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? – asks James Bovard, a contributing editor for The American Conservative.
“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.
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.
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 COVID-19 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.
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.
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 reportedly 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.