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Posts Tagged ‘Government Thuggery’

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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