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Posts Tagged ‘Government Thuggery’

Hard-core libertarians sometimes point out that thieves and tax bureaucracies have a lot in common. Both use the threat of force and punishment to take money from unwilling victims.

There’s a lot of truth to that comparison. I give money to the IRS every year for the same reason that I would hand over my wallet to a gun-toting criminal.

I don’t want to surrender my earnings, of course, but the consequences of non-compliance are very high.

However, I don’t rely on this comparison when debating tax policy because a clever leftist will point out that it implies anarcho-capitalism (i.e, if all taxes are theft, that means no government).

That being said, sometimes there truly is no difference between the behavior of thieves and the behavior of bureaucrats.

Jacob Sullum’s column in Reason reveals a nauseating example of theft-by-government, which involves a sheriff’s department in California brazenly stealing the revenue of legal marijuana businesses.

San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies stopped Empyreal vans three times in November, December, and January. They seized cash during two of the stops, making off with a total of more than $1 million, which was transferred to the FBI so the Justice Department could pursue forfeiture under federal law. If the government prevails in those forfeiture proceedings, the sheriff’s department will get to keep up to 80 percent of the money under the Justice Department’s “equitable sharing” program. The earnings of state-licensed marijuana suppliers are not subject to forfeiture under California law. …Empyreal argues that the traffic stops were pretextual: ostensibly justified by minor traffic violations but actually aimed at generating revenue for the sheriff’s department. Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Franco claimed the November 16 stop, which resulted in the seizure of $712,000, was justified because the Empyreal van was following a tractor-trailer too closely. When the same deputies pulled over the same vehicle, driven by the same employee, on December 9, according to the lawsuit that Empyreal filed on January 14, they claimed the driver “slightly exceeded the speed limit and prematurely activated his turn signal.”

The article gets into some of the legal details, such as the armored-car company (Empyreal) trying to get a restraining order against the thieving bureaucrats.

All of which is important, I’m sure, but I can’t help but focus on the utterly venal actions of the San Bernardino County Sheriff (as well as the FBI, the Justice Department, and anyone else involved).

I understand that some people don’t like that there are legal marijuana suppliers in California. But that doesn’t mean that a local law enforcement bureaucracy has the right to engage in (quite literally) highway robbery.

So what’s the bottom line?

Because I believe in the rule of law, nobody should be subject to civil asset forfeiture (a.k.a., “policing for profit“), a reprehensible practice that allows governments to steal property without a finding of guilt.

Even real criminals shouldn’t be punished until and unless they are convicted. But it’s even more disgusting when people engaging in completely legal behavior are targeted.

P.S. Here’s an amusing example of the shoe being on the other foot.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the first two directors of the Justice Department’s program on asset forfeiture have since come out against the practice. Redemption is good for the soul.

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Civil asset forfeiture occurs when bureaucrats literally steal a person’s property when the person hasn’t been convicted – or perhaps not even charged – of any wrongdoing.

Citing a nauseating example of this odious practice, I wrote back in 2014 that all decent and moral people should be libertarians.

I was exaggerating, of course, so allow me to share a different statement that is completely accurate: Supporters of civil asset forfeiture (also known as “policing for profit“) are neither decent nor moral.

Indeed, they are bad people who support thuggish and unfair mistreatment of their fellow citizens.

If you think I’m being too dogmatic about this issue, here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times by Michael Levenson.

When Kermit Warren lost his job shining shoes during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he and his son took his life savings of nearly $30,000 to buy a tow truck to support Mr. Warren’s longtime side business of collecting scrap metal. …As Mr. Warren walked through security at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, the screeners asked him about the money… At the gate, just before Mr. Warren and his son boarded their flight, three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration asked Mr. Warren about the cash. …The agents soon suspected that Mr. Warren was carrying illegal drug money and seized the cash. …“I never knew in my whole 58 years as a man in the United States that three D.E.A. agents could take a man’s money from him that he worked for, and not had committed any kind of crime, or was arrested for doing any type of wrongdoing,” Mr. Warren said… “How could they just take my money from me like that?” …The practice is a popular way to raise revenue but has been easily abused and widely criticized for depriving people of their right to due process and for disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color like Mr. Warren, who is Black.

Fortunately, this awful story has a happy ending.

…the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm…sued the D.E.A. and the Transportation Security Administration, accusing the agencies of seizing travelers’ money without probable cause. …On Thursday, federal prosecutors agreed to return all $28,180 to Mr. Warren and to dismiss their civil forfeiture complaint.

Congratulations to the great libertarian lawyers at the Institute for Justice, who tirelessly fight on behalf of people suffering from abusive government.

And kudos to the small handful of states that have restricted the ability of law enforcement to steal from citizens.

But what we really need is for the Supreme Court to rule that civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional. Fortunately, Clarence Thomas may be interested in leading such an effort.

P.S. The one silver lining to the horror of asset forfeiture is that it produced this clever example of humor.

P.P.S. Civil asset forfeiture is an example of predatory government (and I cheer people who find novel ways of fighting back).

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When people ask me why I’m a libertarian, I rarely mention high taxes and wasteful spending. Nor do I make philosophical arguments about the non-aggression principle. And it’s also unlikely that I’ll cite Ayn Rand.

Instead, I point out that all decent human beings should be libertarian because unconstrained government has the power to abuse people and wreck their lives.

Consider “civil asset forfeiture,” as described in this video.

When I read about some of the real-world cases involving asset forfeiture, it gets my blood boiling.

No wonder I’ve described it as “Venezuelan-style thuggery” and written that the practice is “disgusting, nauseating, reprehensible, and despicable.”

And, if that doesn’t get my point across, I have used other phrases to characterize asset forfeiture.

Let’s look at two odious examples of asset forfeiture that took place this year.

First, the Wall Street Journal editorialized earlier this year about a case in California, in which the FBI decided that it had the right to steal assets from safe deposit boxes simply because the financial institution was charged with crimes.

…the FBI raided U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills in March, it did so after the business had been indicted for conspiring to launder money, sell drugs and other crimes. But the FBI also took control of $86 million in cash and valuables it found in the safe deposit boxes of people who haven’t been accused of a crime. Some of these folks have sued… The Institute for Justice is representing seven plaintiffs in this case. Their argument is that they have done nothing wrong and should not have to go through the cumbersome civil forfeiture process to prove that their cash, jewelry or precious metals are legitimately theirs. …the Fifth Amendment guarantees the right to due process before property can be taken. …The FBI forfeiture list on the contents of the seized boxes reports 14 that each held more than $1 million. Perhaps some of this comes from illegal sources, but the mere possession of cash is not proof of guilt. If the FBI and U.S. Attorney have proof of wrongdoing, bring it on. But the burden for depriving an American of property is on the government to prove guilt, not on the targeted to prove innocence.

Amen, America’s Founders gave us a Constitution to protect against this kind of abuse.

Second, we have a report from yesterday’s Washington Post about how cops stole $87,000 from a veteran.

Stephen Lara…was on his way to visit his daughters in Northern California…he had “a lot” of cash in his car. As he stood on the side of the road, police searched the vehicle, pulling nearly $87,000 in a zip-top bag from Lara’s trunk and insisting a drug-sniffing dog had detected something on the cash. Police found no drugs, and Lara, 39, was charged with no crime. But police left with his money… “I left there confused. I left there angry,” Lara said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I could not believe that I had just been literally robbed on the side of the road by people with badges and guns.” It was only after Lara got a lawyer, sued and talked with The Washington Post about his ordeal that the government said it would return his money.

The article cites some of the critics, including the freedom fighters at the Institute for Justice.

…the case shows how the federal government abuses its asset forfeiture authority, by requiring those whose property is taken to prove their innocence to get it back. …“This is an inherently abusive power that state and local law enforcement should not have,” said Wesley Hottot, a lawyer representing Lara with the Institute for Justice, which advocates against civil asset forfeiture. “What we see almost exclusively are people like Stephen who — perhaps had quirky banking practices — but they’re not guilty of any crime. And yet, in the nation’s airports, on the nation’s roads, they’re treated by police as though a large amount of cash by itself is criminal. And that power is too dangerous to give every police officer on the street.” …Former U.S. attorney Joyce Vance said…“You can’t just take people’s stuff because you happen to find them with cash,” Vance said. “We still live in a country where people are innocent until they’re proven guilty.”

By the way, this is an issue where the Obama Administration moved policy in the right direction.

Attorney General Eric Holder curtailed use of the practice in the Obama administration, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions restored it under President Donald Trump. Though Attorney General Merrick Garland has rolled back many Trump-era changes at the Justice Department, he has not taken action on asset forfeiture.

By contrast, there’s nothing positive to say about what happened under the Trump Administration.

If you want to understand how bad Trump was on this issue, watch this video.

I’ll close with a bit of good news.

Several states have curtailed the abuse of civil asset forfeiture.

Even more promising, there are hopeful signs that the Supreme Court may rule that the practice is unconstitutional.

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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Even though I think economic growth is very important for human flourishing and strongly support the laissez-faire policies that will generate more prosperity, I’m mostly a libertarian because of moral reasons.

Simply stated, I hate when government bullies people like Jerry Johnson.

As explained in the video, Jerry is a victim of asset forfeiture, a policy that literally allows bureaucrats to steal from citizens.

I wish I was joking or exaggerating.

Moreover, this isn’t something that only happens in very rare instances. It’s so pervasive that in some years, bureaucrats actually steal more from people than burglars!

Indeed, the law actually gives cops an incentive to steal. That’s why it’s known as “policing for profit.”

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that America’s best Supreme Court Justice wants to end this awful scam.

P.S. I’m tempted to create a Victims of Thuggery Hall of Fame. If so, Jerry Johnson will be a member along with these other people who have been abused by government.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting the first two people in charge of the federal government’s asset forfeiture program have since announced their opposition to this despicable practice.

P.P.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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Ronald Reagan hit the nail on the head when he warned that government is usually the problem rather than the solution.

It’s not just that the economy suffers when there is too much spending, regulation, and taxing, we also have far too many politicians and bureaucrats who behave as if they’re motivated by personal interest rather than the national interest.

Not that we need any more evidence, but there’s an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal that perfectly captures what’s wrong with Washington.

Indeed, I’ve even recycled the title that I used just three days ago because the WSJ column is such a powerful example.

Read these excepts about a legal attack against Walmart and ask yourself whether the federal government is acting like mobsters conducting a shakedown operation.

…the Justice Department’s new suit..claims that Walmart “failed to detect and report at least hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders” and that as a pharmacy it “unlawfully filled thousands upon thousands of invalid controlled-substance prescriptions.” …The complaint…is really a 160-page exercise in scapegoating a company because it is well-known and has deep pockets. Walmart doesn’t push pills on opioid addicts. Its pharmacists fill valid prescriptions written by doctors who are licensed by their states and registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). …Walmart says it has passed tens of thousands of leads about suspicious prescriptions to state and federal law enforcement. It’s the job of the DEA and state medical boards to investigate and revoke doctors’ licenses and prescribing privileges if there’s wrongdoing.

For all intents and purposes, the company is in a no-win situation.

When pharmacists have refused to fill questionable prescriptions, doctors have sometimes sued for defamation and patients have sometimes sued for discrimination. Several states have prohibited pharmacists from interfering with the doctor-patient relationship by second-guessing valid prescriptions. No federal law supersedes these state laws. …the DEA has suggested that some combinations of opioids never have a legitimate medical purpose and should never be filled. Yet the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continues to cover these opioid combinations… In effect DOJ is asking the federal court to overrule state law in favor of informal federal guidance and a vague notion of pharmaceutical best practices. This harassment was typical of the Obama era.

This issue reminds me of the federal government’s policy on money laundering. In that case, the government not only orders banks to spy on customers, but also to read their minds to somehow figure out if a financial transaction is connected to criminal behavior.

The net result is a very costly and intrusive system that has utterly failed to achieve its purpose of reducing criminal behavior.

But that doesn’t stop Uncle Sam from periodically imposing heavy fines on banks for nit-picking violations, just like the federal government today wants to extort a bunch of money out of Walmart.

It’s almost enough to make you think there’s a pattern.

P.S. I have a .500 batting average in my experiences as a global money launderer.

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Since I’m an economist specializing in public finance, I get very upset about punitive tax policy and wasteful government spending.

But what really gets my blood boiling is reading about the horrific policy of civil asset forfeiture, which literally allows government to steal your property even if you haven’t been convicted of a criminal offense. Or, in many cases, even charged with any wrongdoing!

I’ve decided to revisit this issue because of a recent tweet reminding us that the people who are supposed to protect us actually take more of our property than burglars.

What’s particularly nauseating is that this policy gives law enforcement an incentive to misbehave.

Consider, for instance, these details from a 2014 story in the New York Times.

…civil asset forfeiture…allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. …The practice…has come under fire…amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. …Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials… In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement…seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car. …forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. …Flat screen televisions…“are very popular with the police departments.”

This is why asset forfeiture is accurately described as “policing for profit.”

There was some good news on this issue last year in South Carolina, as reported by the Greenville News.

A South Carolina circuit court judge in Horry County has ruled the state’s civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments. …Earlier this year The Greenville News published coverage from a two-year investigation into civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina. …Nearly 800 times when police seized money or property, no related criminal charge was filed. In another 800 cases, someone was charged with a crime but not convicted. …About 65% of the cases involved black men though black men make up just 13% of the state’s population. …John’s written decision found that South Carolina’s forfeiture laws violate both the federal and state constitutional protections against excessive fines by allowing the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and property that aren’t proportionate to the alleged crime. …The judge’s ruling signals how he would approach forfeiture cases in his court in the future but doesn’t set precedent across the state.

