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Archive for the ‘Leviathan’ Category

Some types of theft are legal in America.

But there’s a catch. You can only legally steal if you work for the government. It’s a process called “civil asset forfeiture” and it enables government officials to confiscate your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime.

I’m not joking. This isn’t a snarky reference to the tax system. Nor am I implying that bureaucrats can figuratively steal your property. We’re talking about literal theft by the state.

And it can happen if some government official decides – without any legal proceeding – that the property somehow may have been involved in criminal activity. Or maybe just because you have the wrong skin color.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains this grotesque injustice.

…thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms. Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. …A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.

These abuses happen in large part because cops are given bad incentives.

Any property they steal from citizens can be used to pad the budgets of police bureaucracies.

Today more than 40 states and the federal government permit law-enforcement agencies to retain anywhere from 45% to 100% of forfeiture proceeds. As a result, forfeiture has practically become an industry.

And real money is involved.

…data on asset forfeiture across 14 states, including California, Texas and New York. Between 2002 and 2013, the revenue from forfeiture more than doubled, from $107 million to $250 million. Federal confiscations have risen even faster. In 1986 the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund collected $93.7 million. In 2014 the number was $4.5 billion.

In other words, there’s a huge incentive for cops to misbehave. It’s called “policing for profit.”

Fortunately, there is a move for reform at the state level.

Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation. …lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas have sponsored legislation that would send confiscated proceeds directly to the general fund of the state or county. Similar measures in Arizona and Hawaii would restrict forfeiture proceeds to being used to compensate crime victims and their families. …Last fall California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that, in most cases, requires a criminal conviction before any California agency can receive equitable-sharing proceeds. In January Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved legislation to ban his state’s police and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal agencies unless its value is more than $100,000. Similar reforms have been introduced in Colorado, New Hampshire and a handful of other states.

Legislative reforms are good, though judicial action would be even better.

And, sooner or later, that may happen.

America’s best (but not quite perfect) Supreme Court Justice is justly outraged by these examples of legalized theft. First, some background.

…the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman who says that her due process rights were violated when the police seized over $200,000 in cash from her family despite the fact that no one has been convicted of any underlying crime associated with the money. Unfortunately, thanks to the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws, the authorities were permitted to take the money of this innocent woman. The Supreme Court offered no explanation today for its refusal to hear the case.

But Justice Thomas is not happy that government officials are allowed to randomly steal property.

Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he believes the current state of civil asset forfeiture law is fundamentally unconstitutional. “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas declared. Furthermore, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter are starkly at odds with the Constitution, which “presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation.” Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards for the rights of person or property.

The article continues to explain that Thomas could be signalling that the Supreme Court will address these issues in the future, even though it didn’t choose to address the case filed by the Texas woman.

Let’s hope so. It’s heartening that there’s been a bit of good news at the state level (I even wrote that reform of asset forfeiture was one of the best developments of 2015), but it would be nice if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to prohibit civil asset forfeiture altogether.

But that might be years in the future, so let’s close with a very fresh example of a good state-based reform.

The Wall Street Journal favorably opined yesterday about reforms that have been enacted in Mississippi.

…it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

The editorial reminds us why asset forfeiture is wrong.

…civil forfeiture laws…allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets. …Perverse incentives…create a huge potential for abuse.

Here’s what Mississippi did.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database. …the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer.

It’s nice that there’s been reform at the state level, and the Mississippi example is quite encouraging. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that there may not be much reason to expect progress from the White House since both President Trump and his Attorney General support these arbitrary and unfair confiscations of property.

Which is a shame since they both took oaths to protect Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

However, if the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office can change their minds and urge repeal of these unfair laws, maybe there’s hope for Trump and Sessions.

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I’ve sometimes asserted, only half-jokingly, that statists believe all of our income belongs to the government and that we should be grateful if we’re allowed to keep any slice of what we earn.

This is, at least in part, the mentality behind the “tax expenditure” concept, which creates a false equivalence between spending programs and provisions of the tax code that allow people to keep greater amounts of their own income.

Here’s how I characterized this moral blindness when criticizing a Washington Post columnist back in 2013.

Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income. …Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

Today, I have a particularly absurd real-world illustration of this statist mindset.

Two writers for the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post recently wrote an article entitled, “The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.”

Did their list of 10 “handouts” include the Export-Import Bank, which lines the pockets of big corporations? Nope.

Did it include agriculture subsidies, which provide unearned goodies for big agribusiness firms? Nope.

Did it the TARP bailout, which shielded Wall Street fatcats from capitalism? Nope.

And how about subsidized terrorism insurance, ethanol goodies, and green energy subsidies? Nope, nope, and nope.

Or the handouts in Obamacare for major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies? Nope and nope.

Instead, every single “handout” that the rich “get” from government is nothing more than a provision of the tax code that lets people keep more of their own money.

I’m not joking. Here’s the list, followed by my two cents.

1. The mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes.

As I’ve previously explained, I don’t think the tax code should be tilted in favor of residential real estate. But a handout is when the government takes money from Person A and gives it to Person B.

2. The yacht tax deduction.

There actually isn’t a yacht tax deduction, but if you can live in something, it can be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction. I don’t think that’s wise tax policy, but it’s not an example of government taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

3. Rental property.

The authors appear to be upset that people running a business get to subtract costs from gross income when calculating net income. But that’s exactly how businesses are supposed to be taxed. And even if one thought, for some odd reason, that gross income was the right tax base, this still isn’t an example of government taking from Person A to give to Person B.

4. Fancy business meals.

As just noted, businesses should be taxed on profits rather than gross receipts. Well, profits are the difference between total income and total costs, including the cost of business-related meals. And even if one thinks that folks in business are lying and mischaracterizing personal meals, they’re not spending other people’s money. No funds are being taken from Person A and being given to Person B.

5. The capital gains tax rate.

In a good tax system, there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so the capital gains tax should be abolished. As such, the “preferential” rate in the current system is more accurately characterized as a mitigation of a penalty. But even if one believes that saving and investment should be double taxed, a lower capital gains tax rate doesn’t take money from Person A to give to Person B.

6. The estate tax.

The death tax is triple taxation, so it also should be abolished. Regardless, letting a family hold onto its own money is not the same as taking from Person A to give to Person B.

7. Gambling loss deductions.

The government taxes gamblers on their net winnings (if any), which is the proper approach. And even if the government gave a deduction for net losses (which isn’t the case), this wouldn’t be an example of taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

8. The Social Security earnings limit.

The Social Security system is supposed to be social insurance, and one of the implications of this approach is that there’s a limit on the benefits one can receive and the payments one has to make. As such, it’s silly to assert that the “wage base cap” is somehow improper. But even if one believed in turning Social Security into a pure redistribution scheme, the existing earnings limit simply means a cap on what the government takes. There’s no coerced handout from Person A to Person B.

9. Retirement plans.

The bad news is that we have pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code. The good news is that some forms of retirement savings, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are protected from double taxation. That protection does not require any money being taken from Person A and given to Person B.

10. Tax prep.

I’m not a fan of companies like H&R Block that benefit from an unfair and convoluted tax code. Under a simple and fair system like the flat tax, they would go out of business. But a deduction for tax preparation costs simply allows a taxpayer to keep more of his or her income. There’s no handout from Person A to Person B.

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a strong moral component to my argument. The leftists think you’re getting a handout if you get to keep more of your own money.

I think that’s absurd.

And it’s also economically illiterate when applied to provisions of the tax code that make sense, such as companies getting to subtract expenses when calculating taxable income.

Or individuals not being subjected to double taxation.

P.S. Here’s some pro-Second Amendment humor, which cleverly uses the left’s “undocumented” terminology for illegal aliens and applies it in a much better fashion.

And if you like pro-gun humor, you can find lots of good links by clicking here.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned immigration, here’s a fascinating graphic that shows immigration trends over the past two centuries.

There’s no policy lesson of philosophical point. I just think this graphic is very informative and well designed.

But if you want my two cents, I like immigration but want to make sure we attract people who want to work and assimilate rather than scroungers (and worse) who want welfare and handouts.

