Reblogged from Sinking Ark.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created, that they endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and Property.”
Because that’s how it originally read in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. When they decided that “property” wasn’t sufficiently lofty verbiage for the country’s ideologically defining document, they changed it to “pursuit of happiness.” Why? Because property protection is a basic expectation in free societies, and in such societies it is the government’s role to protect the peoples’ right to property. Despite all that Republicans and Democrats disagree on, this is one of those “yeah, well, duh” points on which almost everyone sees eye to eye. In fact, so important are property rights, that when our country’s founders – people who were unusually well-educated in political theory and well-suited even in their time to lay the rules for a steady government – decided to write the declaration of government for the newborn Republic, what did they talk about in the first sentence? 1) the right to live 2) the right to be free and 3) the right to control one’s property.” When the government can take your property at whim with weakly justified laws that don’t pass the “Is this fair?” sniff test, people start to get pissed off.
So when you happen to come across an article like this, one begins to worry. The summary version is: a kid was arrested on drug charges for having $40 of heroin. Due to a drug-related property confiscation law in Philadelphia, however, people associated with victims can have their homes confiscated by the police, and sold at auction. And get this – the police can then use those proceeds to pay their salaries. That means that this kid’s family, who had nothing to do with his drug-sales (at least they weren’t charged with anything), was kicked out of their house for being associated with their son. I almost couldn’t even make this stuff up:
“But not all people who have their property taken away are charged with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, the civil law allows authorities to seize property without the owner ever being convicted or even charged.”
“The very authorities taking the property appear to be profiting from it, according to Pennsylvania state records. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office says about $7 million went straight to the salaries for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and the police department in just three years. In that same time period, records show the D.A.’s office spent no money on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, according to the Philadelphia AG’s office.”
“Civil forfeiture can be used on the federal or state level. Only eight states — Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Indiana, Vermont, North Carolina, Ohio and North Dakota — require seized funds be placed in a neutral account. Other states allow law enforcement to directly profit from the civil forfeitures or put proceeds into a special crime fighting fund.”
“In some states, like Pennsylvania, the burden is on the property owner to prove their innocence. The Sourvelises say they had to go to a courtroom and fight to get their home back where, instead of facing a judge, they faced a prosecutor from the DA’s office.”
According to the CNN article, then, this law actually works something like this: If someone you live with does something wrong, the government can take your property without charging you with any crime, and you will be considered guilty until proven innocent in the ensuing civil case, if you have the money to file one at all.
Granted, I haven’t done any in-depth research on this story, but if it is a reasonable interpretation of what’s actually happening then this is some pretty terrible shit. Talk about a complete inversion of some very fundamental democratic values and basic policy issues: 1) the government protects your property, 2) you can’t be held accountable for something your associate/friend/family member did, and 3) you’re presumed innocent until a prosecutor can overcome a burden of proof.
I feel like I’m writing this article partly from a “Hey guys this is happening” perspective but also a “Hey, guys in charge, you’re oppressing us incorrectly!” one, because unfair (even if it’s technically lawful) seizure of property aggravates people in a way that actually kinda frightens me. I’m actually more worried about the type of anger that property seizure foments than I am about the seizure laws as violations of civil liberties and democratic values in of themselves. So (adopting the latter perspective) to those in charge: this is some basic political theory, guys. Taking people’s property pisses them off in a way that many other things don’t (even though they maybe should). Machiavelli calls repeated attention to the public outrage created by property seizure in The Prince, which, if you haven’t read, you should. It’s really short. And, given the radical growth in power of the Executive and erosion of other government branches’ balancing power, if in the future we have to face living in an American Princedom rather than a Republic, that blows. But I would much rather prefer a stable Princedom than a chaotic one.
Being the dudes with a lot of power doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want without consequence, because a lot of things will backfire on you. Things like taking people’s property:
“Now that I have talked in detail about the most important of the qualities mentioned above, I’d like to discuss the others briefly under this general heading: that the prince should try to avoid anything which makes him hateful or contemptible…What makes him hated above all, as I said, is his confiscating the property of his subjects or taking their women.” — Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XIX.
“Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, even if he gets no love, he gets no hate either; because it is perfectly possible to be feared and not hated, and this will be the result if only the prince will keep his hands off the property of his subjects or citzens, and their women. When he does have to shed blood, he should be sure to have a strong justification and manifest cause, but above all, he should not confiscate people’s property, because men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony. Besides, pretexts for confiscation are always plentiful; it never fails that a prince who starts to live by plunder can find reasons to rob someone else.” — The Prince, Ch. XVII
(Skip this, it’s background) I understand the danger of quoting Machiavelli out of context, so here’s some context: The Prince was written by a experienced and acknowledged statesmen of his day who lost his job when his Republican government fell and was taken over by, essentially, a Princedom/monarch. Since he was unemployed at his family estates aside from farm work, he spent the rest of his life studying history in depth (especially antiquity) and trying to, in some sort of empirical manner, find out what sorts of legislation and political actions result in stable states and which result in chaotic ones. He wrote The Prince to the ruling family, many argue, as a job application so he could get back into government.
Background over. So back to our example in Philadelphia. Guilt by association for non-violent drug offenses reasonably fits Machiavelli’s description of “pretexts for confiscations [that] are always plentiful,” and a police force living off these sales as “start[ing] to live by plunder [and] can find reasons to rob someone else.”
Seriously. If you’re going to oppress us, that’s sucks, but at least do it right. What is “right” oppression? That which maintains order in society. This is doing it wrong.
In the spirit of Machiavelli’s style, here’s a historical comparison to chew on:
During most of the Roman Republic, citizens who were drafted for the army had to own land. Those less-wealthy land owners would be required to leave their farm, wives and family for a long time while off at war. The smaller farms usually couldn’t recover from the loss of labor, and went bankrupt. The bankrupted farms were seized by wealthier landowners, who also continued purchasing and re-allocating new land won in war to themselves. Now owned by upper-class land owners, these farms were run with slave labor, which made them even more lucrative, providing the rich increasing amounts of capital with which to buy even more land from the lower class families that were missing a husband due to military conscription.
The push back came from a Tribune of the Pledge (a position that was supposed to champion the cause of the lower classes in government) who attempted to re-institute a prior law that restricted the quantity of land an individual could own. The Senate – representing the upper class – would not have it, and shot this Pledge, Tiberius Gracchus, down (i.e. had him assassinated).
The Tribune of the Pledge had historically been a weak position, there to appease the common people but ultimately subservient to the whims of the Senate. Tiberius Gracchus changed all that. He began using technicalities in the position to exploit greater power, drastically and ultimately permanently upset the balance between the Tribunes (there were several at a time) and the Senate.
The Roman population’s push back from land seizures, combined the extreme political maneuvering of Tiberius Gracchus, created a rift in the balance of power in the Republican system of government, and marked the beginning of a century of Roman history filled with blood, witness to a terrible civil war, unceasing social unrest, and, eventually, the rise to power of a dictator that would herald the end of the Republic. That man, of course, was Julius Caesar.
The story is obviously longer as it encompasses a time period of ~100 years. So why should you care? Well, these land seizures and the public’s response of electing Tiberius Gracchus is cited by many historians as the moment that can ultimately be traced to Caesar, the fall of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire, which would give birth to some of history’s infamous tyrants.