Problem with Unenforced Laws

Three Felonies a DayOver at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok discussed how No One is Innocent. He referenced Harvey Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. As the title indicates, Silverglate thinks that people commit three felonies per day on average. Taborrok doesn’t think it is that high, but that it is certainly true that people commit felonies commonly. He referenced a common why that we all commit felonies, “Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.”

Tabarrok’s primary concern is government surveillance. Since we are all of us committing serious crimes all of the time, it really does matter that the government is always watching us. As I’ve discussed, today the government is just looking for bomb plots. Soon it will be looking for drug users. And after that it will be the adulterer who is destroying our great country. That isn’t just paranoia; this kind of data use creep is a well known phenomenon.

But the problem is much deeper than Tabarrok indicates. The one thing that I learned from Ayn Rand that was really valuable was her comment about how the Soviet Union kept people in check. She noted that that they didn’t do that by enforcing laws very strictly. They did it by having a gazillion laws that no one enforced. Or, at least, they were never enforced as long as a person didn’t annoy the power elite. If someone started talking publicly about the need for government reform, well then, suddenly the police found all kinds of laws that the person was breaking.

That’s the problem we have in the United States. We’ve already see the United States government go after anti-war groups in the name of terrorism. An even better example is John Kiriakou, who is doing two and a half years in prison. He’s there because he blew the whistle on our torture program, but of course that isn’t the technical reason. The government found a minor offense to justify putting him in a cage for 30 months. Meanwhile, no one who broke the law by being part of the torture program is in jail, even though in addition to torture they have certainly all thrown away junk mail that didn’t belong to them.

The evidence is clear: our government will persecute anyone that gets in its way. And these unenforced laws make it easy. And when the government stores all of our phone and internet information for later use, you can bet that anyone who gets in the way of the government will have plenty of incriminating evidence against them just sitting on the NSA computers.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Problem with Unenforced Laws

  1. Just read another "what if" hopeful-future book, this one by Gail Alperovitz, "What Then Must We Do?" I didn’t find his writing as striking as some other critical/optimistic manifestos, but it’s nice to see so many smart people acknowledging that things are breaking down and new approaches need to be examined. (Alperovitz’s suggestion is basically that small-scale efforts, like food co-ops and community banks, don’t seem influential now yet they’re forming dedicated groups of informed people committed to change, and maybe that can take the place of what labor provided decades ago.)

    One very brief chapter in his book (it’s one of those books that attempts to be conversational in order to win over the unconverted, even though converts are the only ones likely to read it — I prefer Baker, Chomsky, Graeber’s more detailed analyses) posits possible outcomes for the future, and makes a point I don’t hear much about.

    Our current system is doomed. If you don’t pay workers anything, they can’t buy anything. Financial companies can only grow profits so far by imposing new fees and extending new lines of credit. Eventually, you can’t get blood from a stone.

    Alperovitz’s quick summary of "what happens then" involves mostly happy outcomes, while he throws out the possibility of "happy fascism" (and more or less dismisses it.)

    I don’t imagine that’s an unlikely outcome, not at all. Remember that German and Italian fascism provided some measures of protection from starvation to adherents (more than Republicans want to provide today.) Something like that would have to be established if corporations got everything they wanted in America. Maybe a Utah-style system, where religious adherents could qualify for assistance from a heavily-tithed religious oligarchy.

    Anyhoo, were obvert totalitarianism ever to take over these shores, I assume I’d already be fucked. They’d take one look at the books I’ve read at the library and haul my ass in. The moral question I have is, who would I rat out to save myself? Ideally, the interrogators wouldn’t pay much attention to who I named as long as I named someone, and I could settle scores by fingering longstanding enemies. (How most of our permanent detainees in CIA torture facilities were identified, I suspect.) If they required me to roll over on a real friend . . . well, most of us would. That’s why that shit is effective at dehumanization, even if it’s useless as intelligence-gathering.

    The Ayn Rand/Uncle Miltie/Ron Paul-style moral outrage at theoretical abuse of state power is nonsensical; real abuse of real private power happens every day, all the time. Their boorish, one-note criticism of state power is the petri dish that allows private power to culture.