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Even though I fret about a growing burden of government and have little faith in the ability (or desire) of politicians to make wise decisions, I somehow convince myself that good things will happen.

Here’s some of what I wrote two years ago, when asked whether I thought America could be saved from a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

I think there’s a genuine opportunity to save the country. …we can at least hold the line and prevent government from becoming bigger than it is today. Sort of a watered-down version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. The key is the right kind of entitlement reform.

But in that same article, I also issued this warning.

I may decide to give up if something really horrible happens, such as adoption of a value-added tax. Giving politicians a big new source of revenue, after all, would cripple any incentive for fiscal restraint.

To be blunt, imposing a big national sales tax – in addition to the income tax – would be a horrible defeat for advocates of limited government. A VAT would lead to more spending and more debt.

And that’s when folks might consider looking for escape options because America’s future will be very grim.

Here’s a video I narrated on why the value-added tax is awful public policy.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one raising the alarm.

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal wisely opined on the huge downside risk of a value-added tax.

It’s the hottest trend among tax collectors, raising a gusher of revenue for spendthrift governments worldwide. …a new report from accounting firm Ernst & Young says that VAT “systems are spreading” around the world and “rates are rising.”

By the way, the comment about “rates are rising” is an understatement, as illustrated by the table prepared by the Heritage Foundation.

Politicians love VATs both because they generate huge amounts of revenue and because the tax is hidden in the price of products and thus can be increased surreptitiously.

The WSJ explains.

The VAT is a sort of turbo-charged national sales tax on goods and services… Politicians love it because it is the most efficient revenue-raiser known to man, and its rates can be raised gradually to finance new entitlements or fill budget holes. The VAT is typically introduced with a low rate but then moves up over time until it swallows huge chunks of national economies. …Because VATs are embedded in the price of products, they can often rise unnoticed by the consumer, which is why liberals love them as a vehicle for periodic stealth tax hikes.

And in this case, “periodic” is just another way of saying “whenever politician want more money.”

And if recent history is any indication, “whenever” is “all the time.”

E&Y says standard VAT rates now average a knee-buckling 21.6% in the European Union, up from 19.4% in 2008. Average standard rates in the industrial countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have climbed to 19.2% from 17.8% in 2009. Japan is another example of the VAT upward ratchet. The Liberal Democratic Party tried to introduce the tax for years and finally succeeded with a 3% rate in 1989. Eight years later the shoguns raised it to 5%. Last year it climbed to 8%, whacking consumption and sending the economy back to negative growth.

The Japanese experience is especially educational since the VAT is a relatively new tax in that nation.

And here’s a chart showing what’s happened in the past few years to the average VAT rate in the European Union.

Now let’s look at another chart that is far more worrisome.

It shows that the burden of government spending in Europe, before VATs were adopted, wasn’t that much different than the fiscal burden of the public sector in the United States.

But once the VAT gave politicians a new source of revenue, spending exploded.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians increased spending even more  than they increased taxes.

So not only did VATs lead to more spending, they also led to more debt. I guess that’s a win-win from the perspective of statists.

Let’s now return to the WSJ editorial. Proponents sometimes claim that VATs are neutral and efficient. That may be somewhat true in theory (just as an income tax, in theory, might be clean and simple), but in the real world, VATs simply make it possible for politicians to auction off a new source of loopholes.

…while VAT systems are often presented as models of simplicity that theoretically treat all goods and services alike, politicians can’t resist picking winners and losers, creating higher or lower rates for industries at their whim. “The politicians always start running with exemptions,” says E&Y’s Gijsbert Bulk.

Here’s the bottom line.

Americans, be warned. …don’t think it can’t happen here. Liberals campaign on soaking the rich, but they know there’s only so many rich to soak. To finance the growing entitlement state, they need a new broad-based tax that hits the middle class, where the big money is. That means either a VAT or a new energy tax, like the BTU tax Bill and Hillary Clinton proposed in 1993 or the cap-and-tax scheme that President Obama wanted.

The WSJ is correct. We need to be vigilant in the fight against the VAT.

But what makes this battle difficult is that some putative allies are on the wrong side.

Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan have all expressed pro-VAT sympathies. The same is true of Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford.

