TCS Daily

Night-Watchman State Works Round-the-Clock

By Benjamin Zycher - April 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Is it me or does every "crisis" pronouncement by government officials yield a reduction in individual liberty? Consider:

  • The "crisis" of narcotics use -- essentially, adults harming themselves -- has engendered a wholesale erosion of the time-honored 4th Amendment requirements for search warrants and probable cause.

  • The counterterrorism effort, completely defensible as a governmental pursuit, nonetheless has forced banks and credit firms and innumerable other businesses ever more intensively to act as government informants, providing paper trails on private business transactions, with which destructive investigations of the innocent can be launched by any number of bureaucrats essentially unconstrained by practical recourse.

  • That poor foreigners wish in large numbers to come to America to work has yielded a system in which employers face serious sanctions for an asserted failure to monitor their employees' legal status, in a world in which false documents can be obtained on street corners far more easily than the legal ones available only to those willing to stand in interminable lines at a government office.

  • The politics of crime has resulted in a dramatic erosion of the right to keep and bear arms; this has been caused in substantial part by an endless parade of deeply disingenuous assertions about the use of privately-owned weaponry in crime but not in self defense, and about the meaning of the 2nd Amendment.

  • Doctors no longer may treat pain aggressively; the Drug Enforcement Administration simply assumes that physicians doing so differ not at all from pushers in a crack house.

A unifying theme common to these slow-motion slippages toward autocracy is the ability of government to single out individuals for scrutiny; instead of the commission of a crime followed by a search for the guilty, our government to an amazing degree simply attempts to watch (i.e., suspect) everyone, and, by the way, to seize assets. Well, why should only the bigshot bureaucrats in Washington have all the fun? Just as deviancy, in the late Daniel Moynihan's memorable phrase, has been dumbed down, so has "crisis" in the context of the public sector: If Big Brotherism is an appropriate stance for the big issues, why not the smaller ones as well? And so we now have state and local officials getting in on the game; a classic recent example is the "crisis" of drivers speeding through red traffic lights, in response to which cameras have been installed at many major intersections to watch us all.

The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is the California crisis of fuel-efficient autos: More miles per gallon means less gasoline tax revenue, even as total miles driven continue to rise. And so the deep thinkers in Sacramento have responded with their latest nostrum: a replacement of the per-gallon gasoline tax with a tax on miles driven, the latter to be monitored with a tracking device placed in autos.

Let us shunt aside the problem of out-of-state drivers. Let us ignore the fact that for years the California state government has squandered gasoline tax revenues -- supposedly earmarked for road programs -- on general-fund spending, due to the "budget deficit," i.e., out-of-control spending; and with structural deficits projected at $6 billion annually, there is little doubt that the same would be true for the revenues from a mileage tax.

Instead, consider the implications of a tax system under which government obtains license to track our movements. For all the "guarantees" certain to be made by politicians promoting a mileage tax -- fear not, we will protect your privacy, no disclosures will be made to other government agencies, records will be destroyed monthly, and so on -- it simply is inevitable that rationales to use the individual driving information for other purposes will sprout like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

After all: Should we not use the system to track the movements of suspected terrorists? Lives might be saved. Ditto for narcotics enforcement, although the drug war may have cost more lives than almost any other domestic policy. With California increasing its taxes on cigarettes dramatically, it is inevitable that smuggling will grow; can't we use the tracking system to follow the trucks? The effort against illegal immigrants, the battle against street crime, efforts to find deadbeat parents; the rationales are endless. Big Brother will be proud.

So: What may (or may not) be a useful idea narrowly would prove yet again to be a destructive one in practice. Is there a more accurate description of government policy outcomes?

Benjamin Zycher is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. Email:


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