Ask not what the government can do for you. Ask what the government is doing to you. —David Friedman
Ever wonder what the government will be doing to you in, say, five years? Well, the answer is as close as your nearest news magazine or city newspaper. Read the statements of government officials and of personages who might be included under the heading "The Power Elite"—every once in a while one of them will make a perfectly outrageous statement about future public policy such that you'll say to yourself, "Oh, people will never go for that!" Days will pass and you'll see little or no commentary in other news sources about the statement—no letters to the editor or anything—and finally the incident will pass from memory. Then maybe in six months you'll notice some other VIP making a similar statement; then presto! the next news in a year or so is that Congress is holding hearings to consider implementing the policy. Next thing you know it's law—and people accept it as the progressive thing to do.
What you will have witnessed is the phenomenon of the trial balloon. Sent up by The Powers That Be to gauge public reaction to a proposed scheme, the appearance of a trial balloon can also serve to alert defenders of freedom that if they don't get busy they're going to lose another one. Watching for balloons as well as for their cousins, the denials (a denial consists of a well-placed government official denying he was contemplating taking some action, as a prelude to him taking that action. Remember when the Nixon administration kept saying they'd never impose wage and price controls?), is rather like watching a train coming over the horizon when you're tied to the track—at least you're not going to be surprised. And maybe you can even be rescued.
The period of time from trial balloon to ghastly reality seems to be about five or six years. The first trial balloon about the "necessity" for national health insurance if the medical profession didn't shape up appeared around 1969 (the version I spotted was buried in the back of the New York Times) and the second appeared about six months later (in the front part of the Times). Now, in 1975, the debate is over which national health insurance we'll get, not whether. A similar sequence was followed with regard to the FDA's imposing restrictions on the sale of vitamins, except in that case the trial balloons were noted and the group to be shafted was large and vocal. Some opposition was generated, with the result that the restrictions haven't gone into effect yet.
Now, within six months of each other, two trial balloons have gone up which, if ignored, could have rather ominous implications for all of us. The first occurred last fall when then Attorney-General William Saxbe charged that local police weren't doing a very good job of preserving law and order and ventured the opinion that if something weren't done to bring down crime rates the American people would be demanding a national police force within five years. Not that he wanted to see such a thing happen, of course, but…
Then the second occurred in late February of this year when Frances G. Knight, director of the State Department's Passport Office, said in a published interview, "It is my considered opinion that the U.S. Government owes every American citizen a true, recorded national identity to protect him from criminal impersonations.…I predict that national registration eventually will come to this country because it will be demanded by citizens who are sick and tired of supporting nontaxpaying criminals and illegal aliens."
Now the newspaper reports of the interview generally tried to dismiss Ms. Knight as a bureaucrat long overdue for retirement who is simply interested in expanding her department. While that may be true, her statement has the ring of an idea whose time may unfortunately come. Notice the mention of citizens having to support nontaxpaying criminals—do you think she simply means murderers and muggers who forgot to file their 1040? Maybe I sound paranoid but at a time when there's talk about the Social Security System having to be funded out of general revenues, when inflation is getting out of hand because too much unbacked money is circulating, when the IRS admits that vast numbers of people are evading taxes and that an active Tax Resistance movement is underway, I think she means tax evaders (who are criminal by definition). And what better way to sell the idea than to imply that everyone else will be able to pay less if only these "deadbeats" were caught. (If that doesn't convince people she has the part about catching illegal aliens—everyone knows how they are taking jobs from Americans and helping to cause the high unemployment.)
Now, you can expect that the IRS, if asked, will deny that they'll use the internal passports and the data bank that will go along with them for any large scale crackdown on tax resisters—after all, the idea wasn't theirs—it was Ms. Knight's over in the State Department. Of course they'll ask that tax data be included in the data bank just so they can catch a few big Mafia types, and data on international currency transactions will help the border patrol catch some of those illegal aliens that are sending money back to Mexico—but, they'll say, even if they wanted to they don't have the manpower to track down every person in the country who decides not to hand over his earnings to the government.
That's where the National Police force comes in. That, of course, will be instituted because of rising crime rates, which local police, no matter how hard they try, just can't bring down. (Never mind that a major source of figures on crime rates is the FBI, a Federal agency, or that the actual crime rate might be going down even while the reported crime rate is going up because more people are calling in the police and/or the police are keeping better records, or even that inflation is causing the price of goods to rise so that what was a petty theft-misdemeanor five years ago is now a grand larceny-felony). Once instituted, a National Police Force will presumably be available for lots of jobs—checking I.D.'s, hauling in tax resisters and draft evaders, etc.
Of course, I hope all of this is just paranoid imagining on my part: certainly I'm doing a lot of speculating based on some trial balloons. But remember: the trial balloon that isn't burst when it first appears gets tougher and stronger until it turns into a ball and chain. You can't say you weren't warned!
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Waiting for Gulag".