    Ooh, I like that petri dish metaphor, so I’ll quit ranting. But change is coming; this system cannot last. What form will change take? If I could get odds on it, I’d bet everything on "happy fascism," religious totalitarianism, or some sort of massive economic shift where the rich just abandon America and move their money to India/China. Still, sometimes things happen that happily surprise us all. IT’S BEEN A WHILE, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

  2. @JMF – You are right: that was a great metaphor; it grabbed me immediately.

    I don’t know if I’m more or less cynical than you. I think things will just muddle on, mostly getting marginally worse, but occasionally getting marginally better to appease the serfs.

    This reminds me of the oft stated conservative belief that the churches and similar groups should feed the poor, not the government. But what we see is that when aid to the poor is cut, the food banks and so forth are overrun by the needy. They simply don’t have the resources to keep up. This shows what should be obvious: the real conservative imperative is "I’ve got mine and fuck you."

    There is a really interesting paper by Greg Mankiw called [url=’Defending%20The%20One%20Percent’&txt=Defending%20The%20One%20Percent&jsonp=vglnk_jsonp_13719172454686]Defending the 1%[/url]. Most of it is just the usual Randian BS that markets are perfect so whatever you make is what you are worth. (It is interesting to consider that the CEOs of today are 10 times as good as the CEOs of the 1950s when their corporations were actually more profitable–but none of these fucktards talk about that.) In the most outrageous section, he writes:

    [quote]My view here is shaped by personal experience. I was raised in a middle-class family; neither of my parents were college graduates. My own children are being raised by parents with both more money and more education. Yet I do not see my children as having significantly better opportunities than I had at their age.[/quote]

    His view is shaped by personal experience? That’s the personal experience of one of the winners. Plus: the man teaches at Harvard. Has he not noticed that half of the students there are rich? That there are almost no poor people at the school?

    The whole thing is typical of the rich: they refuse to see anything that doesn’t reinforce their idea that they are rich because they are so fucking brilliant.

  3. Why on God’s green earth would you make anyone read that Mankiw paper? (I know why, because it’s a well-written exposition of rich guy thinking, less muddled by meaningless academic terminology than most.) But — jeez. Depressing.

    What I found interesting is that the arguments weren’t much higher than the ones I encountered in community college online business courses. They all repeat pretty much the same memes. The difference being, those CC students are hoping that adherence to the party line will gain them entry to the world of wealth, and Mankiw already is a card-carrying member.

    I liked this passage: "This is not to say that we live in a world of genetic determinism, for surely we do not.
    But it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and presume no genetic transmission of
    economic outcomes."

    AKA, it’s "The Bell Curve" all over again. It reminds me of the old story of the new convert to socialism in New York’s literary scene in the 20s, who encountered a hardened leftist veteran. The vet said, "your arguments are so old, I’ve forgotten all the responses to them."

    Two responses. One, Mankiw dismisses "rent seeking," although that is surely the driver of profits and salaries for the financial industry. Of course, there are different perspectives in play here. If you’re in Mankiw’s world, you pay a fee to financial managers who validate their fees by making you profits on your investments; if they fail to do so to your satisfaction, you change managers.

    In the real world, banks and insurance providers and credit-card companies (and literally "rent-seeking" landlords!) rig their services to make it possible to impose as many fines as they can on customers — who have no other service alternatives. Banks don’t make money with loans, they make it with fees. Insurance providers make money from denying coverage. Credit card companies internally refer to people who pay their balance every month as "deadbeats" — there’s no profit in that — and send them scads of blank checks to encourage high-interest spending.

    You don’t even have to be poor to know this stuff — you just have to read some of the vast literature on the subject.

    Two — we do have a lot of mentally ill people in this country. A whole lot. (The idea that bankers or CEOs such as Jobs are better at creative thinking and problem-solving than sanitation workers is so laughable I won’t address it.) 30+ years of laissez-faire economics has damaged many individuals and families beyond repair. So: do we let them starve?

    I was watching an old "Star Trek" movie last weekend, and in it, a whale biologist is confronted by a co-worker who accuses her of caring too much. It’s not like they have human intelligence, the co-worker says. The accused responds, "my compassion for others is not limited by my estimation of their intelligence."

    If a kid tortures animals, any educator or social worker knows that’s a bad sign. Mankiw and his ilk advocate, in effect, the torture of human beings who are less human than their deservedly privileged selves. This is sociopathic.