And I’ve written that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they expressed openness to the VAT.

P.S. Some of you may be asking why leftists are so anxious for a VAT since they traditionally prefer class-warfare based tax hikes that extract revenue from the rich.

But here’s one of the dirty secrets of Washington. They may not admit it in public, but sensible leftists understand that there are Laffer-Curve constraints on extracting more revenue from upper-income taxpayers.

They’re familiar with the evidence from the 1980s about the sometimes-inverse link between tax rates and tax revenue and they are aware that “rich” people have substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

So if you want to collect more money, you have to go over lower-income and middle-income taxpayer.

Which is exactly what the IMF inadvertently revealed in a study showing that VATs are the “effective” way of financing bigger government.

P.P.S. I should have written that leftists generally don’t admit that they want higher taxes on the general population. Because every so often, some of them confess that their goal is to rape and pillage the middle class.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some good VAT cartoons by clicking here, here, and here.

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A few years ago, I shared a satirical divorce decree that would allow conservatives and liberals to amicably separate into two different countries.

This seemed like a good idea, particularly since another piece of satire suggested that Canada was being overrun by statists who were upset by the Tea Party election of 2010.

And don’t forget that I wrote a serious column in 2012 speculating whether advocates of limited government should be the ones moving north instead.

But rather than divorce or mass emigration, what if we could resolve our differences and live together in peace and tranquility?

Y’all may be thinking I’m smoking some of that stuff that libertarians want to legalize, but I want to make a serious point.

Or, to be more specific, I want to test whether our statist friends are serious.

I’m motivated by this presumably legitimate Facebook message. It’s designed, I’m guessing, to poke fun at conservatives who utilize government while simultaneously complaining about government.

Having read this diatribe, I want to make two points, and then end with a proposal.

My first point is that many of the supposed benefits of government would exist even if the public sector disappeared tomorrow.

There are some government-owned utilities, but I think we all recognize that most electricity is generated by the private sector.

Private satellite companies and private news companies would provide weather forecasts in the absence of NOAA and NASA.

Private food companies and private drug companies would have big incentives to provide safe products in the absence of government inspections.

People would know how to tell time without the government.

Auto companies would have every reason to produce safe cars even if there was no regulation.

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my second point. The person who put together this screed conveniently left out the programs that account for the lion’s share of government spending.

Why doesn’t the author include agriculture programs?

Why doesn’t the author include the Ponzi Scheme otherwise known as Social Security?

Why doesn’t the author include all the money spent to subsidize other nations’ defenses?

Why doesn’t the author include bankrupt and counterproductive health care entitlements such as Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid?

Why doesn’t the author include the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Why doesn’t the author include the corporate welfare at the Department of Commerce?

Why doesn’t the author include the welfare programs that trap people in dependency?

Why doesn’t the author include unemployment insurance payments that subsidize joblessness?

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my proposal.

I’m guessing that the person who put together the diatribe wanted to make the point that there are some activities of government that produce value. And even though I think he is generally wrong to imply that these things wouldn’t happen without government, I’m willing to bend over backwards in the interests of reaching a deal.

So here’s a challenge for our friends on the left: If the author agrees to get rid of the programs he doesn’t include, I’ll agree to keep all the programs he does mention.

In other words, let’s have a compromise, which is what they recommend in all the articles about relationships. Both sides meet in the middle.

Yes, I know that means too much government, but it also means that the public sector would be a far smaller burden than it is today. Indeed, I would be surprised if the total burden of government spending exceeded 10 percent of our economic output under this proposed agreement. Which would put us somewhat close to the growth-maximizing size of government.

And don’t forget that this compromise also means that the already-legislated expansions in the burden of government spending presumably wouldn’t happen.

So my proposal doesn’t mean libertarian utopia. But it also means we don’t suffer welfare state dystopia.

Now we just have to see whether our statist friends will accept this proposed peace agreement.

Or will we find out that they’re the hypocrites, not the folks who post comments on Fox News and Free Republic?

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When I give speeches around the country, I often get asked whether it’s time to give up.

More specifically, has America reached a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency and too few people creating wealth and pulling the wagon in the right direction?