What we really need, of course, is a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that civil asset forfeiture violates the Constitution (violates the presumption of innocence, excessive punishment, etc), and there are some reasons to hope that may soon happen.

It’s also good news that conservatives have joined with libertarians (such as the great people at the Institute for Justice) in opposing this egregious practice.

Here are some excerpts from a National Review article by Isaac Schorr.

The process is broken. …the government brings charges against the property itself without leveling any against the property owner. On a federal level, criminal behavior need not be proven for law enforcement to initiate civil-asset-forfeiture proceedings; mere suspicion is considered reason enough. It’s worth noting that as California’s attorney general, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris strongly supported handing this same power to local law enforcement — for the people, of course. …Why has civil-asset forfeiture, which flies in the face of American expectations of due process and the presumption of innocence, been allowed to persist in its current form? It’s all about the Benjamins. …This practice…provides local authorities with perverse incentives. …they can move to forfeit property under federal law and take up to 80 percent of what the property is worth,” which gives them “a direct financial stake in forfeiture encourag[ing] profiteering and not the pursuit of justice.” What police department would not take advantage of such a profitable opportunity, particularly when those profits are not subject to the same oversight as taxpayer dollars?

When cops lose access to this loot, they naturally complain.

Here are some passages from a story in the Mercury News.

While the value of property seized in California has skyrocketed, the state’s share of the booty — which has traditionally helped fund local police agencies — has plunged. That’s largely because of a new state law seeking to protect personal property, allowing local agencies to keep proceeds from asset seizures only when people are convicted of a crime, rather than simply when they’re arrested. …California…passed laws — more stringent than the federal government — restricting when state and local police could seize private property. So local agencies worked around them by partnering directly with the U.S. Department of Justice in asset-forfeiture cases, bypassing the rules in state laws. SB 443 closes that loophole for state and local agencies — but not for the federal government, which can continue to seize property without criminal convictions. …The Golden State is trying to set a good example and do the principled thing, even as the federal government goes in the opposite direction, said Gregory Chris Brown, associate professor of criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton.

In other words, fixing this problem involves all levels of government.

Local law enforcement needs to stop policing for profit.

State government needs to stop policing for profit.

And Uncle Sam needs to get out of the racket as well.

Speaking of the federal government, the Obama Administration took a tiny step in the right direction, but the Trump Administration has been very unhelpful.

And what about the incoming Biden Administration? I haven’t seen any indication, but I’m not brimming with optimism given Biden’s generic desire for Washington to have more money, as well as his unpalatable record as a booster of the failed War on Drugs.

But hopefully he’ll surprise me.

In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed for further reforms at the state level.

Let’s close by recycling a great video on this issue from the folks at Reason.

P.S. It’s worth noting that the first two people in charge of asset forfeiture for the federal government have since come out against this odious practice.

P.P.S. Here’s some sauce-for-the-goose-sauce-for-the-gander humor involving asset forfeiture.

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Some policies will improve with Biden in the White House, most notably trade, but also government spending (not because Biden is good, but rather because Republicans will go back to pretending to be fiscally conservative).

But some policies will move in the wrong direction. Biden is awful on tax policy, for instance, though I expect Republicans in the Senate will block his class-warfare agenda.

Biden is also very bad on regulatory issues. Unfortunately, this is an area where the new President (and his appointees) will have plenty of authority to shift policy in the wrong direction.

I’m especially worried that Biden will resuscitate an Obama-era policy of strong-arming banks so they won’t do business with unpopular industries. This video, which I first shared back in 2016, explains this reprehensible policy.

Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation, in a column for Forbes, provides some additional background on the policy.

Choke Point consisted of bureaucrats in several independent federal agencies taking it upon themselves to shut legal businesses – such as payday lenders and firearms dealers – out of the banking system. Given the nature of the U.S. regulatory framework, this operation was easy to pull off. Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for instance, simply had to inform the banks they were overseeing that the government considered certain types of their customers “high risk.” The mere implication of a threat was enough to pressure banks into closing accounts, because no U.S. bank wants anything to do with extra audits or investigations from their regulator, much less additional operating restrictions or civil and criminal charges. Banks are incredibly sensitive to any type of pressure from federal regulators, and they know that the regulators have enormous discretion.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Phil Gramm and Mike Solon elaborated on the left’s campaign to politicize the banking system.

Banking was used as a weapon against legal, solvent businesses by the Obama administration during Operation Choke Point, a program to deny the disfavored access to banking services. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. labeled certain businesses “high risk,” including firearms and ammunition dealers, check-cashers, payday lenders and fireworks vendors. Unelected regulators, not Congress or courts, marked these industries as “dirty business” and made it “unacceptable for an insured depository institution” to offer them banking services. …With Democrats unable to ban guns legislatively, Rep. Carolyn Maloney admonished banks at a recent hearing to not “finance gun slaughter.” When she urged JPMorgan to deny credit for legal firearm sales as other banks had done, the CEO responded, “We can certainly consider that. Yes.” At the same hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib challenged bank CEOs: “Will any of your banks make a commitment to phase out your investments in fossil fuels and dirty energy?” The CEOs declined to defend fossil fuels… Letting political intimidation dictate the availability of private credit endangers freedom and stifles productivity growth and job creation. …The use of political intimidation to allocate capital is an assault on economic efficiency and freedom.

There is, however, a bit of good news.

The Trump Administration ended Operation Choke Point back in 2017.

And, although it is happening at the last minute, the Trump Administration is now trying to strengthen the rule of law so banks won’t feel pressured to discriminate against certain industries in the future.

In a column published yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, Brian Brooks and Charles Calomiris of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) explain the new rule that their agency has unveiled.

…there have been too many allegations of banks cutting off vital services, credit and capital that legal businesses rely on to create jobs, meet community needs and support the economy. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, where we serve as acting comptroller and chief economist, respectively, on Friday proposed a rule to prevent banks from discriminating against legal businesses and individuals. The rule would require bankers to do what they do best: assess risk and underwrite credit decisions. …politically driven discrimination against particular industries has threatened fairness in banking. Under the Obama administration, Operation Choke Point, in which the OCC did not take part, involved regulators discouraging banks from serving legal and constitutionally protected businesses such as payday lenders and gun and ammunition sellers. …the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 added to the OCC’s traditional mission of safety and soundness the obligation to ensure fair access to financial services… Banks may not exclude entire parts of the economy for reasons unrelated to objective, quantifiable risks specific to an individual customer.

Sadly, if Biden has the same attitude as Obama about the rule of law, a future OCC can reverse anything Trump’s people adopt.

I’ll close with a libertarian-minded observation.

Because I believe in freedom of association, I think banks should have the liberty to discriminate against specific businesses, or even entire industries.

But there’s a big difference between banks choosing to discriminate and being coerced into such behavior by government regulators.

So it was disgusting that Obama’s regulators went after industries they didn’t like, such as gun dealers.

But it would be equally reprehensible if a Republican Administration went after an industry it didn’t like, such as legal marijuana.

P.S. The broader lesson to learn from Operation Choke Point is that regulatory power for governments is a vehicle for corruption and malfeasance.

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One week ago, I wrote about how the welfare state creates high implicit marginal tax rates, thus making it difficult for low-income people to climb out of poverty and dependence.

But that’s not the only way that poor people are victimized by big government.

Another very serious problem is the way local and state governments impose a plethora of fees, fines and charges that can wreck the lives of the less fortunate.

In a column for the New York Times, Professor Bernadette Atahuene of the Chicago-Kent College of Law opines on the problem of greedy local governments.

I coined the term “predatory cities” to describe urban areas where public officials systematically take property from residents and transfer it to public coffers… Ferguson, Mo., is one well-known predatory city. As a 2015 Department of Justice report showed, the police in Ferguson systematically targeted African-Americans and subjected them to excessive fines and fees. …local courts issued arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees… Minor offenses, like parking infractions, resulted in jail time… The Ferguson Police Department and courts prioritized revenue raising over public safety, transforming Ferguson into a predatory city.

Professor Atahuene cites the pernicious policies of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. (and note that asset forfeiture is one of the problems).

New Orleans is another. …Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s primary source of funding was the fines and fees it collected. This created a structural incentive for judges to aggressively and erroneously pursue payment from those with no ability to pay, turning New Orleans into a predatory city. Washington, D.C., is yet another predatory city. While civil asset forfeiture laws allow the police to seize property that they suspect was involved in a crime, in Washington, D.C., property owners had to post bonds of up to $2,500 in order to challenge the seizure. If the owner could not raise money in time, the D.C. Police Department sold the property, and the money went into its annual budget. In a two-year period, the Police Department made $4.8 million in profit by seizing money from over 8,500 people as well as seizing 339 vehicles.

Every decent human being should get upset about the grotesque way that politicians are mistreating their residents.

Especially since poor people are being disproportionately victimized.

By the way, it appears that Professor Atahuene is not a libertarian. She wants Congress to approve a big bailout, based on the theory that state and local politicians will be less likely to engage in what I’ve called “rapacious revenue-raising tactics” if they get big buckets of money from Uncle Sam.

Needless to say, I think that would be a mistake.

But I don’t think someone needs to agree with me on everything, or even most things, if we can periodically find common ground on proposals that would improve the lives of people (not just on the need to curtail greedy local governments, but also on issues such as over-criminalization and police unions).

P.S. I wonder if there would be fewer petty fines, fees, and charges if they were levied on the ability to pay, thus making higher-income people more sensitive to the problem?

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One of the most-nauseating features of government is how politicians and bureaucrats impose lots of restrictions on ordinary people, yet then officially or unofficially create exemptions for themselves.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a new opportunity for the political class to flaunt its privileged status while stepping on the rights of ordinary people.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this issue today and noted plenty of elected officials have decided to exempt themselves from lockdown rules.

A good sign that a government policy is misconceived is that its most energetic promoters can’t abide by it. The coronavirus outbreak has exposed this sort of hypocrisy more than a few times. Mayor Bill de Blasio famously visited his favorite YMCA for a workout even as his office was telling the rest of New York City to stay home. In Chicago, salons and barbershops were shut down while Mayor Lori Lightfoot allowed herself a haircut. Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Becky Ames flouted her city’s shelter-in-place order to have her nails done.

But these examples are trivial compared to the actions of Neil Ferguson, the officious British government employee who has been publicly hectoring his countrymen to follow stay-at-home orders, but decided those rules didn’t apply to his f*buddy.

Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist at Imperial College,…led the researchers who predicted that, absent a forceful governmental response on movement and commerce, Covid-19 could cause more than 500,000 deaths. That modeling was soon scaled back, but Mr. Ferguson has since become a familiar figure in Britain for urging the government to impose strict shelter-in-place orders. It appears Mr. Ferguson wasn’t sheltering in place. Or, rather, he was but his paramour, Antonia Staats, wasn’t. …Ms. Staats had crossed London at least twice since citywide lockdowns were imposed in March—a clear violation of government rules. He has resigned from his position as government adviser.

I’m not surprised Ferguson is a hypocrite. It goes with the territory.

But I do wonder how he became a government adviser with the Conservative Party supposedly in charge? I thought Republicans were the “stupid party.”

In any event, the U.K.-based Sun is famous for its clever headlines (sort of like the New York Post), and this latest scandal is no exception.

Let’s conclude that Ferguson deserves to be the second Brit in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame (joining the chap who worked in law enforcement while moonlighting as a jihadist).

P.S. For what it’s worth, Ms. Staats is a left-wing activist, so she’s part of a long tradition of statists who want more power for government, but conveniently don’t think they should be subject to the rules imposed on the rest of us.

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I’m a big fan of federalism. After all, compared to what happens when Washington screws up, there’s a lot less damage if a state or city imposes a bad law.

Moreover, it’s relatively easy to move across a border if a state or city is doing something foolish. Leaving the country, by contrast, is a much bigger step (and a lot harder if you have some money).

That being said, politicians outside of Washington deserve plenty of scorn (to show that Washington has no monopoly on venality and incompetence, I periodically share columns that highlight “Great Moments in State Government” and “Great Moments in Local Government“).

And the coronavirus crisis is giving us plenty of new evidence.

Writing for the Federalist, John Daniel Davidson takes aim at control-freak politicians.

…some mayors and governors…think they have unlimited and arbitrary power over their fellow citizens, that they can order them to do or not do just about anything under the guise of protecting public health. We’ve now witnessed local and state governments issue decrees about what people can and cannot buy in stores, arrest parents playing with their children in public parks, yank people off public buses at random, remove basketball rims along with private property, ticket churchgoers… The most egregious example of this outpouring of authoritarianism was an attempt by Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer to ban drive-in church services on Easter. …he also threatened arrest and criminal penalties for anyone who dared violate his order, and in an Orwellian twist, invited people to snitch on their fellow citizens. …this didn’t just happen in Louisville. Two churches in Greenville, Mississippi, that were holding drive-in services for Holy Week said police showed up and ordered churchgoers to leave or face a $500 fine. …the targeting of churches, while undoubtedly the most offensive overreach by state and local governments, is hardly the only instance of government gone wild. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken it upon herself to declare what items are and are not “essential,” dictating to grocery stores what they can and cannot sell… Among the nonessential, and therefore banned, items are fruit and vegetable plants and seeds. …(Lottery tickets, on the other hand, are still permitted.)

