The Regulatory State’s Collateral Damage

Senator Rand Paul appeared on the Daily Show the other night to discuss his new book, Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds. I have not read the book. Here is the introduction online.

The theme of the book, as far as I can ascertain, is one with which I’m familiar. Dozens of federal regulatory agencies exercise significant police power in the United States. Millions of pages of regulations create a labyrinthine web of trip wires and booby traps that any well-meaning American can easily run afoul. The despotic and arbitrary way these regulations are enforced is one of the great examples of modern American tyranny. Aside from slowing down the economy, causing trillions of dollars in property destruction a year, the regulatory state shatters lives by the thousands. Peaceful people see their livelihoods decimated by busybody bureaucrats enforcing federal edicts, almost none of which received any serious thought when they were crafted. Worst of all, people end up in prison, having seen their completely peaceful, mundane activities criminalized in ways no reasonable person who does not know the full violence of the U.S. regulatory machine would expect.

Jon Stewart, although a comedian, probably remains my favorite liberal TV journalist—maybe my favorite TV journalist overall. He often takes civil liberties seriously and is at least somewhat skeptical about government-corporate shenanigans, which is more than we get almost anywhere else. Yet here Stewart shows his colors as an ideologue blind to the perils of the left-liberal side of the police state.

Rand Paul gives an example of a man thrown into a federal cage because the EPA absurdly declared his own property was a wetland. Stewart responds that he could just as well have written a book on the successes of government or the failures of business. OK. But if someone came on his show with a book about corporate malfeasance in the finance sector, would Stewart complain that she could have just as easily have written a book about all the successful loans that allow productive business to flourish? No. Because Stewart recognizes that abuse should be exposed—including certain government abuses—even if there are other aspects to the story.

Stewart notes that the person imprisoned due to EPA regulations got his day in court, although Paul correctly responds that the EPA has twisted justice in these courts and also that jurors are imperfect, and have been known to sentence innocent people to death. Stewart isn’t phased.

Paul points out that federal agents are overarmed and that people have been busted over raw milk. Stewart jokes about being lactose intolerant, apparently not taking seriously how completely disgusting it is that anyone would have to spend even a second in a jail cell over milk. He also points out that we need these bureuacrats to be armed—what if someone on a farm turns out to be a drug dealer? So here we see someone who is correctly critical about the drug war justifying armed raids of farms because. . . there might be a drug dealer there? Really?

When Paul points out that the Department of Education has armed enforcers, Stewart jokes about the state of our schools. Now I know he is a comedian, but these jokes clearly evince a failure to grasp the severity of the regulatory state’s violence against the peaceful and harmless.

Stewart and Paul apparently agree that regulations are needed, but the right balance must be found. Although I find this “practical” approach to be short of ideal, it is clear that Stewart’s idea of proper regulations would go beyond Paul’s in most economic areas. But this all relates to a fundamental point about the regulatory state that left-liberals never seem to grasp.

Although they could be much more vigilant, progressives often recognize that police and prosecutors commit serious abuses against human rights. Yet they make this bizarre exception for the regulatory state. Yet there is no sharp distinction to be drawn. It is incoherent to oppose the DEA’s raids of people’s homes to find recreational drugs if you support the FDA’s raids of people’s homes to find experimental medicines. It is inconsistent to favor strong due process protections in burglary cases but tolerate the IRS’s standards of evidence that are totally skewed in favor of the state. It is intellectually bankrupt to complain that innocents are jailed for victimless crimes or because of tainted trials, but not extend the exact same concern to those incarcerated because of overzealous environmental or health code edicts and bureaucratic errors.

Yes, I am glad, as Stewart is, that restaurants are relatively clean. He thinks this is because of the state. But a fullblown regulatory leviathan is as unnecessary to guarantee this as a prohibitionist police state is necessary to ensure that your taxi driver is not intoxicated on magic mushrooms and ether. Nor does the state work nearly as well at guaranteeing either as Stewart and progressives seem to believe. Meanwhile, human beings become trampled by the cold, cruel monsters of regulation.

The state is an engine of legal violence. The regulatory state, even more than the welfare state, represents the left-liberal’s hypocritical confusion over civil liberties. If you recognize that the criminal justice system’s handling of real crimes like rape and theft can result in intolerable injustices that require constant attention and exposure, you should also recognize that the regulatory system’s approach to pollution, fraud, and other property offenses deserves the same unwavering skepticism. If you recognize that the police state has grown to combat victimless behavior, making prisoners of people who have hurt no one, you should acknowledge the same truth about the regulatory iron fist, which in the name of fairness, public health, and ecological sustainability has crushed the liberties and lives of good people just as surely as traditional law enforcement has in the name of stamping out drugs and vice.

Standing up for the little guy against those with far more power means taking seriously the regulatory state’s destructiveness, inequity, and massive injustice. People are rotting in prison over milk, confusion concerning red tape, and small construction projects in their backyards. This isn’t a time to tweak the system. These injustices are massive and the destroyed human lives very real. The whole apparatus of regulatory power needs to be rethought. Paul wants to disarm these bureaucrats and rein in the alphabet soup of federal mini-governments known as regulatory agencies. Given the lives they’re destroying, this seems to me like a moderate first step.

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