These questions don’t surprise me, particularly since my speeches frequently include very grim BIS, OECD, and IMF data showing that the long-run fiscal problem in the United States is larger than it is in some nations that already are facing fiscal crisis.

But that doesn’t mean I have a good answer. I think there is a tipping point, to be sure, but I’m not sure whether there’s a single variable that tells us when we’ve reached the point of no return.

Is it when government spending consumes 50 percent of economic output? That would be a very bad development if the burden of government spending reached that level, but it’s not necessarily fatal. Back in the early 1990s, the public sector was that big in Canada, yet policy makers in that country were able to restrain budgetary growth and put the country on a positive path. Sweden is another nation that has turned the corner. Government spending peaked at 67 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, but is now down to 47 percent of GDP after years of free-market reforms.

Is it when a majority of households are getting government handouts? That’s also a worrisome development, especially if those folks see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But taking a check from Uncle Sam doesn’t automatically mean a statist mindset. As one of my favorite people opined, “some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.”

Is it when a majority of people no longer pay income taxes, leaving a shrinking minority to bear all the burden of financing government? It’s not healthy for society when most people think government is “free,” particularly if they perceive an incentive to impose even higher burdens on those who do pay. And there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the tax burden is borne by the top 10 percent. There’s little evidence, though, that the rest of the population thinks there’s no cost to government – perhaps because many of them pay heavy payroll taxes.

I explore these issues in this interview with Charles Payne.

The main takeaway from the interview is that the tipping point is not a number, but a state of mind. It’s the health of the nation’s “social capital.”

So for what it’s worth, the country will be in deep trouble if and when the spirit of self-reliance becomes a minority viewpoint. And the bad news is that we’re heading in that direction.

The good news is that we’re not close to the point of no return. There is some polling data, for instance, showing that Americans still have a much stronger belief in liberty than their European counterparts.

And we’ve even made a small bit of progress against big government in the past few years.

I speculated in the interview that we probably have a couple of decades to save the country, but it will become increasingly difficult to make the necessary changes – such as entitlement reform and welfare decentralization – as we get closer to 2020 and 2030.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd if those changes don’t occur…?

That’s a very grim subject. I fully understand why some Americans are thinking about the steps they should take to protect their families if reforms don’t occur and a crisis occurs.

Indeed, this to me is one of the most compelling arguments against gun control. If America begins to suffer the chaos and disarray that we’ve seen in nations such as Greece, it’s better to be well-armed.

Though maybe there will be some nations that remain stable as the world’s welfare states collapse. And if emigration is your preferred option, I’d bet on Australia.

But wouldn’t it be better to fix what’s wrong and stay in America?

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If you don’t like the NSA collecting and monitoring all your communications, you probably won’t be thrilled about new technologies that will give government power to monitor where you drive and control how you drive.

Let’s look at a couple of options and then ponder which is more offensive.

We’ll start with government monitoring of where you drive. Here’s part of what Holman Jenkins wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

…the real threat to our autonomy gathers speed. “Autonomous” vehicles are part of the threat—because they won’t be autonomous at all. This column has warned for years about plate-recognition cameras, increasingly armed with face-recognition capabilities, that will make it impossible to go anywhere or do anything in public without being monitored. …The population is aging. An older, more timid society is likely to be in favor of penning up fellow citizens in a mesh of monitoring to regulate routine behavior. The authoritarianism of the weak, always a problem in society, will find an ally in the bureaucracy’s craving for resources.

Holman cites a few examples.

Traffic cameras…overwhelmingly ring up drivers for offenses that wouldn’t trouble a cop. New Jersey is just the latest state scandalized by discovery that yellow lights are set below the state minimum in order to yield more red-light camera tickets. …In some future discrimination or hate-crime lawsuit, will vehicle records be called up to show you locked your doors in a minority neighborhood but not in a white neighborhood? Will the state decide to raise your ObamaCare copays because a face-recognition camera also recognized a cigarette dangling from your lip? When our every action in space and cyberspace can be monitored and policed, we no longer police ourselves to any meaningful extent. We become not citizens but children. The state is our parent. The real threat is that many of our fellow citizens will like it this way.