There’s so much outrageous material in this article that it’s almost impossible to focus on one item.

I’ll simply note that it is entirely predictable – but totally disgusting – that Governor Whitmer in Michigan has exempted sales of lottery tickets from her lockdown order. I guess risk is okay if it’s for the purpose of getting more revenue by screwing poor people.

Since we’re on the topic of Governor Whitmer and Michigan, this tweet indicates that it’s okay to put infants in danger. After all, they don’t line the pockets of government by purchasing lottery tickets.

Let’s look at more examples of nanny-state authoritarianism.

David Harsanyi’s column in National Review is appropriately scathing.

Free people act out of self-preservation, but they shouldn’t be coerced to act through the authoritarian whims of the state. Yet this is exactly what’s happening. …politicians act as if a health crisis gives them license to lord over the most private activities of America people in ways that are wholly inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the Constitution. …What business is it of Vermont or Howard County, Ind., to dictate that Walmart, Costco, or Target stop selling “non-essential” items, such as electronics or clothing? …it is an astonishing abuse of power to issue stay-at-home orders, enforced by criminal law, empowering police to harass and fine individuals for nothing more than taking a walk. …The criminalization of movement ends with…three Massachusetts men being arrested, and facing the possibility of 90 days in jail, for crossing state lines and golfing — a sport built for social distancing — in Rhode Island. …In California, surfers, who stay far away from each other, are banned from going in the water. Elsewhere, hikers are banned from roaming the millions of acres in national parks. …Would-be petty tyrants, such as Dallas judge Clay Jenkins, who implores residences to rat out neighbors who sell cigarettes.

So many awful examples, but I’m especially nauseated by Judge Jenkins and his call for snitching. Makes me wonder if he’s related to Andrew Cuomo, Richard Daley, or David Cameron.

I’ll close with two amusing items.

First, every red-blooded American should cheer for this jogger (and you should cheer for him if you’re a red-blooded person from abroad as well).

Second, here’s some satire that is both seasonal and accurate (though, to be fair, the disciples weren’t practicing social distancing).

P.S. Maybe this is the kind of harassment that led to “Libertarian Jesus“?

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I recently appeared on CNBC to talk about everyone’s favorite government agency, those warm and cuddly folks at the IRS.

Our tax system is a dysfunctional mess, but you’ll notice that I mostly blamed politicians. After all, they are the ones who have unceasingly made the internal revenue code more complex, starting on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was approved.

But I don’t want to give the IRS a free pass.

I’ve cited IRS incompetence and misbehavior in the past, most notably when discussing political bias, targeted harassment, and other shenanigans.

And, as illustrated by these five examples, we can always cite new evidence.

Such as lack of accountability.

…a new report from the Cause of Action Institute reveals that the IRS has been evading numerous oversight mechanisms, and it refuses to comply with laws requiring it to measure the economic impact of its rules. Congress has passed several laws, including the Regulatory Flexibility Act and the Congressional Review Act, that require agencies to report on their rules’ economic impact to lawmakers and the public. …These good-government measures are meant to ensure unelected bureaucrats can be checked by the public. …the IRS has made up a series of exemptions that allow it to avoid basic scrutiny. The agency takes the position that its rules have no economic effect because any impact is attributable to the underlying law that authorized the rule.

Such as inefficiency.

Private debt collectors cost the Internal Revenue Service $20 million in the last fiscal year, but brought in only $6.7 million in back taxes, the agency’s taxpayer advocate reported Wednesday. That was less than 1 percent of the amount assigned for collection. What’s more, private contractors in some cases were paid 25 percent commissions on collections that the I.R.S. made without their help…the report stated, “the I.R.S. has implemented the program in a manner that causes excessive financial harm to taxpayers and constitutes an end run around taxpayer rights protections.”

Such as rewarding scandal.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued more than $1.7 million in awards in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017 to employees who had been disciplined by the agency, a Treasury Department watchdog said. “Some of these employees had serious misconduct, such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse and sexual misconduct,” the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in a report made public this week. …in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017, the IRS had given awards to nearly 2,000 employees who were disciplined in the 12 months prior to receiving the bonus.

By the way, the IRS has a pattern of rewarding bad behavior.

Such as pursuing bad policy.

…for 35 years the Internal Revenue Service has exempted itself from the most basic regulatory oversight. …Tax regulations (like all regulations) have exploded in recent decades, and of course IRS bureaucrats impose their own policy judgments. The IRS has in recent years unilaterally decided when and how to enforce ObamaCare tax provisions, often dependent on political winds. In 2016 it proposed a rule to force more business owners to pay estate and gift taxes via a complicated new reading of the law. …Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury…department is inexplicably backing IRS lawlessness with a string of excuses.

Again, this is not the first time the IRS has interfered with congressional policy.

Such as stifling political speech.

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. …The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances…” The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. …This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination.

In other words, the bureaucrats didn’t learn from the Lois Lerner scandal.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced people that I’m not going soft on IRS malfeasance, let’s look at the budgetary issue that was the focus of the CNBC interview.

Is the IRS budget too small? Should it be increased so that more agents can conduct more audits and extract more money?

Both the host and my fellow guest started from the assumption that the IRS budget has been gutted. But that relies on cherry-picked data, starting when the IRS budget was at a peak level in 2011 thanks in part to all the money sloshing around Washington following Obama’s failed stimulus legislation.

Here are the more relevant numbers, taken from lines 2564-2609 of this massive database in the OMB’s supplemental materials on the budget. As you can see, IRS spending – adjusted for inflation – has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.

In other words, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the IRS and give it more money.

To augment these numbers, I made two simple points in the above interview.

  • First, we should demand more efficiency from the bureaucracy.
  • Second, we should reform the tax code to eliminate complexity.

The latter point is especially important because we could dramatically improve compliance while also shrinking the IRS if we had a simple and fair system such as the flat tax.

Last but not least, here’s a clip from another recent interview. I explained that the recent shutdown will be used as an excuse for any problems that occur in the near future.

Standard operating procedure for any bureaucracy.

P.S. My archive of IRS humor 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.

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It’s not easy being a libertarian. Thanks to senseless and harmful government policies, you run the risk of being perpetually outraged.

Well, we have some good news about that final example.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the odious practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Professor Ilya Somin, from George Mason University’s Law School, explains the legal issues.

The decision is potentially a major victory for property rights and civil liberties. The key questions before the Court are whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is “incorporated” against state governments and, if so, whether at least some state civil asset forfeitures violate the Clause. The justices answered both questions with a unanimous and emphatic “yes.” As a result, the ruling could help curb abusive asset forfeitures, which enable law enforcement agencies to seize property that they suspect might have been used in a crime – including in many cases where the owner has never been convicted of anything, or even charged. Abusive forfeitures are a a widespread problem that often victimizes innocent people and particularly harms the poor. …the Court…previously ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates nearly all of the rest of the Bill of Rights against the states, including the Excessive Bail and Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clauses of the very same amendment. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion offers a good explanation of why incorporation of the Clause is easily justified under the Court’s precedents.

This morning, the Wall Street Journal opined favorably on the ruling.

Police and prosecutors around America have long used asset forfeiture as a cash cow, but a unanimous Supreme Court ruling Wednesday should make them think twice. The Bill of Rights keeps paying dividends even after 228 years. …Justices left and right agree. In her opinion for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that the safeguard on excessive fines, quoting earlier cases, is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” …the Court’s ruling in Timbs v. Indiana puts states and cities on notice. Some police departments have set annual targets for asset seizures, and a limiting legal principle has been nowhere to be found. During oral argument, Indiana’s solicitor general said that if a driver in a Ferrari was going five miles over the speed limit, that could be grounds for police to take the car. …defendants trying to protect their property against unjust state seizure will now have the Constitution firmly on their side.

While this decision is good news, let’s not get too excited.

What we really need is for the Supreme Court to rule that the entire practice of civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional.

Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, there’s no finding of illegal behavior in cases of civil asset forfeiture. Indeed, in many cases, the government steals the property of people who aren’t even charged with a crime!

That’s why it is so outrageous and immoral.

Here’s a short video on the topic from the Institute for Justice (which, incidentally, deserves credit for the victory at the Supreme Court).

P.S. It’s worth noting that the first two people to lead the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture division have repented their sins and say the racket should be ended. Too bad Trump is on the wrong side.

P.P.S. Given the human misery it has caused, we shouldn’t laugh about asset forfeiture, but this bit of humor is very entertaining.

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When I think of over-bearing governments with myopic enforcement of silly rules, I obviously think of the United States, especially the IRS, EEOC, FDA, and EPA.

And I also think of Germany, Japan, and other straight-laced societies.

But I don’t think of Canada. After all, that’s the home of Dudley Do-Right. Canadians are too nice to do dumb things!

However, I shouldn’t be basing my views on a cartoon from my childhood. It seems that Canadians are quite capable of bizarre behavior. At least when you look at their legal system.

Let’s review three additional examples.

I’ve written about some of the mistakes that American states (California and Colorado, for instance) have made when legalizing marijuana. Well, there are similar mistakes in Canada according to the Washington Post.

When the government launched Canada’s official recreational-pot market on Oct. 17, it was banking on the idea that many users would prefer to buy legally and that the black market would quickly begin to fade. …things aren’t going as expected. …a month after legalization, more than a third of Canadian cannabis users said they were still buying from their regular dealers and hadn’t even tried the legal system. Five illegal sellers in Quebec told The Washington Post their sales are slightly up.

It turns out that the legal system is a mess of harsh regulation.

In 2015, when the government first committed to legalization, many of them planned to apply to open private shops. “All of us thought, ‘Okay . . . I’m going to be able to come out of the shadows and I’m going to be able to pay taxes,’ ” David said. “As time went on, it became clear that’s not what they were after.” In Quebec and several other Canadian provinces, all cannabis stores are government-run, leaving no path to legality… said Lewis Koski, former director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and now a consultant on legalization. “I can’t think of a state here in the U.S. that has a government-control model similar to . . . Canada’s.” Even in provinces that do allow private shops or dispensaries, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, small businesses face high barriers. It costs almost $5,000 just to apply for a license, and if approved, $23,000 each year thereafter in regulatory fees, with provinces often adding their own charges.

Let’s now look at a government-enforced Canadian cartel.

The maple syrup farmers of Québec have been saddled with compulsory membership to the Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ, according to the native French abbreviation) since 1990. The Federation holds monopoly rights over all maple syrup produced in the province, controlling wholesale distribution and prices. Anyone who dares to sell more than five litres of their boiled tree sap on their own farm or to local grocery stores faces a prison sentence and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars. …Angele Grenier and her husband, decades-long syrup farmers, have been smuggling their contraband syrup to the neighboring province of New Brunswick. In the dark of the night, they load barrels onto trucks and sneak across the province border to market freedom. For this terrible black market act of choosing their own customers and prices, Angele is one of Canada’s most wanted women. She has appealed the charges brought against her by the FPAQ, and her case is being taken up by the Supreme Court.

Maybe Canadian syrup smugglers can learn lessons from Norwegian butter smugglers?

Last but not least, the Toronto Star reports that Canadian law enforcement is capable of government thuggery.

At about 5 p.m. on May 13, 2009, Kosoian stepped on the down escalator at a subway station in Laval. She was heading to her history class at a university in downtown Montreal. Kosoian had used that same escalator almost every day for four years. She knew that at the front of the escalator, as well as at a spot halfway down, were yellow pictograms that said, “Caution … hold handrail.” She deemed the pictogram nothing more than a warning or recommendation. Besides, the H1N1 virus was making the rounds, and Kosoian considered the handrail a cesspool of microbes. …A police officer…stopped in front of Kosoian on the step below when the escalator had taken her about halfway down. The officer, Fabio Camacho, …ordered her to hold the handrail. Kosoian says she responded: “It’s my right to hold the handrail or not to hold it.” …when Kosoian reached the bottom of the escalator, Camacho and his partner, the officer who initially walked past Kosoian, grabbed her by the arms and took her to a nearby locked room that also contained a jail cell. …Camacho and his partner cuffed Kosoian’s hands behind her back and sat her in a chair. He searched her bag, found her driver’s licence and began writing her two tickets: a $100 fine for not holding the handrail, and a $320 fine for obstructing the work of a police officer.

It’s quite possible that Kosoian was being obnoxious and baiting the cops, but none of that changes the fact that not holding a handrail shouldn’t be a criminal offense.

Do cops in Canada bust into people’s houses to see if mattress tags are still attached (though perhaps only the U.S. is dumb enough to have such a rule)?

Interestingly, this episode from 2009 is now going to the Canadian Supreme Court.

The Laval police force and the transit agency…pressed for the fines to be paid, and Kosoian’s refusal triggered a municipal court hearing in May 2011. In March 2012, Judge Florent Bisson acquitted Kosoian of the tickets… Kosoian…launched a lawsuit against Camacho, the STM and the City of Laval. In August 2015, the Quebec Court dismissed it with a legal tongue lashing. …She appealed and, on Dec. 5, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against her in a 2-1 decision. …Kosoian and her lawyer again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court. …the Supreme Court has only granted about 10 per cent of the 500 or so requests for appeals it receives each year. So Thomas Slade, a lawyer who is not involved in the case, says he was initially surprised when the court agreed to hear Kosoian.

