Most of the political articles I write tend to look at big, glaring problems. The war on terror is wasteful and counterproductive. The NSA is unconstitutionally spying on millions of people. Our national debt has reached a number so big it’s hard to even fathom.
But all too often there’s at least as much evidence of out-of-control government in commonplace parts of life—little creeping growths of state authority which have become so normalized that we’ve nearly forgotten they shouldn’t be acceptable in the supposed “land of the free.”
These petty tyrannies are in some sense more dangerous than the big, sweeping Washington power grabs we easily recognize. Taken on a case-by-case basis they might not seem like a big deal, but their cumulative effect is a significant impediment to liberty.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the TSA, which, as I’ve noted before here at Rare, has simply become part of the airport scenery. Although there is an anti-TSA minority, as this poll shows, the bulk of Americans erroneously believe the TSA makes air travel safer, and that the security checkpoints are an effective, necessary way to prevent terrorism.
Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The TSA has never caught a single terrorist, despite the extensive security theater rigmarole to which we’re subjected every time we fly. It’s an annoying, invasive, expensive, and even dangerous waste of time.
Or what about city codes which limit how we can use our own property? This isn’t exactly a sexy political topic, but it can have strikingly serious effects. For example, I recently reported on an incident in California where a town council prohibited a man from chopping down a tree in his own yard—even though it was making him sick.
Or how about food regulations? Though Wyoming just passed a law to let family farms sell fresh vegetables and baked goods directly to their neighbors without having to bother with government regulations for “licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling,” in many places it’s not so simple.
Or take liquor laws: though it’s been nearly a century since the disastrous experiment in social engineering that was Prohibition, the effects and regulatory mindset of the 18th Amendment still linger like a bad hangover. No fewer than 18 states limit liquor sales exclusively to government-operated or -contracted stores (ABC stores), and 12 states have blue laws that don’t let you buy alcohol on Sundays.
One similarly unsexy issue that’s finally getting the notice it deserves is policing for profit.
This is when cities explicitly build revenue from tickets and fines into their budgets and then encourage police officers to do everything they can to harass people over the smallest traffic violations and petty misconduct. It’s an underhanded way for municipalities to milk their residents for more and more money without technically raising taxes, and it can be economically devastating for low-income families in particular.
Policing for profit first came to national attention earlier this year with the release of the Department of Justice’s report on policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri. As the investigation explained, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” In fact, “City officials routinely urge [the Ferguson Police] to generate more revenue through enforcement.”
But the kind of enforcement we’re talking about doesn’t involve catching more murderers. To the contrary, “These aren’t violent criminals. These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time.” The only difference between what happens when they get caught rolling through a stop sign and when I do is that I can usually settle the matter immediately by sending in a check. But if “you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”
Last week, another report came out which looked at the policing for profit practices in other towns around the St. Louis area. Shockingly, it found that in many of these cities the situation is even worse than it is in Ferguson. One town, for instance, “has a population of 1,381 and more than 33,102 active warrants, amounting to a ratio of nearly 24 outstanding warrants per resident” (!!). In another town, the mayor actually sent a memo to all the local police officers saying that if they wanted a raise, they’d better fine more people.
But perhaps most heartbreaking was the report’s interview with an elderly woman who was caring for her granddaughter because her daughter was in prison. Why was the daughter jailed? Her inability to pay a few traffic tickets. As her city piled on fine after fine for late payment, it managed to rack up an $8,000 bill, a hefty sum for anyone to come up with—let alone someone who is already struggling to make ends meet in this economy.
“I don’t know what to do,” said the grandmother. “But I will tell you one thing. Somebody needs to do something about this. They have made a killing here. It’s so sad it almost makes me want to cry. They take our money like that. How’s my daughter going to ever get loose of this?”
She’s right. Somebody does need to do something about this—and all the other “boring” yet potentially life-ruining ways the government tightens its grip on our lives.