David R. Henderson  

Life in the USSA

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Steve Horwitz has written an excellent article in which he claims, credibly in my opinion, that the United States is now a police state. Read the whole thing. It isn't long.

And while you're at it, read my article from a year ago, "Life in the USSA." In his Thanksgiving 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, President Ronald Reagan, speaking during one of the warmer parts of the Cold War, told Ms. Walters that the biggest threat to our freedom was not the Soviets but our own governments. How right he was. The same applies to our own governments vis-a-vis terrorists today. Of course, the irony is that with his stepping up of the drug war, Reagan took us a step or two closer to the police state.

Three weeks after 9/11, I began a fall quarter class at the Naval Postgraduate School in which, on my first problem set, I stated Bush's view that the terrorists were after us because of our freedom. This, I said in the question, is an hypothesis. How would you test Bush's hypothesis, I asked. What data would you look for? Only about 2 people out of 50 refused to play, writing, essentially, that I was unpatriotic for questioning "the commander in chief." The other 48 did play. I'll never forget one of the answers. I wish I had photocopied it. The student, a U.S. military officer, wrote, "Congress and the President are busy, with the USA PATRIOT Act and intrusive security at airports, getting rid of our freedom. So if the President's hypothesis is correct, there will be no more attacks."


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CATEGORIES: Regulation



COMMENTS (18 to date)
CBBB writes:

And yet Ronald Reagan was one of the biggest proponents of the War on Drugs which has done more then almost anything else (except possibly the response to 9-11) to destroy civil liberties in the USA and hasten the coming of the police state.

CBBB writes:

I see you didn't fail to mention Reagan's Drug Warrior attitude. Maybe next time I should read the whole post before commenting haha.

David R. Henderson writes:

@CBBB,
You actually read my post, right?

David R. Henderson writes:

@CBBB,
Oops. Good self catch. Please forgive my snark.

Granite26 writes:

Does this mean he WAS right?

CBBB writes:

Well it was wasn't really snark - I didn't read the post past you mentioning Ronald Reagan until AFTER I threw in my first comment.

I really blame that guy for bringing in the Moral Majority/Religious Right into the mainstream and hence cranking the War on Drugs into full gear. The War on Drugs has essentially been the basis for all further systematic abuses of civil liberties; 9-11 may have lead to a whole new generation of abuses but the militarization of law enforcement was all conceived as part of the War on Drugs.
TONNES of other political figures are to blame as well, but Reagan really got the ball rolling.

sourcreamus writes:

He mentions three examples, the scanning machines at airports, SWAT teams breaking in, and people being asked to show papers. The scanning machines are just like metal detectors just more powerful we have had metal detectors at airports . He mentions people having to fear SWAT teams breaking in to the wrong houses, but when have police ever been immune to mistaken identity? Every time I have ever been pulled over by a police man I have been asked for driver's license and registration. I can remember my parent's being asked for the same when they were pulled over. If we are living in a police state, we have been living in one for at least 35 years.
The article seemed to be bordering on the hysterical over minor inconviences.Go to the Museum of Communism Caplan links to in order to find out what life in a real police state is like.

David R. Henderson writes:

@CBBB,
I disagree about RR vis-a-vis religious right and moral majority. Reagan did a beautiful job of playing their rhetoric without giving them much in substantive policy. They weren't pushing hard for the war on drugs. Nancy was. The WaPost had trashed her for spending lots of money on clothes. She was looking around for a cause to get on their good side. Then Len Bias overdosed on cocaine and she had her cause.
I think the person who really got us on the road to SWATs and other such things was Nixon. To steal votes from George Wallace in 1968, Nixon pushed law and order. But how you do that at the federal level when law and order is essentially a state and local issue? You start the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to give capital grants to local law enforcement to invest in cool stuff. That was the start of the para-militarization of police.
@sourcreamus,
Here's the possible difference between now and 35 years ago: what were your parents pulled over for?

Steve writes:

I agree with sourcreamus. Horwitz and others devalue the term when they apply it too liberally. At the point at which we use the same term to describe the US and North Korea, the term has been rendered meaningless. It reminds me of the attempt by various groups to co-opt the term Holocaust. Just leave it stand. There's ample ground to criticize various policies of the US government, and there's no need to weaken those arguments by misappropriating terms.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve,
Fair enough. So what term would you use to describe the United States today, where police often don't need warrants, often use SWAT teams to deliver warrants, and stop people on the freeway without probable cause, and where TSA agents feel people up? We need a term. True, this ain't the USSR or North Korea, thank goodness, but it's definitely a step toward those countries' policies. So I'm open to reading your suggested term, Steve.