I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Ms. Kosoian, but there’s not much doubt that getting rid of stupid laws is the best way of avoiding this type of mess.

I’ll close with two observations. First, Americans can’t throw stones at our Canadian friends since we live in a glass house.

Second, Canada obviously needs to change some of its silly laws, but I don’t want this to be interpreted as an indictment of the entire country (notwithstanding Prime Minister Zoolander).

In recent decades, Canada has dealt with several issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, school choice, and privatization of air traffic control) in a very sensible fashion.

P.S. Though a Canadian politician is eligible for the hypocrite-of-the-century award.

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In the world of public policy, it’s very easy to make fun of politicians (especially Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren).

And there are plenty of jokes about certain issues in the public arena, particularly the IRS, but also gun control and Brexit. And I have entire pages dedicated to libertarian humor and communism/socialism humor.

But some topics are so grim that’s it’s not easy to laugh about them. There’s nothing funny about the horror of Venezuela, for instance, though there are examples of dark humor from that unfortunate nation.

Another topic that doesn’t lend itself to laughs is the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. I’ve shared many nauseating stories about how governments literally steal property from people who have not been convicted of crimes (or, in many cases, have not even been accused of any crime).

Here’s the latest absurd example, this time from Michigan.

Nearly 400 people in Wayne County who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through a legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture… Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. …Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said…it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property. Revenue obtained from forfeited property typically goes to the agency that seized the property.

Yes, you read correctly. The agency that steals the property gets to keep the money, which is why the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture is sometimes known as “policing for profit.”

If this sounds like the kind of behavior you’d find in a third-world banana republic, you’re right.

Anyhow, is there any way we can find mirth and amusement in this reprehensible practice?

Actually, courtesy of libertarian Reddit, there is.

Kudos to the clever person who left this comment. Maybe the bureaucrats finally understand what it feels like to have property arbitrarily seized.

I’m not quite ready to applaud the actual thief, however, since a speed trailer only notifies people how fast they’re traveling.

If that person wants my praise, go after speed-trap cameras like this hero.

P.S. There is an example of money-laundering humor, and it features a former President.

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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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When I criticize America’s wretched tax code (now slightly less worse because of the recent tax bill), I generally focus my ire on the politicians who have spent more than 100 years creating an insanely complicated and convoluted system.

The Internal Revenue Service, by contrast, is simply the bureaucracy that is charged with enforcing the code.

But that doesn’t mean the IRS should escape criticism. The bureaucrats have some leeway and that discretion sometimes gets abused. The most glaring example in recent years was the agency’s despicable attempt to tilt the political playing field and influence elections by discriminating against Tea Party groups.

Yet not everyone thinks the IRS misbehaved. The Washington Post actually published an editorial that tries to portray the IRS as a victim. Seriously. I’m not joking.

Conservatives who long sought to restrain the Internal Revenue Service have managed to throw a wrench into an IRS division that is supposed to regulate tax-exempt nonprofits and charities, just at a time when these groups are becoming more partisan and complex. …The number of applications from new charities has exploded in recent years, and the law is a bit of a gray zone — vaguely written and hard to enforce. In recent years, overwhelmed by applications, the…division seems to have lost its will to scrutinize charities. According to Mr. O’Harrow, last year the division rejected just 37 of the 79,582 applications on which it made a final determination. He reported that charities have now begun to recognize they face little or no chance of examination or sanction. The division’s budget has declined from a peak of $102 million in 2011 to $82 million last year. The number of division employees has fallen from 889 to 642.

I have a modest bit of sympathy for the IRS. As the editorial notes, the tax code is “vaguely written and hard to enforce.”

But my solution is to remove IRS discretion. In the long run, that can happen with a simple and fair flat tax that does away with the deduction for charitable contributions and thus removes any need for monitoring and enforcement.

In the short run, the easy answer is that charitable status should be automatic and the 642 bureaucrats should concentrate on finding and punishing nonprofit groups that violate the law.

But here’s the part of the editorial that is delusional.

…the division and its then-leader, Lois Lerner, fell into the crosshairs of the conservative tea party movement for the slow pace of approvals of tea party groups, which they claimed was due to a conspiracy by the Obama administration to target them. Subsequent investigations found mismanagement — the IRS was taking shortcuts and using keywords to deal with the mountain of applications — but not deliberate targeting.

Wow. I wonder if the person who wrote this editorial is ignorant or mendacious. The IRS admitted that it targeted Tea Party groups! The bias was in the keywords.

And that wasn’t even the first time the Post tried to make excuses for the IRS.

Investor’s Business Daily opined on this issue over the summer.

This is one of the most serious abuses of power by a federal agency in decades. That no one really lost a job and no one has been prosecuted for abusing the powers of the federal government to harass groups for their political beliefs — the kind of thing routinely done in places such as Russia and Venezuela, not in the U.S. — is nothing less than shocking. For those who need a reminder and without getting too deep in the weeds, the scandal involves IRS bureaucrats denying tax-exempt status to groups apparently solely due to their conservative political beliefs. This is clearly highly illegal. … the Nonprofit Quarterly…notes that…”Various congressional committees attempted to ferret out what happened and who did it but were stymied by the IRS’ slow responses to records requests and, in some cases, destruction of computer media (that) might have contained important information.” In short, it looks like a classic case of a gross violation of federal law followed by a possibly criminal cover-up. …This is unconscionable behavior by a federal agency that is governed by that very same Constitution.

Amen.

This is why I agreed with George Will about the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner and also argued in favor of budgetary consequences for the agency.

Sadly, the Trump Administration has basically gone to bat for the IRS when it should be pushing for transparency and reform.

By the way, my complaints about the IRS go way beyond the fact that the bureaucrats persecuted the Tea Party.

Let’s look at a recent story about a dodgy contract the IRS recently issued.

The IRS will pay Equifax $7.25 million to verify taxpayer identities and help prevent fraud under a no-bid contract issued last week, even as lawmakers lash the embattled company about a massive security breach that exposed personal information of as many as 145.5 million Americans. A contract award for Equifax’s data services was posted to the Federal Business Opportunities database Sept. 30 — the final day of the fiscal year. …The notice describes the contract as a “sole source order,” meaning Equifax is the only company deemed capable of providing the service.

What mostly bothers me is not that the IRS gave a contract to a company that had just suffered a major data leak. Instead, I’m very suspicious about it being a no-bid contract issued on the last day of the fiscal year.

Sounds like the bureaucrats had some use-it-or-lose-it funds and they decided to screw taxpayers.

And here’s another story that’s worth sharing.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees have backed Democrats over Republicans by 2-1 in their political donations over the last 25 years. Donors listing the IRS as their employer have donated roughly $453,800 to Democratic candidates and causes and $221,400 to Republican candidates and causes since 1990. About one in four of the dollars for Democrats, or roughly $117,500, went to President Barack Obama. But IRS employees since 1990 have also donated $203,000 to the National Treasury Employees Union, which in turn has given about 95 percent of its $6 million in political contributions to Democrats over the last 25 years, OpenSecrets.org data shows. Disclosure of the huge bias among IRS employees for Democrats won’t help an agency under fire for years for illegally targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

To be sure, bureaucrats can give political contributions and remain honest and fair in their dealings with the public.

Nonetheless, I suspect Lois Lerner wasn’t the only partisan hack who tried to interfere with the political process.

Let’s now end where we started. The Washington Post editorial implied that the IRS deserved a bigger budget and more staff so bureaucrats could investigate each application.

I’ve already explained why that’s not the right approach from a compliance perspective, but there’s also a moral argument against further expanding the IRS budget (something Republicans sadly don’t understand).

P.S. The IRS awarded itself “performance bonuses” after the scandal.

P.P.S. I also thought it was remarkable that IRS bureaucrats wanted to be exempt from Obamacare while asking for more money to enforce fines on ordinary people who didn’t sign up.

P.P.P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here are examples of IRS humor from my archives, including 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.

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What country has the world’s worst government? It’s not an easy question. There may be a different set of answers based on whether the focus is political oppression or economic mismanagement.

Regardless of methodology, there are some nations that will probably show up on just about any list.

Today, though, I want to make the case for Venezuela. That unfortunate country used to be rich compared to other Latin American nations, but decades of bad policy have now morphed into awful policy. The long-run drop in economic freedom – from 10th-freest to 159th-freest – is staggering.

Wow. Combined with growing political oppression, the country may zip through the fourth circle of statist hell and soon find itself in the fifth and final circle.

To grasp the horror of the situation, let’s look at what’s happened since April, when I put together a column of 28 headlines to capture the death throes of Venezuelan socialism.

Now, in just the last six months, we have another 28 examples.

On May 30, a column in the New York Times catalogued the misery in Venezuela.

…huge protests rocking Venezuela… President Nicolás Maduro has responded with an iron fist. More than 50 people have been killed, 1,000 injured, and 2,700 arrested, and that last figure doesn’t include the country’s more than 180 long-term political prisoners. …economic and humanitarian crisis. It is hard to overstate the severity of the suffering of the 31 million people of this once-rich country. …hospitals lack 98 percent of needed medical supplies and 85 of 100 drugs are totally unavailable. As a result, in the last year, some 11,500 infants died before their first birthday… Cases of malaria are up 76 percent and diphtheria, which had been eradicated 20 years ago, has returned to Venezuela.

On June 1, we learned about the bravery and ingenuity of protestors.

Daniella Liendo is gaining frontline practical experience as she completes her medical studies. …On the streets of Caracas this week, the second-year student treated a demonstrator who had been shot at close range with a marble pellet in the city’s Chacao neighbourhood. “Once we get to a patient we must decide with the more senior doctors if [the injured] must be taken away for treatment,” she said. “The most common problem is asphyxia from the tear gas. We’ve also had a lot of head traumas and burns to deal with.” …An exodus of Venezuelan medical graduates has meant that even those with the most basic training are in demand. An estimated 15,000 doctors have left to work abroad since 2003.

On June 2, Reuters exposed the gilded lives of the government elite.

One is shown blowing a kiss from a private jet. Another is seen posing in front of a store of luxury jeweler Cartier in China. Others grin as they tuck into a plate of lobster or a massive birthday cake. Venezuelan activists are increasingly posting details of locations and lifestyles of leftist officials and their families, depicting them as thriving off corruption while the population struggles to eat in a devastating economic crisis. …One Twitter account published photos purportedly showing the wife of Vice President Tareck El Aissami enjoying champagne and lounging on a pristine beach with her sisters. In another case, an alleged lover of a powerful Socialist Party official is shown on trips to the Middle East. Venezuela’s opposition accuses officials of profiting from currency controls and a decade-long oil boom to fill their pockets. The opposition-led congress estimates that at least $11 billion have “disappeared” from state-run oil company PDVSA .

On June 5, Fox reported on women driven to prostitution by poverty.

As a humanitarian and political crisis in neighboring Venezuela deepens, a growing number of Venezuelan women are working in bars and brothels across Colombia. “I didn’t do this in Venezuela. I never ever imagined I’d be doing this in Colombia,” said Maria, who…charges $17 for 15-minutes of sex, and the money earned is spent on buying medicine for her mother who has cancer. …According to Asmubuli, a Colombian sex workers association, currently there are around 4,500 Venezuelan sex workers in the country. …It’s not just women who say they have no option but to sell their bodies for sex, but young Venezuelan men too. Dorian, 25, started working in Bogota’s Lourdes Park about two weeks ago. “It’s disappointing. I’m disappointed in myself,” said Dorian, a business studies university graduate unable to find a job and with no money to pay for rent and food.

On June 6, we learned about the current regime’s utter depravity.

Norma Camero Reno has been shipping a steady supply of desperately needed medicines from the United States to Venezuela. Reno and other members of her nonprofit, Move Foundation, pack painkillers, cold medicines and other supplies to be distributed to hospitals, health clinics and churches throughout the beleaguered nation. Two weeks ago, however, that all changed. …Reno discovered that none of the recent medicine shipments had made it to her contacts in the country. …“They are stopping everything from going in,” Reno told Fox News. “They are taking everything for themselves.”

On June 28, a column in the New York Times condemned Maduro’s brutal regime.

Every day, Venezuelans of all stripes pour into the streets protesting the loss of their freedom and their constitutional rights by a tyrannical regime that condemns them to scarcity, illness, malnutrition and outright hunger. …There has been terrible economic and social destruction. Across 15 years, a trillion dollars’ worth of oil income has been squandered and 80 percent of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty. …Venezuela has become the Zimbabwe of the Americas, a shameless alliance of corrupt politicians and the military acquiescent to the dictates of Cuba. …They have kidnapped the Latin American nation that is richest in oil resources, which they wish to appropriate for themselves, permanently and at whatever human cost it may require.

On July 3, we learned that poor people are waking up to the downside of socialism.

In Caracas, the rich and poor are suddenly less divided. For most of Venezuela’s two-decade socialist experiment, the city’s wealthier, whiter east has been the hotbed of anti-government sentiment. Now, noisy protests are erupting in poorer-but-calmer western neighborhoods that were strongholds for embattled President Nicolas Maduro as crime explodes and medicine and food are scarce and expensive. …They’re increasingly demanding a change in government, infuriated by mismanagement… “Everyone protests, without differences, because the hunger of the stomach and the hunger for democracy have been united,” said Carlos Julio Rojas, a La Candelaria activist… Services are shaky in Caracas, particularly in the slums that surround the capital. Water pipes go dry for days at a time, trash sits rotting and lights go out.

