It is the summer of 1988. I am on a train from Greifswald to East Berlin in Communist East Germany. I have just had a very nice breakfast, one of the best ever served on a train. The train pulls in to a station just as I get back to my compartment. I lean out the window to see what little town we are at, and I notice that there are only two doors open on the entire train for passengers to disembark and get on the train. Curious, I ask a man in my compartment about this obviously inefficient and dysfunctional way to handle passengers. The man, a retired school teacher, looks a bit uneasy at first, then – once he has made sure no one else can hear us – he tells me that they lock the train so that they can control gets on. “Oh, to check tickets” I reply. “No” he whispers. “You need a travel document to get on a train to East Berlin.”
The East German government had put travel restrictions on its citizens to prevent non-desirable citizens from going to the capital – and getting too close to escape routes to the west. To the East German governemnt, Communism was more important than individual freedom.
I am reminded of this episode when I read a report by Fox Business News on a new, bizarre law authorizing the IRS to determine whether or not you have the right to leave the United States:
A new bill making its way through Congress could allow the federal government to prevent Americans who owe back taxes from leaving the country. The provision is part of Senate Bill 1813, which was introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in November and passed by the Senate on March 14 “to reauthorize Federal-aid highway and highway safety construction programs, and for other purposes.” Those “other purposes” have come to include a little-known amendment recently introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that would allow the State Department to revoke, deny or limit passports for anyone the Internal Revenue Service certifies as having “a seriously delinquent tax debt in an amount in excess of $50,000.”
In other words, this bill would allow the federal government to effectively put a Berlin Wall around the country and only allow people to leave who, according to the Internal Revenue Service, have paid their taxes in good order. If the individual taxpayer says he has paid his taxes, he does not have the right to contest the ruling by the IRS in court. When it comes to your travel rights, the IRS is the final arbiter of whether or not you owe any taxes.
First of all, this is a frightening perspective on the abuse of government powers given the fact that both presidents Nixon and Obama have been accused of using the IRS to target political enemies. Since all it takes for someone to be deprived of the right to travel abroad is an accusation from the IRS, the threshold for power abuse is very low.
When someone is granted formidable powers, he should also be held formidably accountable. The power-accountability balance appears to be completely lost here.
Secondly, beyond the immediate concerns for individual freedom there is the question of the purpose of this law. It is put in place, evidently, to guarantee tax compliance by high-income earners. The demand for tax compliance, in turn, has its roots in the desire that Congress has to keep its welfare state in place.
In other words, Congress is willing to put serious restrictions on the individual freedom of Americans because it is unable to raise enough revenue to pay for its welfare state. The moral conclusion is that our elected officials are ready to prioritize the welfare state over individual freedom.
All in the name of good intentions, of course. The good intentions that motivate all government incursions into your life.
When government becomes more important than economic freedom, we eventually get the welfare state. When government becomes more important than individual freedom, we eventually get the totalitarian state. It has been said that the difference between the two – the welfare state and the totalitarian state – is a matter of time. Events in Europe may soon prove that to be true. What we know for certain is that the erosion of both economic and individual freedom is driven by the same statist arrogance. Once that arrogance grows to a critical mass, it intoxicates the minds of politicians and bureaucrats. They begin a journey of moral decay, where their exercise of power takes more and more extreme forms. Each new measure they put in place to re-arrange our lives, to plan society according to their preferences, will provide them with a new fix of intoxicating power.
The more extreme their new means of power get, the further down the slope of moral decay they will go. Today Congress is willing to restrict the travel rights of American citizens in the name of the welfare state. What are they willing to do tomorrow – in the name of the welfare state?