In his State of the Union address on February 5, Donald Trump received rapturous applause from Republicans for his declaration, “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.” But this uplifting sentiment cannot survive even a brief glance at the federal statute book or the heavy-handed enforcement tactics by federal, state, and local bureaucracies across the nation.
In reality, the threat of government punishment permeates Americans’ daily lives more than ever before:
- The number of federal crimes has increased from 3 in 1789 to more than 4,000 today. According to the Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Congress has criminalized “transporting alligator grass across a state line; unauthorized use of the slogan ‘Give a hoot! Don’t pollute’; and pretending to be a 4-H club member with intent to defraud,” among a vast array of other niggling nonsense.
- Law-enforcement agencies arrested more than ten million people in 2017 — roughly 3 percent of the population. Trump momentarily noticed the existence of government coercion in January when he complained that the FBI had used “29 people” and “armored vehicles” for the arrest of Roger Stone. But SWAT teams conduct nearly 80,000 raids a year, according to the ACLU, mostly for drug arrests or to carry out search warrants. Many innocent people have been killed in such raids. Courts have rubber-stamped no-knock raids to the point where some locales send in SWAT teams to conduct routine searches. This has worked out well for carpenters and badly for the Constitution.
- Trump in his speech nicely highlighted the case of Alice Johnson, unjustly sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Trump’s commutation of her sentence is no consolation to the targets of 1.6 million drug arrests in 2017 — and it is not like those persons showed up voluntarily at police stations asking to be “cuffed-and-stuffed.” More people are arrested for marijuana offenses each year than for all violent crimes combined, according to FBI statistics. Drug laws spur violence that has turned many inner cities into hell-holes and permitted government agents to stop and search people’s pockets on any pretext.
- No coercion? Tell that to the scores of thousands of victims of asset-forfeiture laws, which entitle law enforcement to confiscate people’s cash, cars, and other property. Hearsay evidence is all that is required: A mere rumor or scrap of gossip can justify government seizure of a person’s most valuable belongings. Federal law-enforcement agencies seized more property under asset-forfeiture provisions in 2014 year than all the burglars stole from homeowners and businesses nationwide. Indiana’s Solicitor General told the Supreme Court in November 2018 that police should be able to confiscate any vehicle exceeding the speed limit by more than 5 miles per hour — even though federal surveys have found that most cars exceed posted speed limits. Trump and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, strove to make asset forfeiture even more oppressive. Happily, a few weeks after Trump’s speech, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that may curb robbery with a badge.
What term would Trump prefer to use in lieu of “coercion” for innocent people’s being shot or beaten by law-enforcement agents at every level of government? Police kill more than a thousand Americans per year, and many of the shootings are unjustifiable by any reasonable standard. Does Trump consider people wrongfully killed by government agents to be nonentities? What about the persons who are framed by police who plant drugs or guns on them to ruin their lives, as happened in Baltimore and elsewhere in recent years? Are they “no coercion asterisks”?
If there is no coercion, then why has the number of people confined in American prisons increased by more than 500 percent since 1970? Almost 10 percent of all American males will end up in prison at some point in their lives, according to a 1997 Justice Department report. More than 10 percent of black men age 20 to 34 were behind bars as of 2006, according to the Journal of American History. Does Trump assume that people simply choose to stop by and spend some time behind bars, sort of like catching up with an old friend? Being a prison guard was one of the fastest growing occupations in the 1990s — not a good sign for anyone who favors human dignity or decency.
- Citizens and businesses pay more than $3 trillion in federal taxes each year, thanks largely to the array of threats and penalties for noncompliance. Each week, the IRS attacks scores of thousands of Americans: it seizes their bank accounts, puts liens on their homes or land, subjects them to a tax audit, or sends them notice of penalties and demands for additional payment of taxes. The number of different penalties the IRS imposes on taxpayers has increased more than tenfold since 1954. Congress has neglected either making the tax code comprehensible or reining in abusive tax-collection schemes. The IRS relies on fear to ensure compliance. As former IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen observed, “Power is not having to exercise power.”
- No one has a good estimate of the number of Americans who fall victim to arbitrary and capricious regulations by federal agencies. When the Supreme Court heard the case of the Agriculture Department’s dictates prohibiting raisin farmers from selling much of their harvest in 2014, Justice Elena Kagan suggested that the regime was “the world’s most outdated law.” But there are many other senseless provisions that the media and the courts simply ignore.