On July 20, the Economist shared news of despair about the plight of Venezuelan women.

Barbara and her cousin Sophia have more serious business: they hope to make enough money from selling sex to live decently after fleeing Venezuela, where survival is a struggle. Barbara, who is 27, prefers her former occupation as the owner of a nail and hair business in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. But polish and shampoo are as hard to find as food and medicine, and so she has come to Medellín. In an hour a sex worker can make the equivalent of a month’s minimum wage in Venezuela. Colombian pesos “are worth something”, unlike Venezuela’s debauched currency, the bolívar, Barbara says. “At least here one can eat breakfast and lunch.” …Some 4,500 Venezuelan prostitutes are thought to be working in Colombia… The sex workers are joined by electricians, mechanics, empanada vendors—all of whom are seeking a way to cope with their country’s shortages and queues, and an inflation rate expected to exceed 700% this year.

On July 30, a column in the Wall Street Journal analyzed the crumbing of Venezuela.

Hungry, hurting Venezuelans are done talking. The country is in the early stages of civil war. …In polls, some 80% of Venezuelans oppose Mr. Maduro’s “constituent assembly.” But the opposition boycotted Sunday’s election because they know Cuba is running things, that voter rolls are corrupted, and that there is no transparency in the operation of electronic voting machines. …faith and hope in a peaceful solution has been lost. One symptom of this desperation is the mass exodus under way. On Tuesday the Panam Post reported that “more than 26,000 people crossed the border into Colombia Monday, July 26… But a citizens’ revolt, led by young people whose families are starving, is already under way.

On July 31, we got a thorough analysis of economic chaos in Venezuela.

With per capita GDP down by 40% since 2013, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the US, Western Europe, or the rest of Latin America. And yet headline GDP numbers actually understate the magnitude of the economy’s decline. …Venezuelans clearly want out – and it’s not hard to see why. Media worldwide have been reporting on Venezuela, documenting truly horrible situations, with images of starvation, hopelessness, and rage.

On August 2, the Associated Press published a first-person look at the country’s decline.

The first thing the muscled-up men did was take my cellphone. They had stopped me on the street as I left an interview in the hometown of the late President Hugo Chavez and wrangled me into a black SUV. …I had thought that being a foreign reporter protected me from the growing chaos in Venezuela. But with the country unraveling so fast, I was about to learn there was no way to remain insulated. I came to Caracas as a correspondent for The Associated Press in 2014, just in time to witness the country’s accelerating descent into a humanitarian catastrophe. …the men trained a camera on me for an interrogation. One said that I would end up like the American journalist who had recently been beheaded in Syria. Another said if I gave him a kiss I could go free. …In the end, the secret police cut me loose a few hours after they arrested me, with a warning not to return.

On August 7, a CNN story looked at Venezuela’s looming default.

he country, which is engulfed in crisis, …has other payments coming due in the near future and could fall short on those if the economy continues to tailspin… “This model is broken, and default is inevitable,” says Siobhan Morden, an expert in Latin American bonds at Nomura Holdings. …Venezuela’s economy continues to spiral our of control. The unofficial exchange rate that most Venezuelans use has more than doubled since late July. Inflation is expected to soar 720% this year and and over 2,000% next year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

On August 13, we learned about the plight of Jews in Venezuela.

Jews in Venezuela are increasingly fleeing the country amid the rising political instability and violence under President Nicolas Maduro, with a growing number decamping for Israel. Estella and Haim Sadna, a religious couple with four kids from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, described the food scarcity and rampant crime that drove them to move the Jewish state. …While Venezuela once had one of the largest Jewish communities in the region, numbering some 25,000 in 1999, only about 9,000 Jews are believed to remain in the country.

On August 15, the Miami Herald reported that even the military must beg for food.

Venezuelan soldiers — armed and in uniform — were caught in neighboring Guyana last week begging for food, local police reported, another sign of Venezuela’s deepening hunger crisis. …Hunger is on the rise in Venezuela, amid triple-digit inflation and the government’s inability to import basic goods. And neighboring Colombia, Brazil and Guyana have seen a spike in Venezuelans looking for food. …That soldiers would cross into Guyana is telling. The two nations have been locked in a centuries-old border dispute over a swath of Guyanese territory known as the Esequibo and are not on good terms.

On August 29, the incompetent brutality of the government was discussed.

…socialist policies exacerbated the oil crisis and created the poverty we see in Venezuela today. …the poorest economies in the world are characterized by oppressive government intervention. …In Venezuela’s case, a government takeover of the oil industry reduced supply, sowing the seeds of future impoverishment. …When Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, he…closed Venezuela’s oil fields to foreign investment and stopped reinvesting oil proceeds in the company. He fired 18,000 workers at PDVSA, replacing professional oil employees with inept but politically loyal workers. …Healthy non-oil industries could have diversified Venezuela’s economy and blunted the impact of falling oil prices. By strangling them, Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, forced the economy to rely more on oil at precisely the wrong time. …Commentators who dismiss Venezuela’s suffering as being caused by the oil crisis need to explain why other oil-dependent countries have not collapsed. According to the World Bank, seven nations rely more on oil than Venezuela. All seven saw economic growth from 2013 to 2017.

On September 11, it was reported that even the United Nations is appalled by the regime’s actions.

The United Nations human rights chief has said that Venezuelan security forces may have committed “crimes against humanity” against protesters and called for an international investigation. …Zeid said the government was using criminal proceedings against opposition leaders, arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force and ill-treatment of detainees, which in some cases amounted to torture. …Last month, Zeid’s office said Venezuela’s security forces had committed extensive and apparently deliberate human rights violations in crushing anti-government protests and that democracy was “barely alive”. …Venezuela is among the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, where it enjoys strong support from Cuba, Iran and other states.

On September 15, we learned more about the depravity of the socialist government.

The association Prepara Familia denounced yesterday the death of 11-year old Cristhian Malavé, contaminated with a bacteria from the hemodialysis unit of the the J. M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital. He’s the fifth child to die of this cause. Others die of unattended complications and their records are blurred and their names are lost in view of a State unable to offer a response to our simplest and most urgent needs. …Tamara Suju, head of the Casla Institute, denounced in fron of the OAS the tortures and violations committed by public force officers against 289 people, protesters and citizens. There are complaints of assaults and rapes (with batons or firearms), feces force-feeding, electroshocks, beating, in most cases, and psychological torture, in all of them. The huge majority of victims are men, 79% between 18 and 30 years old. Torture in Venezuela went from selective to massive and no government representative has denied torture cases.

On September 22, the Miami Herald reported on the tragic growth of prostitution.

At a squat, concrete brothel on the muddy banks of the Arauca River, Gabriel Sánchez rattled off the previous jobs of the women who now sell their bodies at his establishment for $25 an hour. “We’ve got lots of teachers, some doctors, many professional women and one petroleum engineer,” he yelled over the din of vallenato music. “All of them showed up with their degrees in hand.” And all of them came from Venezuela. As Venezuela’s economy continues to collapse amid food shortages, …waves of economic refugees have fled the country. …with jobs scarce, many young — and not so young — women are turning to the world’s oldest profession to make ends meet. …“Prostitution obviously isn’t a good job,” she said. “But I’m thankful for it, because it’s allowing me to buy food and support my family.”

On September 25, we learned more about the suffering of the people.

As the economic and political crisis deepens in, so do the levels of hunger. A survey by a top university found the average Venezuelan has lost nine kilogrammes in the past year. Many families are now forced to scavenge for food in what was once South America’s richest country. At a soup kitchen run by the Catholic Church in Caracas, …many of the children are given a special formula after arriving, when they are found to be severely malnourished. …Venezuela’s prolonged and acute economic crisis – characterised by food shortages and hyperinflation – has seen infant mortality rise to almost 35 percent and maternal mortality to 65 percent in just the last year. Anemia is rampant.

On October 6, Reuters reported on the country’s miserable business environment.

With Venezuela’s economy in shambles, Ford has furloughed Nunez and 1200 colleagues at its moribund plant here in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. …Nunez hasn’t reported for work in ten months, save for a few days in September… But he still collects a quarter of his weekly salary of 50,000 bolivars, the equivalent of just $1.70 at the widely used black-market exchange rate. The father of two teenagers counts himself lucky. …Ford is among roughly 150 multinationals still hanging on in Venezuela. The once-prosperous OPEC nation is now in the fourth year of a recession caused by a fall in oil prices and, economists say, failed policies of its socialist government. …As of April 2016, half of Venezuela’s working population was either jobless or employed only in part-time, “informal” jobs.

On October 11, the horror of Venezuela was captured by a single story.

Conditions in socialist Venezuela are so diabolical that people are forced to eat cats in the street. A stomach-churning video shows a homeless woman sitting on the roadside with her possessions around her and a dead domestic cat in front of her. She painstakingly skins the cat and then slices off pieces of its body before popping them in her mouth. …Viewers have blamed the socialist government for leaving people penniless and hungry with price controls, soaring inflation and shortages of basic essentials.

On October 19, we learned more about the exodus from the socialist hellhole.

Ana Linares…earns about $15 a day — more than she made in a month in her native Venezuela. …Linares arrived in Lima last May after enduring a six-day bus trip from central Venezuela, her 8-month-old son on her lap… Life in Venezuela had become intolerable, with millions struggling with hyperinflation, food shortages, lack of work and lawlessness. “Everything there has turned ugly. There’s hunger and crime. You can’t leave your house after 5 p.m. because you’re going to be robbed or killed,” Linares said, adding that she now earns enough to afford three meals a day, an impossibility for many these days in Venezuela. …as many as 500,000 Venezuelans have fled their country in the last two years and a total of 2.1 million since 1998.

On November 3, Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason correctly assigned blame for the horrible situation.

Venezuela—which is the midst of a brutal food shortages brought about by a brutal socialist regime—…continues to worsen. Good soldiers are rewarded with scarce basic necessities such as toilet paper. Citizens are urged to eat rabbits. Opposing forces have taken to the streetsas the country’s socialism descends into dictatorship. Meanwhile the government is reserving food aid for loyalists and others turn to bitcoin to survive.

On November 4, we learned that animals in zoos are on the menu because of starvation.

In a country that once was rich, but where people are beginning to starve, few animals are safe. One morning in August at the metropolitan zoo in the torrid city of Maracaibo, workers were shocked to find the bones of a buffalo and some wild pigs inside their cages with clear signs of mutilation. …In west Caracas, …the same sort of thing happened. Watchmen found the bones and offal of a black horse inside its enclosure. Apparently the perpetrators only took the edible parts of the animal.

Though the people eating zoo animals are the lucky ones.

Every Saturday, Natalí wakes up…dresses in a hurry and whenever she can she feeds something to her sons and daughters and tells them to wait patiently for her return. …Natalí takes a four-wheel-drive car, then a bus, and then the train from Antímano to municipal Coche Market in south Caracas where, for the last three and a half months, she has made her pilgrimage to dig through the garbage left by the vendors—trying to find a half-rotted vegetable, a piece of fruit, or, if luck is on her side, chicken skin to take back home and feed her children.

On November 19, a column in the Wall Street Journal points out that the misery is deliberate policy.

Venezuelan shortages of everything are widely acknowledged. But there is less recognition that strongman Nicolás Maduro is using control of food to stamp out opposition. Hyperinflation has shriveled household budgets and the government has taken over food production and distribution. Most damning is evidence that access to government rations has become conditional on Maduro’s good favor. The hardship is killing and deforming children. …some communities are experiencing undeniable “famine” and that in some parts of the country 50% of the children have left school because of hunger.

On December 14, USA Today looked at the people escaping Venezuelan tyranny.

Although Venezuelans for years have been fleeing the “socialist revolution” first launched by the late Hugo Chávez in 1999, in recent months the trickle has turned into a flood as living conditions become ever more dire — from hyperinflation to acute shortages of food and medicine to one of the worst homicide rates in the world. …In response to…the once-wealthy country’s seeming demise, …many exiles had fled to the United States, surging numbers, like the Sequieras, now head to other Latin American nations. …From Mexico to Argentina, immigration agencies are reporting skyrocketing numbers of Venezuelan arrivals, doubling and even tripling the total for previous years.

On December 17, the New York Times exposed the pervasive hunger and horror in Venezuela.

Kenyerber Aquino Merchán was 17 months old when he starved to death. …Hunger has stalked Venezuela for years. Now, it is killing the nation’s children at an alarming rate, doctors in the country’s public hospitals say. …Riots and protests over the lack of affordable food, excruciating long lines for basic provisions, soldiers posted outside bakeries and angry crowds ransacking grocery stores have rattled cities, providing a telling, public display of the depths of the crisis. But deaths from malnutrition have remained a closely guarded secret by the Venezuelan government. …doctors at 21 public hospitals in 17 states across the country said that their emergency rooms were being overwhelmed by children with severe malnutrition… Parents like Kenyerber’s mother go days without eating, shriveling to the weight of children themselves.

On December 18, we got the latest details on the victims of Venezuelan statism.

