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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mugged by the State

Property Rights Are a Bulwark of Freedom

Most Americans believe that if they raise their kids well, attend church, work 9 to 5, and pay their taxes, they can pretty much go about life unhindered by the government. Certainly there are the annoyances and trivialities that occur when visiting the department of motor vehicles or the post office, but grisly tales of life in the old Soviet Union and modern-day tyrannies remind us how safe and good things are in America. Many of us believe that images of armed federal agents smashing through doors and windows, conspiratorial stories of black government helicopters, and tales of corrupt and avaricious bureaucrats are products of media hype and desperate publicity hounds. Randall Fitzgerald’s Mugged by the State shatters this naive belief.

Fitzgerald, a former Reader’s Digest reporter and contributing editor, presents a compelling and emotional series of stories that highlight the bad things that the American government does to good people.

Take the case of Blair Taylor, whose new Italian restaurant in Denver had been open one week before he received notification that he was not in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). A second letter to Taylor informed him of the problem: eight of his tables were on an elevated platform without any wheelchair access. Although the majority of his tables were accessible, all had to be so. Rational thought would suggest that ramps would fix the problem. Yet Taylor soon found that he would have to obtain permits for the entire building even though he was putting the ramps only in parts of the building. In April of 1994 a federal lawsuit was filed against Taylor for further noncompliance. As Fitzgerald writes, “The lawsuit detailed a mind-numbing list of actions Taylor had to undertake to bring [his restaurant] into ‘full’ compliance with the law.” On top of this, Taylor was forced to pay $1,500 to each of four “protesters” who had picketed outside his restaurant demanding he build the ramps sooner. After shelling out over $100,000, Taylor finally met all the ADA requirements.

Mugged by the State is filled with such cases, showing that ordinary, law-abiding citizens can easily be victimized by government.

Besides its value in awakening the public to the soft tyranny that is practiced every day here in America, Fitzgerald’s book works well as a textbook in applied Public Choice theory. Behind all the notions of the “common good” and safety for “the children,” the government officials in these stories have something to gain or some incentive to steal. The proceeds from property confiscated in the war on drugs are used to finance the activities of the confiscators. Eminent domain is used by local politicians to help favored businessmen. Environmental zoning regulations are used to keep out new developments in what Fitzgerald calls the “close the barn door” rationale. Health and safety regulations are used by businesses to shake down the competition. In the private sector these are called conflicts of interest; in the public sector these are called byproducts of the pursuit of the “common good.”

I have one minor point of contention with what is otherwise an important book. Fitzgerald blames the inflexibility of environmental zoning laws for much harm done to property owners. While I would argue that the vast majority of those laws should not even be on the books, it is precisely their arbitrary interpretation and enforcement that create fear and anger in property owners. F. A. Hayek contended that rules, regulations, and laws should be fixed and independent of a regulator’s whims. A builder, for example, should know with certainty whether he can build on a given plot of land—he should not have to divine the intentions or attitudes of the local zoning commission. Strict regulations may be foolish, but vague ones that give officials discretion can be far worse, as many of the cases in the book show.

Despite this exception, Fitzgerald successfully, powerfully, and subtly argues the case for property rights as a bulwark of freedom. Those who downplay or scoff at the necessity of a secure right to property would do well to read this slim volume.

  • Jude joined the Atlas Network in January 2009 as a member of the Institute Relations team, focusing on think tanks in Asia. Prior to joining Atlas, he was a China-based special correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, a research assistant at the Cato Institute, and the Henry Hazlitt Research Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. He studied economics at Loyola University and Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Institute of Technology. He currently resides in Shanghai, China.