Tyranny Comes to Main Street

by | Dec 12, 2023

Tyranny Comes to Main Street

by | Dec 12, 2023

lastrights cover

The following is chapter one of James Bovard’s new book, Last Rights: The Death of American Liberty, published by the Libertarian Institute. Order your copy today.

Americans today have the “freedom” to be fleeced, groped, wiretapped, injected, censored, injected, ticketed, disarmed, beaten, vilified, detained, and maybe shot by government agents. Politicians are hell-bent on protecting citizens against everything except Uncle Sam. Is America becoming a Cage Keeper Democracy where voters merely ratify the latest demolition of their rights and liberties?

“We live in a world in which everything has been criminalized,” warned Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. There are now more than 5,200 separate federal criminal offenses, a 36% increase since the 1990s, along with tens of thousands of state and local crimes. More laws mean more violators who can be harshly punished on command, resulting in the arrests of more than 10 million Americans each year. Thanks to the Supreme Court, police can lock up anyone accused of “even a very minor criminal offense” such as an unbuckled seatbelt.

The Founding Fathers saw property rights as “the guardian of every other right.” But today’s politicians never lack a pretext for plundering private citizens. Despite being charged with no crime, half a million Americans have been robbed by government agents on the nation’s sidewalks, highways, and airports in recent decades. Federal law enforcement agencies arbitrarily confiscate more property from Americans each year than all the burglars steal nationwide. The IRS pilfered more cash from private bank accounts because of alleged paperwork errors than the total looted by bank robbers nationwide. Federal bureaucrats blocked landowners from farming or building on a hundred million acres of their own property because of puddles, ditches, or other suspected wet spots.

Police have killed more than 25,000 citizens since the turn of the century, but the federal government does not even bother compiling a body count. SWAT teams use battering rams and flash-bang grenades to attack 50,000 homes a year, routinely terrorizing people suspected of dastardly crimes like spraying graffiti or running poker games. Cops in many cities have been caught planting guns on hapless targets, while corrupt police labs fabricated tens of thousands of bogus drug convictions. Police unions have more sway over government policy than anyone on the wrong end of a baton or Taser. Despite perpetual promises of reform, most police who brutalize private citizens still automatically receive legal immunity. Federal Judge Don Willett derided the “Constitution-free zone” courts created where “individuals whose constitutional rights are violated at the hands of federal officers are essentially remedy-less.”

Gun owners are America’s fastest-growing criminal class. One state after another is enacting “Show us the gun and we’ll find the crime” laws. Judges and politicians are justifying mass disarmament in the name of “freedom from fear”—as if no one will be safe until government controls every trigger. Federal agencies consider all 20+ million marijuana users who own firearms to be felons (unless their last name is Biden). Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden both retroactively outlawed widely-owned firearm accessories, creating new legions of potential jailbirds. At the same time many federal agencies are stockpiling automatic weapons, Biden calls for banning semiautomatic pistols and rifles owned by 50 million Americans.

Politicians and bureaucrats exploited the COVID19 pandemic to forbid any activities they chose, from going to church to buying garden seeds. Governors in most states effectively banned hundreds of millions of citizens from leaving their homes. Shutting down entire states was the equivalent of sacrificing virgins to appease angry viral gods. In Los Angeles, citizens were prohibited from going outside for a walk or bike ride. Tens of thousands of small businesses were bankrupted by shutdown orders, while federal “relief” spurred a $600 billion worldwide fraud stampede. Most Americans suffered COVID infections despite government decrees that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito labeled “previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” Government officials endlessly invoked “science and data” to sanctify their power. But many pandemic policies were simply Political Science 101, using deceit and demagoguery to domineer humanity.

Government decrees are blighting more lives than ever before. Vague laws convert bureaucrats into czars who dictate as they please. More than a thousand occupations have been closed to anyone who fails to kowtow to absurd state licensing requirements, from fortune tellers in Massachusetts to anyone rubbing feet in Arizona. Tens of thousands of drivers have been injured and hundreds killed thanks to red light traffic ticket cameras notorious for multiplying collisions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made it a federal crime to refuse to hire ex-convicts. The Americans with Disabilities Act has spurred half a million “discrimination” lawsuits, including by narcoleptics who fell asleep on the job and by a deaf guy outraged about missing captions on porn videos.