Joel Rodriguez, a one legged panhandler, bursts into tears as a young man dressed as Santa Claus gives him food and clothing — a rare scene of holiday cheer in economically-depressed Venezuela. “Sometimes we eat out of the garbage,” said Rodriguez… In a Caracas with no Christmas lights or decorations this year because of the economic crisis, …Venezuelans are enduring acute shortages of food and medicine, and inflation is forecast by the IMF to hit a staggering 2,349 percent in 2018. “…are you doing the Maduro diet?” people shouted… They were using a popular expression used to refer to President Nicolas Maduro and people who have lost weight because of the hard economic times. This is so common it has been documented by Venezuelan universities.

Now that we’ve caught up with the calendar, let’s return the economic freedom scores from the Fraser Institute.

We started today’s column looking at Venezuela’s amazing (in a bad way) loss of overall economic liberty since 1970. Now let’s look at the specific issue of monetary policy. The country has gone from an almost-perfect score to the world’s most abysmal rating.

When I look at that data, it makes me glad that at least some Venezuelans are able to protect themselves with either offshore bank accounts or bitcoin.

And it makes me grateful to be in the United States. In my video on the history of central banking, I groused that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the Federal Reserve was created in 1913. But that’s a heck of a lot better than losing 95 percent its value every year, which seems to be what’s happening in Venezuela.

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The late Mancur Olsen was a very accomplished academic economist who described the unfortunate tendency of vote-seeking governments to behave like “stationary bandits,” seeking to extract the maximum amount of money from taxpayers.

I’m not nearly as sophisticated, so I simply refer to this process as “goldfish government.”

Tax competition is a way of discouraging this self-destructive behavior. Politicians are less likely to over-tax and over-spend if they know that jobs and investment can migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions (borders can be a hassle, but they are beneficial since they presumably represent a limit on the reach of a government’s power).

This is why I’m a big fan of so-called tax havens.

I want politicians to be afraid that the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. This is one of the reasons why “offshore” nations play a very valuable role in the global economy.

But it’s important to realize that there’s also a moral argument for tax havens.

Ask yourself whether you would want the government to have easy access to your nest egg (whether it’s a lot or a little) if you lived in Russia? Or Venezuela? Or China? Or Zimbabwe?

Ask yourself whether you trust the bureaucracy to protect the privacy of your personal financial information if you lived in a country with corruption problems like Mexico? Or India? Or South Africa?

Here’s a story from France24 that underscores my point.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Sunday that businessmen who move assets abroad are committing “treason”, adding that his government should put an end to the practice. “I am aware that some businessmen are attempting to place their assets overseas. I call on the government not to authorise any such moves, because these are acts of treason,” Erdogan said in televised comments to party members in the eastern town on Mus.

Allow me to translate. What Erdogan is saying is “I don’t want escape options for potential victims of expropriation.” For all intents and purposes, he’s basically whining that he can’t steal money that is held offshore.

Which, of course, is why offshore finance is so important.

Professor Tyler Cowen elaborates in a Bloomberg column.

I’d like to speak up for offshore banking as a significant protection against tyranny and unjust autocracy. It’s not just that many offshore financial institutions, such as hedge funds registered in the Cayman Islands, are entirely legal, but also that the practice of hiding wealth overseas has its upside. …offshore…accounts make it harder for autocratic governments to confiscate resources from their citizens. That in turn limits the potential for tyranny.

Tyler looks at some of the research and unsurprisingly finds that there’s a lot of capital flight from unstable regimes.

A recent study shows which countries are most likely to use offshore banking, as measured by a percentage of their gross domestic product. …The top five countries on this list, measured as a percentage of GDP, are United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Argentina, based on estimates from 2007. In all of those cases the risk of arbitrary political confiscations of wealth is relatively high. …When I consider that list of countries, I don’t think confidential offshore banking is such a bad thing. …consider some of the countries that are not major players in the offshore wealth sweepstakes. China and Iran, for instance, have quite low percentages of their GDPs held in offshore accounts, in part because they haven’t been well integrated into global capital markets. …Are we so sure it would be bad for more Chinese and Iranian wealth to find its way into offshore banks? The upshot would be additional limits on the power of the central leaders to confiscate wealth and to keep political opposition in line.

So what’s the bottom line?

Simple. People need ways of protecting themselves from greedy government.

From the vantage point of Western liberalism, individuals should be free from arbitrary confiscations of their wealth, connected to threats against their life and liberty, even if those individuals didn’t earn all of that wealth justly or honestly. There is even a “takings clause” built into the U.S. Constitution. On top of these moral issues, such confiscations may scare off foreign investment and slow progress toward the rule of law.

By the way, the moral argument shouldn’t be limited to nations with overtly venal governments that engage in wealth expropriation. What about the rights of people in nations – such as Argentina and Greece – where  governments wreck economies because of blind incompetence? Shouldn’t they have the ability to protect themselves from wealth destruction?

I actually raised some of these arguments almost 10 years ago in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. There’s lots of evidence that politicians raise tax rates when tax competition is weakened.

P.P.S. Which is why I’m very happy that Rand Paul is leading the fight against a scheme for a global tax cartel.

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One of my specialty pages deals with the unfortunate nexus between sex and government. You can find columns about taxes and sex, Obamacare and sex, and licensing and sex.

My new addition to that collection involves the venal government of Venezuela.

Here’s a story from the Washington Post that will forever symbolize the utter failure of statism. It seems that big government can even ruin sex.

In a country beset by shortages, this is one of the most difficult: the disappearance of contraceptives. When she couldn’t renew her supply of birth-control pills, Gutierrez and her husband…tried to be careful, but soon she was pregnant with her second child. “We barely eat three times a day now,” said a distraught Gutierrez, a former hair washer in a beauty salon who lost her job because of the economic crisis. “I don’t know how we’re going to feed another mouth.” In Venezuela, …nearly two decades of socialist policies…has sparked a severe recession and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. People often wait hours in line to buy bread. Prices for staples jump almost by the day. Medical short­ages range from antibiotics to cancer drugs.

Socialism is infamous for creating shortages of critical things like food and important things like toilet paper.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it produces shortages of birth control. With grim consequences.

Venezuelan doctors are reporting spikes in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that are adding to the country’s deepening misery. …media outlets have published articles about the “counting method” of contraception that women can use to calculate when they are ovulating and likely to get pregnant. An article on the Venezuelan website Cactus24 offered “15 home remedies to avoid pregnancy,” including eating papaya twice a day and drinking two cups of tea with ginger. …Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become informal exchanges for the purchase or trading of birth-control pills, intrauterine devices and implants — albeit at black-market ­prices.  Other women beg friends and relations to bring them contraceptives from outside Venezuela.

There is a black market, which helps a few people, but that option is prohibitively expensive given the horrific state of the Venezuelan economy.

…a female customer in her 20s looking for pills was told, “We only have the imported ones” — implying they would be sold at a black-market rate. The manager offered her a single pack of 21 pills for 120,000 bolívares. That’s about $3, equal to one-third of Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage. …condoms, meanwhile, have disappeared from store shelves. But the cheaper brands taking their place are still imported, and therefore still unaffordable for many. A three-pack can now cost several days’ minimum-wage pay.

By the way, I hope this next anecdote about condoms doesn’t mean what I think it means.

…said Juan Noguera, 28, an unemployed economic researcher…“we just share them between friends. This is the sharing economy.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always though recycling was overrated.

That being said, a shared condom may be better than nothing.

…the gynecologist from Caracas University Hospital, said the number of patients with STDs she is seeing has soared. “In my private practice, out of every 10 patients, five or six now have an STD,” she said. “Two years ago it was just two or three.” Making matters worse, drug shortages are so severe that doctors often lack what they need to treat patients with STDs. “Something as simple as penicillin — the cheapest antibiotic in the world — can’t be found in the country,” said Moraima Hernández, an epidemiologist at Concepción Palacios Maternity Hospital.

Unsurprisingly, government officials have no defense of the terrible situation.

Officials at Venezuela’s Health Ministry did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

I’d be curious, however, to see comments from pro-Venezuelan leftists in America. Do Bernie Sanders and Joe Stiglitz still think Venezuela is a praiseworthy role model?

I remarked last year that Venezuela was entering the fourth circle of statist hell. Why don’t we stipulate that the country in now fully and (un)comfortably ensconced in that grim position. Who knows, maybe it can join North Korea in the fifth circle if Maduro clings to power a few more years.

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I periodically list people who have suffered horrible abuse because of despicable actions by government. At some point, I’ll have to create a special page to memorialize these victims. Something like the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame or Moocher Hall of Fame, though I haven’t figured out a good name (“Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame” is too wordy).

Anyhow, many of these unfortunate people (the Dehko family, Carole Hinders, Joseph Rivers, and Thomas Williams) have something in common. They are victims of theft. But they can’t call law enforcement because their money and property was stolen by the government.

Such theft is enabled by “civil asset forfeiture” and we can now add Gerardo Serrano to the list of victims. The Washington Post has the disgusting story of what happened.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Gerardo Serrano was driving from his home in Kentucky to Piedras Negras, Mexico, when his truck was searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing. After finding a small ammunition clip, the agents took Serrano’s truck from him. Two years later, Customs hasn’t charged Serrano with a crime, and they haven’t given his truck back either.

The bureaucrats could take his truck because Civil asset forfeiture basically gives bureaucrats a license to steal. I’m not joking, though I wish I was.

Customs seized the truck under the laws of civil asset forfeiture, which allow authorities to take cash and property from citizens upon suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Because it happens under civil law, no criminal conviction — or even criminal charge — is necessary for authorities to take property they believe is connected to a crime.

That’s bad enough. But it gets even worse when you read about what happened to Serrano.

In September 2015, Serrano drove his new Ford F-250 pickup from his home in Kentucky to the Mexico border. He was going to visit a cousin he hadn’t seen in many years. He snapped a few photos with his phone as he drove through the checkpoint, planning to upload them to Facebook, just as he says he had been doing throughout his whole trip, to share the experience with friends and family back home. That’s when the trouble started. One of Serrano’s photos shows two Customs agents looking in his direction, hands held up. According to his lawsuit, the agents objected to his taking photos.

Are these bureaucrats members of some primitive jungle tribe that believes a photograph steals their souls?

That would at least be a semi-rational explanation.

But if you read the rest of the story, they’re apparently petulant jerks (I had other words in mind, but this is a family-friendly site).

Those agents waved him over to the side of the road, on the U.S. side of the border, and demanded he hand over his phone. Serrano said “no.” Customs declined to say whether there’s a prohibition on photography at border crossings. …one of the agents unlocked Serrano’s door, unbuckled his seat belt, and yanked him out of the car. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Serrano told The Post. “So I say ‘listen, you can’t yank me out like that, I’m an American, you can’t do that to me.’”The agent took his phone, and demanded Serrano give him the passcode. Serrano recalls he told the agent to “go get a warrant.”By this time, other agents had started searching his truck. “I said, ‘Hey listen I have rights, you’re violating my rights, you’re not supposed to do that kind of stuff,’” Serrano recounted. …“I’m sick of hearing about your rights,” the agent said, according to Serrano’s lawsuit. “You have no rights here.”Eventually, one of the agents searching the truck found an ammunition clip containing five .380-caliber bullets and yelled “we got him!,” according to the lawsuit. …Serrano had planned to take his pistol on the trip, but he left it home at the strong urging of his cousin, who explained the potential consequences of bringing it to Mexico. But he didn’t realize the extra ammunition clip, containing five .380 caliber rounds, was still in the center console of his truck.

The bureaucrats must have been trained in Venezuela.

At the crossing, the CBP agents put Serrano in handcuffs and continued to ask him to give up the passcode. “You go get that warrant,” Serrano says he told them. “I’ll wait for you in jail.” Serrano didn’t believe that any judge would grant a warrant to search a phone for taking pictures at the border. …The agents eventually placed Serrano in a locked cell without food, water or a toilet, Serrano says. Periodically someone would come in and ask for the passcode to his phone, he says. He refused every time.

The good news is that Mr. Serrano won, sort of.

Serrano says that after three hours, the agents told him he was free to go, returned his phone and said he wasn’t being arrested or charged with any crime. Serrano says he was elated.

The bad news is that the bureaucrats stole his truck.

But then, the agents handed him a document informing him that Customs was taking his truck and the ammunition clip. Those items were “subject of legally becoming the property of the Federal Government (forfeiture),” according to the document, because Serrano had failed to disclose the presence of the clip, making the truck a “conveyance of illegal exportation.” …Several weeks later he received a formal forfeiture notice from Customs, informing him that the government believed his truck was being used to transport “arms or munitions of war.” The notice gave him a number of options to pursue if he wanted his truck back.

Here’s the part that only be described as adding insult to injury.

One of the options was to make an “offer in compromise” — send Customs a check, and if they deemed the amount to be high enough, they would return his truck to him. “That’s like a shakedown,” Serrano said.

Fortunately, the great folks at the Institute for Justice are helping him challenge this horrific example of theft by government.

By the way, you may be thinking Serrano is some sort of thug, maybe a gang member from MS-13? I’ve had some defenders of civil asset forfeiture claim that the program is justifiable because it gives law enforcement leeway to go after bad guys that they can identify with their “sixth sense.” Was Serrano a bad guy who was nailed, albeit using a bad law?

Um…, not exactly.

Serrano is originally from Chicago but he’s lived on a farm in Kentucky for 20 years. A lifelong Republican, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2014 on an explicitly pro-Second Amendment platform. He describes himself as a civil libertarian, and has a concealed carry permit for a Sig Sauer .380 pistol he carries for self-defense. “I believe in freedom,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s what made this country great, is our freedom, our liberty.”