CBBB writes:

@Steve
The US is definitely BECOMING a police state - it's not an instant process but the term is applicable for the reasons David states. The very fact that Military style SWAT teams are so common and are now used for a huge range of what used to be routine police work is an indication that the police are totally out-of-control. It may be a different flavour of police state then NAZI Germany or North Korea but it is still a society marked by the high, and increasing, levels of police power and low levels of police accountability.

The fact that you now have a Presidential administration claiming it's completely legal to order US citizens to be assassinated as long as the President thinks their a risk is pretty good proof that things have dramatically changed over the last 30-40 years.

Evan writes:

I think a major difference between the US and what we typically think of as a police state is public perception. The average person in America still doesn't realize the threat the police pose to them and still thinks that the "bad guys" that the police allegedly protect them from are more to be feared. As far as I know, in North Korea and the USSR most people are aware that the police can come for anyone.

Steve writes:

@David, I don't really care about terms. I'd say the US is in a sub-optimal state of liberty and, overall, isn't moving in the right direction currently. When we obsess over terminology we end up in reductionist process that ends in some artificial, binary division--libertarian or not, conservative or not, etc. This is rather unproductive. We can look at societies in all of their complexity and observe what is good and what is not good without the need to simplify to some common denominator. So, we can praise the retirement system in Chile, as well as the fairly responsible government spending, while acknowledging the overly burdensome tax rate. We can look at the more palatable tax structure in Estonia while also recognizing the shortcomings in the realm of public debt and government spending. Basically, I am encouraging a rejection of reliance upon ill-fitting terminology. We don't always need some correct term--we can just describe what it is.

@CBBB You're more in the direction of what I would find more valid. We've adopted policies over time that are more the sort that you would expect to find in abjectly unfree nations such as North Korea and Cuba. We appear to be moving toward a greater embrace of executive power and a rejection of individual liberty. These are not good things. But when you say that we are 'becoming' a police state you are implicitly admitting that we are not a police state--you can not become what you already are. So, it's better to say: "Look at these policies and their similarity to these awful regimes," than to say, "USSSA, Police State!"

Daniel writes:

I'm with Steve and sourcreamus: this is a ridiculous reach. I remember the debate over random road stops in Seattle looking for drunk drivers decades ago.

More to the point, this conversation, like previous ones about "how many of our rights we have lost" would be better informed if one consulted middle aged / elderly blacks who remember when you (which is to say blacks) REALLY didn't want to come face to face with the law, and getting off after inspection of papers was lucky. It seems farcical to suggest that our current situation is some new low.

Further, again like so many other "we're losing our rights" articles, only the lost rights are mentioned. Nothing is said of the increased strengths in terms of gun and gay rights we now enjoy. I'd rather have police looking at me naked at the airport out of fear I'm carrying a bomb on a plane (at worst an over-reaction to a real danger) than doing so in my bedroom out of their own and / or society's loathing of my sexual orientation (about which nothing good can be said).

Finally, as for what we should call what the US is today, I'd call it a 1-1 with a downward trend. That's Freedom House's term for it. 1-1 means we have the highest aggregate scores in both political and civil rights (the two kind FH tracks), but there's been recent deterioration within that broad score.

If the deterioration continues, we may drop down to a 1-2, like France was years ago when their ridiculously abusive pretrial detention laws were in place, or like Israel is today.

But take careful note. While moving from a 1-1 to a 1-2 might technically count as "moving towards" a 7-7 (North Korea's score and the worst FH gives out), it's a hell of a long ways from it. Let's keep distance and not just direction in mind.

Scott Sumner writes:

Osama provided the best way of testing Bush's theory. He said something to the effect "if we hate America because of its freedom, why don't we attack countries like Sweden?"

http://articles.cnn.com/2004-10-29/world/bin.laden.transcript_1_lebanon-george-w-bush-arab?_s=PM:WORLD

So you'd want to see if the terrorists attack countries who's only sin is to exercise free speech. Like the Danish cartoonist, for instance. And the answer is yes.

BTW, Sweden itself is now being attacked by terrorists.

I completely agree with your criticism of our wars on terror/drugs etc. We are losing lots of freedoms. But the terrorists do oppose freedom, it's part of their ideology.

CBBB writes:

Some time ago I watched the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil, despite the fact that it was made in the 1980s and meant to be a sort of science-fiction/comedy film I felt the society depicted in it closely resembled many things in contemporary US society. A good exercise is to watch it and see how closely it tracks current events in the US, and then to be afraid.

mark writes:

Ah, your student didn't understand the strategy. We have to bury all our freedoms so the terrorists don't get them.

DK writes:

sourcreamus said:
"Go to the Museum of Communism Caplan links to in order to find out what life in a real police state is like."

Having lived roughly equal parts of my life in two police states (USSR and USA), I find that on average there are not many differences. Those that do exist are more superficial and cosmetic than most people in the USA think.

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