Schoolchildren are being sacrificed on an altar of social justice. From No Child Left Behind to Common Core, federal dictates have subverted academic standards and squandered billions of hours of kids’ lives. Teacher unions have worked to destroy local control of education, prevent teacher accountability, deny parents any voice in their children’s education, and pointlessly shut down schools during the pandemic. In lieu of literacy, government schools are redefining gender and indoctrinating kids with values that many parents detest. When mothers and fathers raised hell at school board meetings, the Biden administration and the FBI labeled them as terrorist suspects.

Politicians are increasingly dividing Americans into two classes—those who work for a living and those who vote for a living. Subsidy programs have multiplied even faster than congressional ethics scandals. Federal aid propelled college tuition increases that turned ex-students into a new debtor class endlessly clamoring for relief. Farm subsidies wreak chaos in markets while providing a gravy train for affluent landowners. Federal mortgage policies have been “wrecking ball benevolence,” whipsawing the housing market and spawning the 2007–08 collapse that reduced the net worth of black and Hispanic households by 50%. The number of handout recipients has more than doubled since 1983, and the feds are now feeding more than 100 million Americans. Government grants are eventually followed by government restrictions, and dependence often turns into submission. The ultimate victim of handouts could be democracy itself: politicians cannot undermine self-reliance without subverting self-government.

While politicians boast of bestowing freebies, taxes have become a financial Grim Reaper. The Internal Revenue Service is Washington’s ultimate sacred cow because it delivers trillions of dollars to allow politicians to work miracles (or at least get re-elected). Americans are forced to pay more in taxes than their total spending on food, clothing, and housing. Tax codes have become inscrutable at the same time the IRS pummels people with ten times more penalties than in earlier decades. The Biden administration is racing to hire 87,000 new IRS agents and employees to squeeze far more money out of both rich and poor taxpayers. Inflation has become the cruelest tax as the dollar’s purchasing power fell 17% since Biden took office, fleecing any citizen with a savings account.

The federal government is generating so many absurdities nowadays that even cynics cannot keep up. The Transportation Security Administration epitomizes Washington’s boneheaded command-and-control approach to modern perils. TSA’s Whole Body Scanners doused tens of millions of travelers with radiation while taking nude pictures of them. TSA’s groin-grabbing “enhanced pat-downs” spark thousands of sexual assault complaints from women every year. TSA terrorist profiles have warned of travelers who are either staring intently or avoiding eye contact, or who fidget, yawn, or sweat heavily; anyone who is whistling and/or staring at their feet; Boston blacks wearing backward baseball caps; and anyone who “expresses contempt” for TSA Security Theater antics.

Federal surveillance leaves no refuge for dissent. Government agencies are secretly accumulating mountains of data that could be used for “blackmail, stalking, harassment and public shaming” of American citizens, according to a 2023 federal report. The National Security Agency has stalked Americans via their cellphones, covertly installed spyware onto personal computers, and treated anyone “searching the Web for suspicious stuff” like a terrorist suspect. The Patriot Act spurred the illegal seizure of personal and financial information from tens of millions of Americans. Customs agents can seize and copy the cellphones, laptop drives, and private papers of any American crossing the U.S. border. The Drug Enforcement Administration is building a secret nationwide network of license plate scanners to track every driver. Federally funded “fusion centers” are stockpiling Suspicious Activity Reports on tourists who photograph landmarks, “people who avoid eye contact,” and anyone “reverent of individual liberty.” The FBI’s “terrorist warning signs” include hotel guests using “Do Not Disturb” signs and the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.

At the same time spying on citizens skyrocketed, Washington dropped an Iron Curtain around itself. The government is committing more crimes than citizens will ever know. Whistleblowers and journalists are hounded as if exposing official lies is a heresy against democracy. Every year, the federal government slaps a “secret” label on trillions of pages of information—enough to fill 20 million filing cabinets. Any document which is classified is treated like a holy relic that cannot be exposed without damning the nation. Self-government has been defined down to paying, obeying, and wearing a federal blindfold. There are plenty of laws to protect government secrets but no law to protect democracy from federal secrecy.