This sounds very Orwellian and very bad, but there are other ways for government to make driving an unpleasant experience.

Let’s see what the UK-based Daily Mail is reporting about an obnoxious European proposal to give government control over your gas pedal.

Drivers face having their cars  fitted with devices that slam on the brakes if they go over the speed limit, under draconian new road safety measures being drawn up by  officials in Brussels. All new cars would have to include camera systems that ‘read’ the limits displayed on road signs and automatically apply the brakes. And vehicles already on the road could even be sent back to garages to be fitted with the ‘Big Brother’ technology… The EC’s Mobility and Transport Department hopes to roll out the ‘Intelligent Speed Adaptation’ technology (ISA) as part of a new road safety programme.

And how will this big-brother system work?

The ISA technology works in one of two ways – either through satellites, which communicate limits automatically to cars from databases, or by using cameras to read road signs. It then deploys one of three controls to slow drivers: ‘advice’, in which the motorist is simply notified of the speed limit by an alarm, giving them the opportunity to slow down; ‘driver select’, which arrests the car’s speed but gives the driver the option of disabling the device; or ‘mandatory’, which would not let a driver breach the speed limit under any circumstances. …A spokesman for the AA said at lower speeds the new technology could actually create dangers. He said: ‘If you were overtaking a tractor and suddenly needed to accelerate to avoid a head-on collision, you would not be able to.’

I’m glad people from the Automobile Association are warning that the system poses risks, but opposition should be based on more than utilitarian arguments. How about the freedom to be left alone and not monitored and pestered while you travel?

But let’s set that issue aside and contemplate whether it’s worse to have the government track where you drive or worse to have the government control how you drive.

Maybe this makes me a bad libertarian, but I’m not overly worried about the first option. Perhaps this is because I have a relatively staid life. I drive to work and I drive to softball. Every so often, I drive to the grocery store or to an airport. The bureaucrats tracking me would go crazy with boredom. Heck, I’d probably feel some pressure to spice up my social life simply because I’d feel sympathy for them.

Maybe they’ll force us to drive green cars?

By contrast, I would be very irritated if the government got control over my accelerator. It’s already annoying that revenue-hungry local governments and anti-automobile greenies conspire to set speed limits considerably below safe and efficient levels. But at least there’s very little risk if you drive within 10 miles of the limit and you always have the choice to drive even faster if you’re willing to take a chance that some random cop will pull you over. But if the government imposes some system that forces my car to stay within the speed limit, I won’t be a happy camper.

I’ll be very curious to read the comments for this post. In the meantime, I’m going to close with a few optimistic words.

Simply stated, government may have the technology to spy on us, but that doesn’t mean they have the brains, ability, or manpower to make much use of this power.

Money laundering laws are a good example. It’s rather offensive that the government has set up a system that forces banks and other financial institutions to spy on all of our financial transactions.

But other than imposing high costs on the financial sector, this system doesn’t have much impact on the average person. To be sure, some poor people lose access to the financial system. And, yes, there are horror stories about people who have their accounts frozen because they’ve engaged in an unusual transaction, but most of us will live our lives without ever noticing that the government has created this Orwellian regime.

Likewise, I don’t think the monitoring and collection of traffic data will impact our lives. At least not until the point the government uses its power in some of the ways described by Holman Jenkins. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

I’m also somewhat hopeful that car-control technologies won’t get abused. At least not right away. Local governments, for instance, would probably oppose a system to control travel speeds for the simple reason that they want to maintain the revenue from speeding tickets.

Moreover, I bet many Americans would rise up in revolt if the government tried to take control of our gas pedals. Politicians who pushed for such a scheme would lose election and bureaucrats who tried to impose such a system via regulation would get slapped down.

We’ve lost some of our freedoms and fighting spirit, but there are some lines the government still can’t cross. Driving faster than the government allows is as American as apple pie.

P.S. Speaking of American traditions, what about the young (and not-so-young) people who sometimes do a bit of romancing while in their cars? Maybe the bureaucrats (motivated by this Obama-NSA joke) will insist that we also install internal cameras in our vehicles.

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I’m not sure I could pick out a significant victory for human freedom in 2012.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the only good policy that’s even worth mentioning was the decision in Wisconsin to rein in the special privileges and excessive compensation for government workers.