Serrano sounds like a great American. If he’s an immigrant, I want more just like him.

He understands what’s really doing on.

“It’s like there’s a war going on and they want to make war with my Bill of Rights,” he said. “How do they get away with this? How could this happen?”

For what it’s worth, I hope Senator Rand Paul (who is willing to fight for liberty) place a “hold” on all nominations to the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security until and unless the government returns Serrano’s truck and compensates him for mistreatment.

Let’s close with some additional excerpts from the column that explain the injustice of civil asset forfeiture.

Many Americans haven’t heard of civil asset forfeiture, the legal provision that grants police the authority to seize cash and property from people not charged with a crime. The practice doesn’t follow the traditional American concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” If police suspect that you acquired something as a result of illegal activity, or even if it is connected to illegal activity, they can take it from you. If you want to get it back, the onus is on you to prove you got it legally. Once property is seized and forfeited, in most states and at the federal level police can either keep it for themselves or sell it at auction to raise money for the department. Critics say this creates a perverse profit motive. …said Robert Johnson, Serrano’s attorney. “That’s an open invitation to abuse.” The practice is widespread. In 2014, for instance, federal law enforcement officers alone took more than $5 billion worth of cash and property from people — more than the total amount of reported burglary losses that year. After public outcry, the Obama administration put in place a number of restrictions on forfeiture that made it harder, in some cases, for authorities to take property without a criminal conviction. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed those restrictions.

Every sentence of the above passage is spot on. Including the last two sentences. The Obama Administration actually took a small step in the right direction, but that was reversed in a terrible move by Trump’s Attorney General.

And here are some excerpts from a column published by CapX.

…asset forfeiture lets government agents seize Americans’ assets (cash, but also cars and even houses) on the mere suspicion that they were involved in a crime. Asset forfeiture is intended to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but frequently enables police to take the property of Americans who remain innocent in the eyes of the law. …Asset forfeiture primarily targets the poor. Most forfeitures are for small amounts: in 2012, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has focused heavily on asset forfeiture, analyzed forfeiture in 10 states and found that the median value of assets seized ranged from $451 (Minnesota) to $2,048 (Utah). Given that law enforcement routinely takes everything they find in a forfeiture case, these small values suggest the relative poverty of the victims. The procedural hurdles for challenging asset forfeiture also mean that poor people are less able to get their money back. The average forfeiture challenge requires four weekdays in court; missing four days of work can be a prohibitive expense for Americans living paycheck to paycheck. …Asset forfeiture is especially dangerous for the unbanked, because police and federal agents consider high amounts of cash to be suspect. …Asset forfeiture functions as a regressive tax, which reduces low-income Americans’ economic mobility. A family that sees their savings wiped out has to start again from the bottom. A person whose cash rent payment is seized may turn to payday loans or the black market, or simply be evicted—none of which are conducive to upward mobility.

Civil asset forfeiture is reprehensible.

The fact that poor people are disproportionately harmed is awful (and pervasive in parts of the criminal justice system).

P.S. To their credit, the first two administrators of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program now recognize that it’s become an abusive monster and want it repealed.

P.P.S. It’s possible that the border bureaucrats were acting because of bias, of perhaps profiling Serrano because of his Latino heritage. But I never hurl that accusation without some real evidence. Unlike some people.

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Whether I like what’s happening (getting rid of Operation Choke Point) or don’t like what’s happening (expanding civil asset forfeiture), it appears that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is willing to make decisions.

With one very puzzling exception.

No steps have been taken to reverse the Obama-era policy of stonewalling to hide evidence of IRS scandals. Everything seems to be on auto-pilot.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the issue today and is justifiably frustrated.

The Obama Justice Department dismissed the IRS political targeting scandal as no big deal, and the Trump Administration hasn’t been any better. …These are basic questions of political accountability, even if the IRS has stonewalled since 2013. President Obama continued to spin that the targeting was the result of some “boneheaded” IRS line officers in Cincinnati who didn’t understand tax law. Yet Congressional investigations have uncovered clear evidence that the targeting was ordered and directed out of Washington. Former director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner was at the center of that Washington effort, but the IRS allowed her to retire with benefits. She invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of her principal deputies, Holly Paz, has submitted to a deposition in separate litigation, but the judge has sealed her testimony after she claimed she faced threats. The Acting Commissioner of the IRS at the time, Stephen Miller, stepped down in the wake of the scandal, but as far as anyone outside the IRS knows, no other IRS employee has been held to account. Even if the culprits were “rogue employees,” as the IRS claims, the public deserves to know what happened. …The Trump Administration also has a duty to provide some answers. The Justice Department and IRS have continued to resist the lawsuits as doggedly as they did in the Obama era. Attorney General Jeff Sessions can change that… Seven years is too long to wait for answers over abuses of the government’s taxing power.

This is spot on. It’s outrageous that the Obama Administration weaponized and politicized the IRS. But it’s also absurdly incompetent that the Trump Administration isn’t cleaning up the mess.

I understand why the bureaucrats at the Justice Department instinctively (and probably ideologically) want to protect their counterparts at the IRS. But, as the WSJ stated, there’s no reason why Attorney General Sessions isn’t using his authority to change policy.

The President’s failure to fire the ethically tainted IRS Commissioner is a troubling sign that the problem isn’t limited to the Justice Department.

One of Republicans’ least favorite Obama administration officials remains in his position: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Some Republicans lawmakers have asked President Trump to ask for Koskinen’s resignation. The commissioner’s term expires in November, but he has said he would step aside sooner if asked by the president. …Koskinen to lead the IRS in 2013, not long after it was revealed that the agency had subjected Tea Party groups’ applications for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny and delays. …Many Republicans accuse Koskinen of impeding congressional investigations into the political-targeting scandal. They argue that he made false and misleading statements under oath and didn’t comply with a subpoena. During the last months of Obama’s presidency, some House Republicans pushed for a vote on Koskinen’s impeachment… Since Trump has taken office, there have been calls from GOP lawmakers for Koskinen to step down. Days after Trump’s inauguration, Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and more than 50 other lawmakers sent a letter urging Trump to fire Koskinen “in the most expedient manner practicable.” …It’s unclear why Trump hasn’t ousted Koskinen or if he plans to do so in the future.

Very disappointing. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this almost leads me to wonder whether Koskinen has some damaging information on Trump.

Incidentally, the Justice Department may be dragging its feet and the White House may have cold feet, but the Treasury Department is overtly on the wrong side. And the problem starts at the top, resulting in praise for the Treasury Secretary from the pro-IRS forces at the New York Times.

President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, knows that investing in the Internal Revenue Service yields significant returns… And he’s right: Every dollar spent on the agency returns $4 in revenue for the federal government, and as much as $10 when invested in enforcement activities. …At his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Mnuchin bemoaned the cuts to the I.R.S. budget over the last seven years. The agency “is under-resourced to perform its duties,” he said, adding that further cuts “will indeed hamper our ability to collect revenue.” He also acknowledged that money spent on the I.R.S. is a good investment: “To the extent that we add resources, we can collect more money.” …his faith in the I.R.S. work force prompted one of his congressional interrogators to call it “refreshing” to hear someone “praise the employees at the Treasury Department.”

Yet should we give more money to a bureaucracy that has a big enough budget to finance this kind of reprehensible behavior?

The Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars in cash from individuals and businesses that obtained the money legally, according to a new Treasury Department inspector general’s report. …individuals and businesses are required to report all bank deposits greater than $10,000 to federal authorities. Intentionally splitting up large sums of cash into sub-$10,000 amounts to avoid that reporting requirement is known as “structuring” and is illegal under the federal Bank Secrecy Act. But many business owners engaged in perfectly legal activities may be unaware of the law. Others are covered by insurance policies that don’t cover cash losses greater than $10,000. Still others simply want to avoid extra paperwork, and keep their deposits less than $10,000 on the advice of bank employees or colleagues. …The reporting requirements were enacted to detect serious criminal activity, such as drug dealing and terrorism.

I’m very skeptical that these intrusive anti-money laundering laws are successful by any metric, but I’m nauseated that the main effect is to give IRS bureaucrats carte blanche to steal money from law-abiding people.

The IRS pursued hundreds of cases from 2012 to 2015 on suspicion of structuring, but with no indications of connections to any criminal activity. Simply depositing cash in sums of less than $10,000 was all that it took to arouse agents’ suspicions, leading to the eventual seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash from people not otherwise suspected of criminal activity. The IG took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.

But here’s the part that’s most outrageous.

Innocent people weren’t the byproducts of a campaign to get bad guys. They were the targets.

…the report found that the pattern of seizures — targeting businesses that had obtained their money legally — was deliberate. “One of the reasons why legal source cases were pursued was that the Department of Justice had encouraged task forces to engage in ‘quick hits,’ where property was more quickly seized and more quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and money laundering), which are more time-consuming,” according to the news release. In most cases, the report found, agents followed a protocol of “seize first, ask questions later.” Agents only questioned individuals and business owners after they had already seized their money.

In any event, the Trump Administration’s failure to deal with the problem seems to have emboldened the tax collection agency.

Despite promises to Congress, the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take advantage of a red-flag alert system designed to prevent it  from rehiring past employees with blots on their records, a watchdog found. …the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 200 of 2,000-plus former employees “whom the IRS rehired between January 2015 and March 2016 had been previously terminated or separated from the tax agency while under investigation,” according to a report released on Thursday.

And keep in mind that IRS bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses in response to the scandal.

By the way, the problem isn’t limited to the executive branch.

Republicans in 2015 (after they had control of both the House and Senate!) decided that the best response to IRS scandals was to increase the agency’s budget. I’m not joking (and I’m also not happy). At the risk of being redundant, only the Stupid Party could be that stupid.

I sarcastically wrote four years ago that we should be thankful that Obama reminded the American people that the IRS isn’t trustworthy. Little did I realize that Republicans would fumble a golden opportunity to deal with the mess once they got power.

P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here’s more examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, 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 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.

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Last night, I retweeted an image that rubbed me the wrong way.

It showed three kids who were handcuffed by undercover cops for criminal activity.

And what was their crime? Were they picking pockets? Beating up tourists? Slashing tires?

Nope, none of those things. Instead, they were (gasp!!) selling water to thirsty people. And they didn’t have a piece of paper from the government giving them permission to participate in voluntary exchange. Oh, the horror.

And everyone knows that selling water without a license is a gateway drug to the ultimate underage crime of operating an unlicensed lemonade stand. Or maybe even shoveling snow, cutting grass, or selling worms without government approval!

Here’s the original tweet.

This really sums up why libertarians don’t like government. All too often, it’s the unfair application of force against innocent behavior.

This episode of government thuggery has received a surprising amount of coverage. Here are some excerpts from a story by U.S. News & World Report.

Police handcuffed three teenagers Thursday evening for attempting to selling water without a permit on the National Mall.Photos tweeted by passerby Tim Krepp, a tour guide and writer, show three plainclothes U.S. Park Police officers detaining the three African-American teens near the Mall’s Smithsonian Castle, located between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The good news is that the kids weren’t actually arrested.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Park Police, Sgt. Anna Rose, confirms three teenagers were detained for vending without a license, but says she feels “this has gotten blown out of proportion.” The three teens, ages 16 and 17, were detained for “illegally selling water” but were not charged, Rose says. They were held until their parents arrived. A fourth individual was immediately released after officers determined he was uninvolved, she says.

If you click on Mr. Krepp’s tweet and read the comments, you’ll notice some discussion of whether white kids would have been treated the same way.

I don’t like to assume racism without real evidence, so my default assumption is that the cops were primarily motivated by a desire to fill their quota and have some proof that they weren’t goofing off.

But it’s also worth noting that the over-criminalization of society creates opportunities for bad people in government to target minorities (or other groups that fall into disfavor). And if it’s danger to ride a train while black, then it’s also possible that it’s risky to sell water while black.

The broader lesson is that it’s a good idea to have fewer laws. And the laws that do exist should be designed to protect people from external aggression. Especially given the horror stories that are produced by the alternative approach.

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What word best describes the War on Drugs?

The right answer is All of the Above. Politicians have ruined lives and wasted money in a futile campaign to stop people from recreational drug use.

It may be true that people who use drugs are being stupid. Or even immoral. But the key thing to understand is that it’s a victimless crime.

Actually, that’s not true, there are victims. They’re called taxpayers, who have to finance the government’s drug war. And there are secondary victims thanks to bad laws (dealing with asset forfeiture and money laundering) that only exist because of the drug war.

Speaking of which, here’s another horror story from the drug war.

A report by the Justice Department Inspector General released Wednesday found that the DEA’s gargantuan amount of cash seizures often didn’t relate to any ongoing criminal investigations, and 82 percent of seizures it reviewed ended up being settled administratively—that is, without any judicial review—raising civil liberties concerns. …the Inspector General reports the DEA seized $4.15 billion in cash since 2007, accounting for 80 percent of all Justice Department cash seizures.

Here’s the jaw-dropping part of the story.

…$3.2 billion of those seizures were never connected to any criminal charges.

In other words, the government took people’s money even they weren’t charged with a crime, much less convicted of a crime.

Drug users also can be victims. Heck, sometimes people are victims even if they’re not users, as we see from this great moment in the drug war.

