Sunday, June 24, 2018

Government Calls It Forfeiture, But It’s Theft

Seizure of property belonging to people never charged with wrongdoing looks a lot like stealing.

The Declaration of Independence states that all men have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This represents a change from an earlier document, which postulated humanity’s natural rights as “life, liberty and property.” The wording may have been changed to avoid enshrining slavery — already a point of contention between northern and southern states — as a right. Or it may have been changed due to Benjamin Franklin, who didn’t want to encourage the notion that government taxation was tantamount to theft.

But even though property rights aren’t all-encompassing, they are undeniably an important part of a healthy society. Obviously, some kinds of property should never be allowed, especially slavery and other things that restrict human freedom. And obviously, government should be allowed to take some portion of people’s property for the greater good, though the Fifth Amendment says it can't do so with without providing some form on compensation. But there are limits. Put too many curbs on people’s ability to own their own things, and they start to feel powerless. Allow people to steal each other’s possessions, and the economy will grind to a halt. Some economists even believe that property rights are one of the key institutions that let countries develop and grow rich.

Certainly, Americans would be up in arms if the government were allowed to seize their property any time it pleased. Or at least, that’s what one might believe. In reality, Americans have suffered the outrageous practice of civil-asset forfeiture with relative complacency.

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