Paying and obeying
Trump perpetuates one of Washington’s fondest myths — that the federal government is not coercive unless the president or some agency boss formally announces plans to brutally punish some group without cause. That notion is avidly supported and propagated by many of the nation’s pundits and political scientists as a way to keep people paying and obeying.
But force is the essence of government power, the lever that politicians use to compel submission to their demands. The Supreme Court observed in a 1909 decision, “‘Law’ is a statement of circumstances in which public force will be brought to bear on men through the courts.” A 1996 Justice Department report observed, “The feature distinguishing police from all other groups in society is their authority to apply coercive force.”
Trump followed his “no coercion here” assertion with the following line: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” Democrats responded with a stony if not irritable silence. Perhaps the greatest irony in Washington is that the people who distrust Trump the most are seeking to vastly increase government power.
Democratic socialists have offered no evidence that new federal takeovers of the economy would not produce the same disasters that followed federal domineering of agriculture or the mortgage industry. The poster boy for American socialism — with its itch for hyper-regulation and economic intervention everywhere — should be Eric Garner, who was strangled in 2014 by a New York City policeman after being apprehended selling individual cigarettes without a license. But such abuses have not deterred the latest crop of socialists from calling for trillions of dollars of new federal spending and a vast increase in political dominance over Americans’ daily lives.
Trump also declared in his State of the Union address, “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous, partisan investigations.” Yet, in the same speech, Trump boasted that the United States had just “officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela, and its new interim president, Juan Guaidó. We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom.” Trump omitted citing the provision in the Venezuelan constitution that permits Washington to select that nation’s president. In the weeks after Trump’s speech, the U.S. government ramped up the pressure on the Maduro regime, boosting the danger of dragging this nation into an open and pointless conflict in South America. Trump also boasted, “My administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror — the radical regime in Iran.” But the Iranians are pikers on the terrorist front compared with Trump’s bosom buddies in Saudi Arabia. If Trump blunders into a Middle East war, then the Washington swamp will have perhaps its greatest victory over him.
Trump’s insinuation that the U.S. government is noncoercive was almost plausible compared with his assertion that the U.S. Capitol is “the home of American freedom.” If that is the case, then it is no wonder that so many Americans feel like constitutional refugees in their own nation. At least Trump didn’t try to exonerate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
“Good for one night”
Trump’s “home of freedom” line was the type of palaver that permeates such televised spiels but that does not make it any less ludicrous. State of the Union speeches have been façades for decades.
In his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton announced, “The era of Big Government is over.” This hokum may have helped his reelection campaign but as soon as he renewed his tenancy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he opened the statist floodgates. In his 1997 State of the Union address, he called for a “national crusade for education standards” and federal standards and national credentials for all new teachers; announced plans “to build a citizen army of one million volunteer tutors to make sure every child can read independently by the end of the third grade”; called for $5 billion in federal aid to build and repair local school houses, a new scholarship program to subsidize anyone going to college, a $10,000 tax deduction for all tuition payments after high school, and federal subsidies for private health insurance; advocated a constitutional amendment for “victims’ rights”; urged Congress to enact a law criminalizing any parent who crossed a state line to avoid paying child support; and proposed enacting juvenile crime legislation that “declares war on gangs,” hiring new prosecutors, and increasing federal spending on the war on drugs. Clinton also announced plans to expand NATO, just in case the United States would ever run short of pretexts for entering foreign conflicts.
The media ignored Clinton’s de facto mockery of his 1996 State of the Union address in his 1997 address, but that was par for the Beltway’s 24-hour statute of limitations for holding presidents liable for their hokum. But “sounds good for one night” is a paltry standard for governing a republic.
President Andrew Johnson rightly observed in an 1868 message to Congress, “It may be safely assumed as an axiom … that the greatest wrongs inflicted upon a people are caused by unjust and arbitrary legislation.” But the federal statute book and Code of Federal Regulations are stacks of paper that contain vast numbers of punitive provisions that unjustly ruin or blight citizens’ existence. Trust the Washington establishment to continue pretending that “there is nothing to see here” in the continuing federal ravaging of Americans’ lives.
This article was originally published in the May 2019 edition of Future of Freedom Archive.