    Abortion foes claim that the practice desensitizes us to the value of human life. (In reality, the reverse is true; women who have abortions take the decision hugely seriously, and it’s the gangsters outside with their intimidation tactics who are desensitized.) At this point, the self-justifications of the rich are reaching astronomic levels of disconnect. As I’ve mentioned before, their defensiveness is so intense that I’ve offended my rich relatives more than once purely by accident; Lord only knows what social trend, issue or pop-culture reference will set off their "we are good, we are great!" SDI system.

    It seems that the rich are so Green Zoned that they no longer feel the need to offer much of anything to the plebes; the cops will take care of that. They’re ignoring their best security against public resentment; they aren’t bothering to hire the best minds of the middle-class anymore, or placating the poor with the change they found in their sofa cushions.

    Aah, I have no point to this. But I do find their groupthink amazing. Socialization is a strange process. What appears utterly bizarre to outsiders can seem totally normal to those who fear, above all else, being left out of the in crowd. We live, as the old Chinese curse has it, in "interesting times." As a kid, I didn’t understand what could possibly be wrong with interesting.

  4. Just thought I’d take the time to say I enjoyed reading this post. (I found you via a comment you made on a Suzanne Vega article somewhere. You obviously have excellent taste! ;) )

    I think it’s true that Al Capone, although imprisoned, was only ever indicted under tax and prohibition laws.
    If they want to put you away, they’ll find a means. Even if that necessitates the skirting of a fine line of legality themselves. I’m sure they cross that line often.

    I live in England, and I feel that much of what you mention applies to this country too. It’s likely an issue in most Western countries at least.

  5. @JMF – Remember that [i]The Bell Curve[/i] is not about racism; it is about using that research to argue against affirmative action. So you are quite right to relate it to Mankiw.

    Excellent point about psychopaths. It is all about empathy. Mankiw shows very clearly that he has little or no empathy for people who aren’t smart enough to become Harvard economics professors. Although really, he has written so much garbage over the last 10-15 years that I wonder about him. (BTW: [i]Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home[/i].)

    What Mankiw is doing is very bad moral philosophy. And it shows that being brilliant in one field doesn’t make you brilliant in another. And that should make anyone wonder if all the "losers" in our economy just haven’t found the right field. God knows that if Mankiw had gone into moral philosophy, he would be very lucky to have a part time teaching gig at a community college.

  6. @Rhyme – Thanks for stopping by! If you haven’t read the article, here it is:

    [url=]The Meaning of [i]Marlene on the Wall[/i][/url]

    I’ve always had a problem with how they got Al Capone. Even as a kid, it seemed a short-cut that would only lead to problems.

    I agree: the UK is probably the most like the US of any other country. And I really don’t think we bring out the best in each other. Bush and Blair; Thatcher and Reagan. Still, I have a great fondness for your country. And I love all the extra u’s in your spelling. Also: a much more reasonable approach to quotation marks!

  7. "The whole thing is typical of the rich: they refuse to see anything that doesn’t reinforce their idea that they are rich because they are so fucking brilliant."

    To be sure. But, these variants are equally true:

    "The whole thing is typical of inner-city welfare queens: they refuse to see anything that doesn’t reinforce their idea that they are poor because they are so fucking oppressed."


    "The whole thing is typical of the Hollywood liberal elite: they refuse to see anything that doesn’t reinforce their idea that they are wealthy because they are so fucking talented."

    etc. etc.

  8. @Tim Schaeffer – That’s not at all true. In fact, what you say doesn’t even make sense. Putting aside the idea that there are such things as "welfare queens," where do you get the idea that the poor have developed elaborate philosophies they use to justify the state of their lives. The poor are very much aware of the general injustice of the world and that is simply the way things are. The rich should accept the same facts that they are very lucky in many ways. Instead, they develop elaborate ideologies to explain why it is they are rich that does not depend upon a great deal of luck. Consider: would Greg Mankiw be as rich if he had been born in Haiti?

    The "Hollywood liberal elite" [i]are[/i] the rich. I think you are showing how pre-packaged your political ideology is. That’s fine, but don’t stuff me in the same box with you.

    Finally, feel free to attack my argument. But grabbing one rhetorical sentence out of context and attacking it just makes you come off like a troll. It wastes both of our time.

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