The First Amendment is becoming a historic relic. Federal Judge Terry Doughty recently condemned the Biden administration for potentially “the most massive attack against free speech in United States history.” That verdict was ratified in September 2023 by a federal appeals court ruling slamming the White House and federal agencies for actions that resulted in “suppressing millions of protected free speech postings by American citizens.” Federal agencies pirouetted as a “Ministry of Truth,” according to the court rulings. Censorship converts citizens into captives. Federal censorship tainted the 2020 and 2022 elections, suppressing tens of millions of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts from conservatives and Republicans. White House officials even ordered Facebook to delete humorous memes, including a parody of a future television ad: “Did you or a loved one take the COVID vaccine? You may be entitled…”

Rather than the Rule of Law, we have a government of threats, intimidation, and browbeating. “Government of the people” defaulted into “government for the people,” which degenerated into perennially punishing people for their own good. Twenty-five years ago, Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned against permitting federal agencies “the extraordinary authority… to manufacture crimes.” Entrapment schemes proliferate as G-men fabricate crimes to justify budget increases. The FBI, pretending that rosary beads could be extremist symbols, is targeting traditional Catholics across the nation because of their conservative moral values. The FBI entitles its legions of confidential informants to commit more than 5,000 crimes a year, dragging many unlucky bystanders to their legal doom. The number of inmates in federal prison increased 500% since 1980, and America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Politicians are more anxious to control citizens than to protect them. More people are busted each year for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined, while the futile War on Drugs causes more fatalities than ever before.

Every recent administration has expanded and exploited the dictatorial potential of the presidency. Former President Richard Nixon shocked Americans in 1977 when he asserted during a television interview: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But Nixon’s slogan is the Oval Office maxim for the new millennium. Presidents now only need to find a single federal lawyer who says, “Yes, Master!” President George W. Bush’s lawyers secretly decided that neither federal law nor the Constitution could limit the power of the president, who could declare martial law or authorize torture at his whim. President Barack Obama claimed a prerogative to assassinate Americans he labeled terrorist suspects. President Donald Trump boasted of “an absolute right to do what I want to with the Justice Department.” In 2022, President Biden proclaimed that “liberty is under assault.” But he was referring solely to a few court rulings he disapproved, not to the federal supremacy he championed for almost 50 years in the Senate and the White House.

The authoritarian trendline in American political life is more important than the name or party of any officeholder. “One precedent in favor of power is stronger than a hundred against it,” as Thomas Jefferson warned during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, there are a hundred precedents in favor of government now for each precedent in favor of liberty. There is a “No harm, no foul” attitude towards violating the Constitution, and Washington almost always hides the harm. The sheer power of federal agencies such as the FBI is becoming one of the gravest perils to American democracy.

Elections are becoming demolition derbies that threaten to wreck the nation. Historian Henry Adams observed a century ago that politics “has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Nowadays, politics seems hell-bent on multiplying hatred. Enraged activists are increasingly tarring all their opponents as traitors. Many of the protestors who spent years vehemently denouncing Trump were not opposed to dictators per se; they simply wanted different dictates. More than half of Americans expect a civil war “in the next few years,” according to a recent survey.

Americans are indoctrinated in public schools to presume that our national DNA guarantees that we will always be free. But few follies are more perilous than presuming that individual rights are safe in perpetuity. None of the arguments on why liberty is inevitable can explain why it is becoming an endangered species. Yet many people believe that liberty will inevitably triumph because of some “law of history” never enacted by God, a convocation of cardinals, or even the Arkansas state legislature. Presuming that freedom is our destiny lulls people against political predators.

Federal Judge Learned Hand warned in 1944: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” But Americans are more likely to encounter liberty in history books instead of their own lives. Many young people are unaware of bygone eras when Americans could travel without being groped, buy a beer or smoke a cigar without committing a federal offense, or protest without being quarantined in an Orwellian “free-speech zone.” Is the spirit of liberty dead? Almost a third of young American adults support installing mandatory government surveillance cameras in private homes to “reduce domestic violence, abuse, and other illegal activity.”

We have an Impunity Democracy in which government officials pay no price for their crimes. Americans today are more likely to believe in witches, ghosts, and astrology than to trust the federal government. Washington’s legitimacy is in tatters thanks to a long train of bipartisan perfidy. If government is lawless, elections merely designate the most dangerous criminals in the land.

At a time when foreign democracies are collapsing like dominos, can America avoid becoming the “elective despotism” the Founding Fathers dreaded? The first step to reviving liberty is to recognize how far politicians have stretched their power. But nothing can safeguard freedom except the bravery of citizens who refuse to be shackled.

About Jim Bovard

Jim Bovard is a Senior Fellow for the Libertarian Institute and author of the newly published, Last Rights: The Death of American Liberty (2023). His other books include Public Policy Hooligan (2012), Attention Deficit Democracy (2006), Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994), and seven others. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Washington Post, among others. His articles have been publicly denounced by the chief of the FBI, the Postmaster General, the Secretary of HUD, and the heads of the DEA, FEMA, and EEOC and numerous federal agencies.

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