But there definitely have been lots of sad developments.

The hard part is picking the most disappointing story.

1. Was it the craven decision by John Roberts to put politics before the Constitution and cast the deciding vote for Obamacare? This certainly could be the most disappointing event of the year, but technically it didn’t represent a step in the wrong direction since the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to unlimited federal power back in the 1930s and 1940s. The Obamacare case is best characterized as a failure to do the right thing. A very tragic decision, to be sure, but it maintained the status quo.

2. Was it the lawless decision by the Internal Revenue Service to impose a horrible regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law? This was a very bad development in the battle for tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another in a long line of policies (such as FATCA) designed to increase the power of governments to impose and enforce bad tax policy.

3. Was it the Japanese government’s decision to double the value-added tax? I’m definitely not a fan of adding a VAT on top of the income tax, but Japan made that mistake years ago. The choice to increase the tax rate just shows why it’s dangerous to give politicians any new source of revenue. So this isn’t the worst policy development of 2012, particularly since the new Japanese government may suspend the tax hike.

4. Was it the delusional decision by 54 percent of California voters to impose a big, class-warfare tax hike? I thought the vote for Prop 30 was a very troubling development since it signaled that voters could be tricked into enacting class-warfare tax policy, even though they should have realized that more revenue for the state’s politicians would simply exacerbate the eventual fiscal collapse. But since I think this will be a learning experience on what not to do, I can’t put this at the top of my list.

5. Was it the French government’s punitive decision to impose a 75-percent top tax rate? This is a spectacularly misguided policy, and it’s already resulting in an exodus of entrepreneurs and other successful people. But just as I enjoy have California as a negative role model, I like using France as an example of bad policy. So it would be a bit hypocritical for me to list this as the worst policy of 2012.

6. Or was it the envy-motivated decisions by politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace flat tax systems with so-called progressive tax regimes? This is a strong candidate for the worst policy of the year. It’s very rare to see governments do the right thing, so it’s really tragic when politicians implement good reforms and later decide to reinstate class-warfare policies.

All things considered, I think this last option is the worst policy development of 2012. To be sure, I’m a bit biased since my work focuses on public finance issues and I’ve spent 20 years advocating for tax reform.

But I think there’s a strong case to be made, by anyone who believes in freedom, that politicians from Slovakia and the Czech Republic deserve the booby prize for worst public policy development of 2012.

Alvin Rabushka, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Flat Tax , summarizes the grim news.

On December 4, 2013, the center-left parliament of Slovakia modified the country’s historic 19% flat-rate tax…  Effective January 1, 2013, the income tax rate for corporations was raised from 19% to 23%, while that on individuals earning more than €39,600 (€1=$1.30) a year was raised to 25%, thereby creating two brackets of 19% and 25%. …On November 7, 2012, the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the national parliament approved a proposal to impose a second higher rate of 22% on annual income exceeding Czech Koruna (CZK) 100,000 ($5,200) per month.  President Vaclav Klaus signed the bill on December 22, 2012, which will take effect on January 1, 2013.

What’s especially depressing about these two defeats is that the supposedly right-wing parties deserve the blame.

Two nations filled with brain-dead conservative politicians

In Slovakia, all but one of the right-leaning parties in the old government decided to support the Greek bailout, leading to the collapse of the government and the election of a new socialist government that then sabotaged tax reform.

And in the Czech Republic, the current right-of-center government decided to scrap the flat tax for “fairness” reasons. I’m sure that will really be comforting to the Czech people as the economy suffers from less growth.

To understand what the people of those nations are losing, here’s my video on the flat tax.

Now for a bit of good news. There are still more than 25 flat tax jurisdictions in the world, including two of my favorite places – Hong Kong and Estonia.

So there are still some pockets of rationality. It’s just very unfortunate that the scope of human liberty is getting smaller every year.

P.S. The absolute worst thing that happened in 2012, if we look beyond public policy, was Georgia falling 4 yards short of beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship.

P.P.S. Speaking of sports, the best thing about 2012 occurred in Virginia Beach back in October.

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