parking on his land without a business license was billed $3,200. And an Indio woman who strung a Halloween decoration across the street in front of her home – then pleaded guilty to a crime no more serious than a speeding ticket at her first court appearance – was billed $2,700. …Juan Alvarado, a disabled Coachella homeowner…was prosecuted for converting his garage into a studio apartment without getting a building permit, then was billed $7,800 for the total cost of the case against him. …Indio prosecuted Fiesta Latina, a family-owned furniture store in the city’s struggling downtown district, because it didn’t have a permit for a sign on the roof. Then the store was billed $3,327 by Silver & Wright.

Utterly disgusting. Not only this story, but the other ones as well.

These local governments are basically extortion rackets. And the targets are usually the less fortunate.

These examples basically make my point that jury nullification is a very valuable tool (at least in cases where the local governments actually allow a trial rather than rely on bureaucratic edicts). I want fellow citizens to be a potential line of defense for the oppressed and mistreated.

But my final point is counter-intuitive. As much as I despise the actions of thuggish bureaucrats and politicians at the city and county level, I prefer local government over state government (or national government, or global government) for the simple reason that it’s much easier to escape their predatory behavior.

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