Big government makes it easy to forget what government’s for—and that allows state agents to get away with truly awful acts.
Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

This New Yorker article makes the blood boil. Civil forfeiture, a system by which the government confiscates property it assumes is related to crimes, has become an enticing–and thus abused–method for state and local governments to outright steal from the powerless.

Reporter Sarah Stillman describes these abuses, which are staggeringly vile. “Jennifer Boatright, a waitress at a Houston bar‐​and‐​grill, drove with her two young sons and her boyfriend, Ron Henderson” through Texas “to walk the local wildflower trails and spend time with Henderson’s father.” They were pulled over by the police, who accused them of drug smuggling. According to the cops, the two

fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)

The cops took the family to the station. Once there, the district attorney, Lynda K. Russell, showed up.

Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told [the mother and her boyfriend] that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.

The heart breaks imagining the horror of this mother confronted by thugs threatening to take her children. And the horror doesn’t stop there. The article lists account after account of state actors bullying people who can’t easily fight back.

[A]n initiative targeted gay men for forfeiture, under Detroit’s “annoying persons” ordinance. Before local lawyers challenged such practices, known informally as “Bag a Fag,” undercover officers would arrest gay men who simply returned their glances or gestures, if the signals were deemed to have sexual connotations, and then, citing “nuisance abatement,” seize their vehicles.

Civil forfeiture amounts, in many cases, to outright theft. Police accuse someone, without evidence, and threaten legal action unless the victim pays up. Then the state gets to pocket the cash. In fact, the thieves who stole it get to keep it. Money from forfeitures goes to the very police departments and district attorney’s offices who have stooped to such literal highway robbery.

Such brutality is, of course, morally repugnant. Yet in an important way, civil forfeiture is more repugnant than simple theft by a mugger. While the acts themselves are indistinguishable (both use violence to illegitimately take what belongs to someone else), the nature of the criminal makes crimes committed by the state morally worse. As Lysander Spooner, put it, theft by the state “is far more dastardly and shameful.”

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villanies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

This sort of inexcusable behavior is nothing new, of course. Libertarians have long said that the state often behaves more like a band of crooks than the noble institution envisioned by the social contract. Reporting like Sillman’s is just further evidence that we’ve been right all along. It’s an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” without taking any pleasure in it.

But why do Americans allow the state to act in ways so morally offensive that, if done by a private citizen, would result in calls to have the perpetrator locked away for life?

I think much tolerance of the repugnant happens because we let ourselves forget what the state is for. If the state is justified at all, it’s as somewhere to turn for protection. We create the state because we need someone stronger than those who would do us harm. But not just someone stronger. Someone better, too. We need institutions that won’t use the awesome power we give them to do us more violence than the petty criminals we seek protection from.

The state is, in other words, a tool. It exists for a purpose, and thus its every characteristic (size, powers, laws, funding, employees, and so on) should be judged by how well and how efficiently it advances that purpose.

Yet as the state grows, both in the scope of its powers and in its size, it becomes easier to lose track of that purpose. The simpler a system, the more clear the connection between individual actions and final goals. When you’re dealing with an enormous bureaucracy, the connections blur and so become more difficult to evaluate.

Public employment makes this worse. People who earn their living working for the state have an incentive to see the perpetuation and expansion of their own jobs as primary, and the goals those jobs were created to achieve as secondary. Even if this happens unconsciously–and I have no doubt that much of it is unconscious–it’s still dangerous. This unbalancing of goals explains why police and district attorneys in these civil forfeiture cases justify their vile acts pointing to a need for money to fight the good fight. Stillman reports,

At a public hearing on July 11th, D.C.’s attorney general, Irvin Nathan, acknowledged “very real problems” relating to due‐​process rights. But he warned that millions of dollars raised by forfeiture “could very easily be lost” and “an unreasonable burden” placed on his office if the reforms supported by the Public Defender Service were enacted. He proposed more modest changes that would leave the current burden of proof untouched.

It takes resources to run a massive theft ring. By outlawing such theft, we’d put the thieves out of work. Irvin Nathan has forgotten that the purpose of his office is to protect the innocent. Thus knowingly harming the innocent can never be justified, no matter how many millions of dollars it brings.

This effect–forgetting what the state is for, and so allowing other concerns of secondary importance at best to cloud our judgment–is made worse by the trust we place in government. A great many Americans act as if government employees, by their nature, possess purer motives than the rest of us. (They’re “public servants,” after all. They have only our best interests in mind.) Thus when cops say they need to destroy the lives of poor innocents in order to fight crime, we believe them. Cops are the good guys. Why would they lie to us? Or when public school employees say the only way to effectively educate children is via public schools (and, specifically, better funded public schools), we look down our noses at anyone advocating education reform. Public school teachers care only about helping the kids, after all.

That’s why we need more articles like Stillman’s. Or books like Radley Balko’s on the militarization of the police. Or scholars like those in Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. We need to chip away at the assumption that every government action and every government employee aims only at furthering government’s legitimate purpose.

Because with that destructive attitude banished–replaced by the belief that government employees are as morally corrupt or corruptible as the rest of us–we can focus our attention on why we have a government in the first place.

And we can start treating Jennifer Boatright’s abusers like the common criminals they are.