Is America a Police State Yet?by Wendy McElroy
Feb. 07, 2013
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If you need to ask the question, then the answer is “yes”. But that is a glib response and I do not feel glib about America's slide through the nine rings of political hell.
A police state is generally defined as a totalitarian government that exerts extreme and pervasive social, political and economic control over peaceful citizens. Ayn Rand called it “the ultimate inversion...the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.”
There are various ways to measure where a nation sits on the police-state axis.
One way is to compare what you see in America with the following standard description of a police state. A police state maintains its control through the pervasive surveillance of peaceful citizenry, through a vast number of laws with draconian enforcement, and by converting rights into privileges that can be withheld – for example, the ability to travel. Typically, there is a special police force, such as a Stasi, that operates with no transparency and few restraints. The special police do not address violent crime; instead, they exert social control and enforce the law whatever the law may be.
This describes America. Surveillance of daily life has soared; even the Supreme Court has consistently expanded the "right" of police to perform warrantless searches. A vast array of laws now dictate the minutia of life, from what you may not eat to the light bulbs you may not use as well products you must buy (e.g. health care insurance). On one day in January alone, Obama issued 23 executive orders to start the process of gun control. Enforcement is becoming every more draconian, with police departments pursuing militarization of their procedures and attitudes. A special police force called the Department of Homeland Security has spearheaded this military zeal; the DHS functions without transparency or accountability. Travel, formerly a right, is now a privilege granted by government agents at their whim.
Does the foregoing describe a free society or a police state?
Another way to judge the degree of totalitarianism is to answer yourself four questions:
1. How many peaceful activities would make you a criminal if you did them? In his book Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate. argues convincingly that, “The average professional in this country [the US] wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague.” You are a felon whether or not you have done anything wrong.
2. How much of your life is spent working to pay taxes and other government fees? According to the watchdog Tax Foundation, in 2012 Americans worked “107 days into the year, from January 1 to April 17, to earn enough money to pay this year’s combined 29.2% federal, state, and local tax bill.” The figure hardly captures the scope of economic enslavement. The problem is not merely the taxes that consume a third of your life, it is also the unseen costs. For example, compliance with labyrinthine taxes and regulations costs small to middle-sized business 1 in every 3 dollars. This expense gets passed along to consumers while the benefit goes to the government.
3. How freely can you relocate your assets and person outside state jurisdiction? There are at least three stages in the relocation of the most simple asset – money. You must establish a foreign account, get the money under your control and, then, transfer it. The easiest step should be to get your own money; after all, banks should be merely holding it for you. That step is far from easy. In an article entitled “Get Your Assets Out of the US NOW”, a relocation expert warns that the bank will “make a federal case out of it. Literally.” You will wait from five to ten days for the transaction to clear. The manager will “begin to ask you a lot of questions. She's required to do it.” He adds, “Here's the scary part. When you tell them you want to withdraw $100,000 in cash or wire it to a foreign bank, they are REQUIRED to file a SAR. They are PROHIBITED from telling you that they are filing it....They can freeze your account until they are satisfied that what you want to do with YOUR money is legitimate.” Those are just some of the problems arising at one stage of what should be the simplest part of relocating assets.
4. How freely can you use your assets and person within state jurisdiction? Circumstances vary so widely that everyone must answer for themselves. America is now a police state. How did this happen?
There are no simple answers, and it has happened over a long course of years. If there were a simple answer, then it would be: “War.” The war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on women...but, most of all, the war on terrorism. Since 9/11 politicians have kept America in a whipped up-state of fear because it allows them to walk past the traditional protections of liberty that restrain the state. Authorities have been able to gut the institutions of society that shielded individual freedom and to replace them with institutions that promote the state instead.
An institution is "a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, such as marriage." Institutions can be roughly broken into two categories. Private sector institutions reflect the interactions and choices of individuals; they include the marketplace, the family, the press, and religion. Public or state sector institutions reflect an attempt to control the interactions and choices of individuals; they include today's legal system, public education, regulatory agencies, and the current banking monopoly. A deep tension exists between the two categories because one can expand only at the expense of the other. For example, regulatory agencies grow by draining away control from individuals in the marketplace; public institutions feed on private ones until there is nothing left. They are able to do so because frightened people will surrender liberty for the illusion of safety.
The war on terror is an engineered hysteria. In its wake, the institutions of America have changed. Public ones have swelled in size and appetite; private ones have retreated. Some of the changes are so glaring that people noticed immediately. It is difficult not to notice the militarization of law enforcement when your children are lined up at airports and touched by uniformed strangers in a manner that would be called child molestation elsewhere. But the dehumanizing process is accepted in the name of security.
The foregoing scratches the surface of "how" a society becomes a total state. It does not explain the "why." Why do Americans who pride themselves on rugged individualism stand by and watch the triumph of totalitarianism?
One reason is because the behavior encouraged by institutions (such as obedience) tends to become character traits not only of individuals but also of society itself. And, so, society becomes closed rather than open; insensitive to brutality by authorities, and afraid of dissent. Rewarded by the authorities for doing so, people even come to spy on their neighbors as a civic duty of which they are proud.
Another common reason: people do not or prefer not to notice. Because they wake up in their own homes, eat the same breakfast cereal, work at the same job, they have a sense that everything is normal. They do not notice that the legal structure and other institutions that guarded their freedoms are going, going, gone. People who are accustomed to liberty can be blithely unaware of how important mechanisms like rule of law or due process are to their freedom and true safety. The daily erosion of freedom is far less real to them than their daily routines.
The difference between America and a communist regime lay in its institutional protection of the individual against the state. That difference no longer exists.
Wendy McElroy is a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is "The Art of Being Free". Follow her work at http://www.wendymcelroy.com.