L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 316, April 24, 2005
"What Are You Afraid Of?"
What Are You Afraid Of?
Special to TLE
I spent a good part of the day yesterday being afraid. I didn't watch a horror movie, and I wasn't on a thrill ride. I didn't read a scary book, nor did anybody try to assault me or break into my house. I didn't even experience a near-miss accident, nor was I terribly ill. I was, however, really scared. So what was it that frightened me? The short and simple answer can be conveyed in just one word: Government.
It started out as a perfectly ordinary morning for me. I had errands to run, chores to do, and plans for a little recreation. But I hadn't been out of the house for five minutes when I casually checked my rear view mirror only to discover a police car almost literally on my bumper. In a surge of adrenaline, I checked my speed. No, I was traveling right at the speed limit. My taillights had only recently been checked during some routine maintenance and were working just fine; my registration and my insurance were up to date. I have a valid and current driver's license. And there was nothing even remotely illegal in my stateor, in fact, in any statein my vehicle. And yet my heart was pounding.
I signaled well in advance, made sure I applied my brakes smoothly and cornered carefully, and took the first available turn-off away from the police. I checked in my mirror repeatedly to ensure the officer didn't follow me (he didn't). And then I drove for a few blocks at a very slow speed while I took a few deep breaths and calmed myself down. Eventually, I made my way back to my original route and continued on toward the grocery store where I thankfully arrived without further incident.
Once in the store, I pulled a shopping list out of my pocket and headed off to find the first of the items I needed. My search took me past the store pharmacy where employees were just beginning to open up for the day. Of course, everything behind those counters was locked up securely. But then I took note of an entire segment of over-the-counter products that were also under lock and key. On taking a closer look, I saw that the store had actually enclosed and secured one entire end of a large set of shelves behind plexiglass.
Now, one of the things that I tend to do is buy several of one item so that I don't have to buy any more of that item for awhile. I also like to shop that way so that I always have a back-up in case I run out of something and need more before I can go shopping again. I always have an extra can of hairspray, for example, and one more bottle of multi-vitamins in the cupboard. Having recently gotten over a cold, I was short on various cold medicines and planned to get more because, as we all know all too well, we're going to get another cold someday, probably sooner rather than later.
Today, however, I don't have more cold medicine in my cupboard because yesterday, I found it all locked up. I'll grant you that I wasn't really inclined to take the time to interrupt a busy employee to unlock the case for me. But I also didn't like being put in a position where I actually had to ask somebody to unlock a cabinet so that I could get a simple package of cold medicine. Of course, since I'm just about cleaned out of cold medicine at home, I'd planned to buy more than one package yesterday. And the truth is, I also didn't have the inclination to explain to somebody just why it was I might need to buy more than one package of a perfectly legal product, and I certainly didn't want anybody to look askance at meor worse, to have somebody report me to somebody elsemerely because I was buying more than one of those perfectly legal packages.
Another item on my "to do" list yesterday took me to the local Post Office. The first order of business was to mail a small package to my mother. I brought the package to the service desk where a nice Postal Service employee took it from me and set it on a scale. He checked the weight of the package and then looked me in the eye and said, "What's in the box?"
"Books," I said.
"Any liquids?" he asked.
"Uhm, no. Books," I said.
"Anything dangerous?" he persisted.
"Well," I answered, "books." And then, because I couldn't help myself, I added, "Although I guess some literature might be considered dangerous..."
Stupid woman. The Postal Service employee looked at me with raised eyebrows until I laughed nervously and said, "I guess it depends on what the books are about, right?"
He smiled back and gave me a dollar figure for the postage due. Whew!
But I wasn't quite done yet. I also had a couple of sizeable checks that needed to be sent to my state and federal governments for taxes due (it's a long story; don't ask). Oddly enough, I trust the Post Office to get the mail there. For all of the complaints about its inefficienciesand there are inarguably some inefficienciesthe Post Office does a pretty reliable job of delivering millions of pieces of mail to the right places every day. But I spent substantially more than the cost of a First Class stamp on each of those two envelopes so that they could be sent via certified mail and with a return receipt requested. I was taking no chances whatsoever that an employee with either the state or federal tax services would make any kind of a mistake and fail to note that I hadn't filed in time, or hadn't sent the amount due in full!
You know what? Despite taking the precautions of sending bank checks rather than personal checks, and sending the forms and payments via certified mail, I was still afraid. Oh, I believe the mail will get there. And I believe my forms are in order (I spent a reasonable amount of money having a professional take care of them just to be absolutely sure they were done correctly). But the reality of our tax code is such that there are literally thousands of regulations, and that some of those regulations contradict others of those regulations. That means no matter how carefully I adhere to the law, I've probably broken one by obeying some other. And of all the laws you don't want to break in America, tax law has got to be very, very near the top of the list.
If you break any of most of the laws in the US and are convicted of doing so, you'll pay a fine, do community service, go to jail, or suffer some combination of those three things. And after you've paid, served, and done time, you can start over. But the IRS is different. You probably won't lose just some of your money or your property in tax cases, but all of it; you may or may not serve time, but you'll probably also see your future wages garnished indefinitely (depending, of course, on just how much it is you owethough the truth is that no matter how much you actually owe, the interest and penalties alone will see to it that the "indefinite" part will likely apply). And most horrific of all, many people who suffer garnishments and other indignities are never even convicted in a court of law!
Every year I file my taxes. I do so honestly, and I do so via a reliable professional service. But the myriad regulations and the draconian mindset of those who enforce them ensure I'm nervous about it every year anyway.
By definition, a police state is one in which the citizens are afraid of the police. Thanks to Supreme Court rulings that say the police can pull you over for pretty much any reason at all including the fact that you seemed a little nervous; to other rulings that suggest drug sniffing dogs aren't really a bona fide search or that saying "no" to a search is justifiable cause for a search; to stories of cops who plant evidence or whowith some justificationare so nervous themselves on traffic stops that they overreact, sometimes with deadly force; I'm invariably afraid of the police.
By definition, a police state is one in which most aspects of citizens' lives are tightly controlled or at least subject to oversight. Thanks to overzealous drug war crusaders, I can't freely buy over-the-counter medications when I want to, and certainly not in any quantity. Thanks to overzealous terror war crusaders, I can't mail books to my elderly mother without enduring a hopelessly serious game of "twenty questions."
By definition, a police state is one in which the police can arrest you at virtually any time. Thanks to a virtual labyrinth of tax laws, any of us could be subject to detention at any time for breaking laws we didn't know existed; far worse, we could find ourselves in trouble for following a law that ensured we broke another one because the two are direct contradictions of each other. In other words, the tax code is such that, if some authority wants an excuse to come after you, one's tailor made and ready to go.
Yesterday, I was afraid. Today, I'm scared again. You see, under some interpretations of anti-terror laws, the very fact that I've criticized government entities means to some representatives of the government that I've done something wrong. George Bernard Shaw said, "Liberty requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." The truth is that anybody who thinks about the reality of our citizenship must already be afraid. It would be a relief and a release to worry about the responsibilities of liberty instead of fearing the repercussions of the machinations that ensure the opposite.