What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: PhotoNaturally
The centralization of power at the apex of the political pyramid requires placing other individuals at a lower level. This is done through the force of government and the imposition of laws, taxes, and regulations that turn otherwise sovereign and innocent individuals into a branded and targeted group of criminal citizens to be persecuted, fined, jailed, or otherwise punished.
In Atlas Shrugged, this pattern emerges when the imploding government is scrambling for resources to consume and redistribute. An array of new laws are passed whose primary (but unstated) goal is to artificially manufacture a scenario by which the government can legally acquire what it wants. At the conclusion of a showdown between a government agent and an individual who has become targeted by one such law, the government official openly explains the purpose behind such laws:
Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed? We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against–then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted–and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. (Atlas Shrugged, p. 404)
As with other elements of Rand’s magnum opus, this one has its parallels with reality.
As one example of far too many, consider the case of one Honduran and three American businessmen sentenced in federal court to eight years in prison for importing lobster tails from Honduras instead of cardboard boxes. Under the Lacey Act, which makes it a crime to import “fish or wildlife taken … in violation of any foreign law”, the individuals were ultimately prosecuted and convicted for being in violation of an obscure Honduran law, since the tails of 3% of the shipped lobsters happened to be less than 5.5 inches in length.
Notably, Honduran government officials objected to this interpretation of their law and filed a brief on behalf of the defendants, but federal judges went ahead and convicted their own countrymen for this alleged atrocity. Imagine yourself a new fisherman, working hard each day to bring in a good catch and then make a profit at the market. Now consider the exhausting regulatory burdens that determine which of the actions you might pursue are deemed illegal. Frozen in uncertainty as to what laws you might be breaking, you’re likely to have to spend a great deal of time and energy to navigate the murky waters of such oppressive legislation.
An article from July of last year further details this state of affairs:
Federal law in particular now criminalizes entire categories of activities that the average person would never dream would land him in prison. This is an inevitable result of the fact that the criminal law is no longer restricted to punishing inherently wrongful conduct — such as murder, rape, robbery, and the like.
Moreover, under these new laws, the government can often secure a conviction without having to prove that the person accused even intended to commit a bad act, historically a protection against wrongful conviction.
Laws like this are dangerous in the hands of social engineers and ambitious lawmakers — not to mention overzealous prosecutors — bent on using government’s greatest civilian power to punish any activity they dislike. So many thousands of criminal offenses are now in federal law that a prominent federal appeals court judge titled his recent essay on this overcriminalization problem, “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal.”
State legislatures alone enacted over 40,000 new laws in the 2009 legislative session. Compounded year over year, the maze of laws become unintelligible, contradictory, and like the Bible long ago, only able to be read and understood by an elite few. Still, the states have a heavyweight rival in the other corner, that being the United States Code which contains approximately 40 million words.
This means that you, unknowingly, are likely an unsuspecting criminal who can, at the whim of any governmental authority, be prosecuted and punished for your ignorance regarding the tens of millions of words that hang over you. We were warned of such an occurrence by James Madison in Federalist 62:
It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known and less fixed?
A country that criminalizes innocuous behavior and imprisons the innocent has no business spreading democracy in any part of the world. Such a country must pluck the beam from its own eye before considering the mote in another’s. Good laws are those which are short, focused, and necessary—a far cry from our current library’s worth of ever-changing law.
Like a dying, diseased field of grain, the many excessive, invasive laws in our country should be burned away so that we can start fresh. The liberty and prosperity of each citizen would instantly increase upon doing so, and our government would be aligning itself more closely with its proper size and role—not the apex of a societal pyramid, but a necessary and beneficial partner in the preservation of each citizen’s life, liberty, and property.