“They thought they had the biggest bust in Harris County,” Ross LeBeau said. “This was the bust of the year for them.” A traffic stop in early December led to the discovery of almost half a pound of what deputies believed to be methamphetamine. The deputies arrested LeBeau and sent out a press release, including a mug shot, describing the bust. According to authorities, the arrest was due to deputies finding a sock filled with what they believed to be methamphetamine. …After the arrest, LeBeau was fingerprinted and booked into a jail where he spent three days before being released. The problem came after two field tests, performed by deputies, came back positive for meth. Later a third test was conducted by the county’s forensic lab which revealed that the kitty litter was not a controlled substance. The case was later dismissed.

And more bad things like this are probably going to happen because the Justice Department now wants a more punitive approach to victimless crimes.

C.J. Ciaramella of Reason reports on the grim details.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the toughest charges and maximum possible sentences available, reversing an Obama-era policy that sought to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug crimes. …the overall message is clear: Federal prosecutors have the green light to go hard after any and all drug offenses. …The shift marks the first significant return by the Trump administration to the drug war policies that the Obama administration tried to moderate. In 2013, former Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to avoid charging certain low-level offenders with drug charges that triggered long mandatory sentences. The federal prison population dropped for the first time in three decades in 2014, and has continued to fall since.

Some Republicans are unhappy about this return to draconian policies.

“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice. …Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), although he did not directly criticize Sessions, wrote in a tweet Friday morning that “to be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime. That is why criminal justice reform is a conservative issue.”

For what it’s worth, Sessions isn’t the only one who deserves blame.

While it’s easy to point the finger at Sessions, …Congress ultimately passed the laws the Justice Department is tasked with enforcing. Lawmakers in Congress had a golden window of opportunity over the past three years to revise federal sentencing laws—with bipartisan winds at their back and a friendly administration in White House—and failed miserably.

And there is a tiny bit of good news.

…the Office of National Drug Control Policy… Trump plans to reduce the agency’s budget by 95 percent… there are plenty of actual harm reduction advocates who would be happy to see the agency close up shop.

Though don’t get too excited.

…you know what federal agency with drug policy ramifications is not dormant? The Justice Department. …In the grand scheme of the drug war, who might occupy the ONDCP’s bully pulpit matters less than the army Sessions is building.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for better policy.

Here’s another reason why the war on pot is so absurd. As reported by the Daily Caller, people without access to marijuana are more likely to get in trouble with opioids.

Opioids continue to claim 91 lives a day across the U.S., but new research shows medical marijuana programs are drastically cutting down on rates of painkiller abuse. Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association is adding to a growing body of evidence showing states with medical marijuana programs have lower rates of opioid related overdoses. Patients who are offered pot as an alternative treatment for chronic conditions are increasingly shifting off their prescription opioids entirely, reports WLBZ. The researchers found states with medical marijuana programs in 2014 had an opioid overdose rate roughly 25 percent lower than the national average.

Last but not least, an article in Reason explains how greedy politicians are undermining the otherwise successful pot legalization in Colorado.

Colorado…voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, transforming the popular stuff from a prohibited vice to a substance that could be produced, bought and sold without the hassle of hiding dealings from the authorities and the fear of arrest for voluntary transactions. Yet the marijuana black market is still going strong over four years later, with many sellers and customers willing to take a chance on legal consequences rather than make a risk-free deal. …the driving force behind the black market…is taxes so sky high and regulations so burdensome that they make legal pot uncompetitive. “An ounce of pot on the black market can cost as little as 180 dollars,” according to PBS correspondent Rick Karr. “At the store Andy Williams owns, you have to pay around 240 dollars for an ounce. That’s partly because the price includes a 15 percent excise tax, a 10 percent marijuana tax, the state sales tax, and Denver’s marijuana sales tax.” Colorado also piles on expensive regulatory requirements to get a license.

This is not a surprise.

I wrote back in 2015 that the tax burden was excessive.

Indeed, I even wondered if legalization in Colorado was a good thing if the net result was a big pile of tax revenue that could be used to expand government.

The libertarian part of me says Colorado made the right decision, though the fiscal economist part of me definitely sees a down side.

And that down side may become an even bigger downer.

Governor John Hickenlooper wants to increase the marijuana sales tax from 10 percent from 8 percent. “It seems kind of odd that at the same time they’re trying to do something about the black and gray markets they’re going to ratchet up the taxes and drive more people to the black and gray markets,” state Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) commented.

P.S. I wonder if Senator Steadman realizes he just embraced the Laffer Curve?

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that voices as diverse as John Stossel, Mona Charen, Gary Johnson, Pat Robertson, Cory Booker, John McCain, and Richard Branson all agree that it’s time to rethink marijuana prohibition. 

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What word best describes the actions of government? Would it be greed? How about thuggery? Or cronyism?

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm has a story showing that “all of the above” may be the right answer.

At first it seems like a story about government greed.

When Mats Järlström’s wife got snagged by one of Oregon’s red light cameras in 2013, he challenged the ticket by questioning the timing of the yellow lights at intersections where cameras had been installed. Since then, his research into red light cameras has earned him attention in local and national media—in 2014, he presented his evidence on an episode of “60 Minutes”…on how too-short yellow lights were making money for the state by putting the public’s safety at risk.

Three cheers for Mr. Järlström. Just like Jay Beeber, he’s fighting against local governments that put lives at risk by using red-light cameras as a revenue-raising scam.

But then it became a story about government thuggery.

…the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying…threatened him. Citing state laws that make it illegal to practice engineering without a license, the board told Järlström that even calling himself an “electronics engineer” and the use of the phrase “I am an engineer” in his letter were enough to “create violations.” Apparently the threats weren’t enough, because the board follow-up in January of this year by officially fining Järlström $500 for the supposed crime of “practicing engineering without being registered.”

Gasp, imagine the horror of having unregistered engineers roaming the state! Though one imagines that the government’s real goal is to punish Järlström for threatening its red-light revenue racket.

But if you continue reading the story, it’s also about cronyism. The Board apparently wants to stifle competition, even if it means trying to prevent people from making true statements.

Järlström is…arguing that it’s unconstitutional to prevent someone from doing math without the government’s permission. …The notion that it’s somehow illegal for Järlström to call himself an engineer is absurd. He has a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden… it’s not the first time the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has been overly aggressive…the state board investigated Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in 2014 for publishing a campaign pamphlet that mentioned Saltzman’s background as an “environmental engineer.” Saltzman has a bachelor’s degree in environmental and civil engineering from Cornell University, a master’s degree from MIT’s School of Civil Engineering, and is a membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers

In other words, this is yet another example of how politicians and special interests use “occupational licensing” as a scam.

The politicians get to impose “fees” in exchange for letting people practice a profession.

And the interest groups get to impose barriers that limit competition.

A win-win situation, at least if you’re not a taxpayer or consumer.

Or a poor person who wants to get a job.

Some of the examples of occupational licensing would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that people are being denied the right to engage in voluntary exchange.

Such as barriers against people who want to help deaf people communicate.

If you want to help a deaf person communicate in Wisconsin, you’ll have to get permission from the state government first. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states to require a license for sign language interpreters, and the state also issues licenses for interior designers, bartenders, and dieticians despite no clear evidence that any of those professions constitute a risk to public health in other states without similar licensing rules. …It’s hard to imagine any health and safety benefits to mandatory licensing for sign language interpreters, which is one of eight licenses highlighted in a new report from Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, a conservative group. …Since 1996, the number of licensed professions in the Badger State has grown from 90 to 166—an increase of 84 percent, according to the report. Licensing cost Wisconsin more than 30,000 jobs over the last 20 years and adds an additional $1.9 billion annually in consumer costs.

Or restricting the economic liberty of dog walkers.

…according to the Colorado government, people who watch pets for money are breaking the law unless if they can get licensed as a commercial kennel—a requirement that is costly and unrealistic for people working out of their homes, often as a side job. This is not simply a case of an outdated law failing to accommodate modern technology. There are more nefarious motives—those of special interests who want to protect their profits by keeping out new competition. …it is time to add “Big Kennel” to the list of special interests that support ridiculous occupational licensing schemes.

Or trying to deny rights, as in the case of horse masseuses.

…an Arizona state licensing board finally backed down from an expensive, unnecessary mandate that nearly forced three women to give up their careers as animal masseuses. …the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board said it would no longer require animal massage practitioners, who provide therapeutic services to dogs, horses, and other animals, to obtain a veterinary license. Obtaining that license requires years of post-graduate schooling, which can cost as much as $250,000. “All I want is the freedom to do my job, and I have that now,” Celeste Kelly, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement. …the state board tried to driver her out of business by threatening her with fines and jail time if she didn’t get a veterinary license.

The good news is that there’s a growing campaign to get rid of these disgusting restrictions of voluntary exchange.

The acting head of the Federal Trade Commission is getting involved. On the right side of the issue!

Maureen K. Ohlhausen, the new acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, thinks it’s high time that the FTC start giving more than lip service to its traditional mandate of fostering economic liberty. And the first item in her crosshairs is the burgeoning growth in occupational licenses. Over the past several decades, licensing requirements have multiplied like rabbits, she noted. Only 5 percent of the workforce needed a license in 1950, but somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of all American workers need one today. …depending on where you live, you might need a license to be an auctioneer, interior designer, makeup artist, hair braider, potato shipper, massage therapist or manicurist. “The health and safety arguments about why these occupations need to be licensed range from dubious to ridiculous,” Ohlhausen said. “I challenge anyone to explain why the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from rogue interior designers carpet-bombing living rooms with ugly throw pillows.”

Hooray for Ms. Ohlhausen. She’s directing the FTC to do something productive, which is a nice change of pace for a bureaucracy that has been infamous in past years for absurd enforcement of counterproductive antitrust laws.

A column in the Wall Street Journal highlights Mississippi’s reforms.

State lawmakers in Mississippi are taking the need for reform to heart. Two weeks ago Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law H.B. 1425, which will significantly rein in licensing boards. …H.B. 1425 explicitly endorses competition and says that the state’s policy is to “use the least restrictive regulation necessary to protect consumers from present, significant and substantiated harms.” Under the law, the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general must review and approve all new regulations from professional licensing boards to ensure compliance with the new legal standard. This should be a model for other states. …Mississippi’s law…covers all licensing boards controlled by industry participants, spells out a pro-competition test, and requires new rules to be approved by elected officials accountable to voters. Mississippi has smartly targeted the core problem: Anticompetitive regulations harm the economy, slow job growth, and raise consumer prices.

Here’s some of the national data in the WSJ column.

Keep in mind, as you read these numbers, that poor people disproportionately suffer as a result of these regulatory barriers to work.

In the 1950s only about 1 in 20 American workers needed a license, but now roughly 1 in 4 do. This puts a real burden on the economy. A 2012 study by the Institute for Justice examined 102 low-income and middle-income occupations. The average license cost $209 and required nine months of training and one state exam. …Even the Obama administration saw the problem. A 2015 report from the White House said that licensing can “reduce employment opportunities and lower wages for excluded workers.” In 2011 three academic economists estimated that these barriers have result in 2.85 million fewer jobs nationwide, while costing consumers $203 billion a year thanks to decreased competition.

Professor Tyler Cowen explains in Time that licensing laws explain in part the worrisome decline in mobility in America.

Some of the decline in labor mobility may stem from…the growth of occupational licensure. While once only doctors and medical professionals required licenses to practice, now it is barbers, interior decorators, electricians, and yoga trainers. More and more of these licensing restrictions are added on, but few are ever taken away, in part because the already licensed established professionals lobby for the continuation of the restrictions. In such a world, it is harder to move into a new state and, without preparation and a good deal of investment, set up a new business in a licensed area.

Last but not least, we have a candidate for the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains for Reason that a paper pusher in Florida managed to use occupational licensing fees as a tool of self-enrichment.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, all topless dancers are required to register with county officials and obtain an Adult Entertainment Work Identification Card (AEIC), at the cost of $75 per year. The regulation is ridiculous for a lot of reasons, but at least applicants—many of whom are paid exclusively in cash—were able to pay the government-ID fee with cash, too, making things a little more convenient and a little less privacy-invading. But not anymore, thanks to the alleged actions of one sticky-fingered government employee. …Pedemy “diverted” at least $28,875 (and possibly an additional $3,305) from county coffers between October 2013 and mid-November 2016. The money came from both adult-entertainer fees—approximately 70 percent of which were paid in cash—and court-ordered payments intended for a crime Victims Services Fund.

At the end of the article, Ms. Brown looks at the bigger issue and asks what possible public purpose is being served by stripper licensing.

Demanding strippers be licensed in the first place is a problem… There’s no legitimate public-safety or consumer-protection element to the requirement—strip club patrons don’t care if the woman wriggling on their laps is properly permitted. Government officials have portrayed the measure as a means to stop human trafficking and the exploitation of minors, but that’s ludicrous; anyone willing to force someone else into sex or labor and circumvent much more serious rules with regard to age limits isn’t going to suddenly take pause over an occupational licensing rule they’ll have to skirt. The only ones truly affected are sex workers and adult-business owners. Not only does the regulation drive up their costs…, it gives Palm Beach regulators a database of anyone who’s ever taken their clothes off for money locally—leaving these records open to FOIA requests or hackers—and gives cops a pretense to check clubs at random to make sure there aren’t any unlicensed dancers. Those found to be dancing without a license can be arrested on a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. If you peruse “Sex and Government,” you’ll find that politicians and bureaucrats like to stick their noses in all sorts of inappropriate places. Including the vital state interest of whether topless women should be allowed to cut hair without a license!

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