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More and More of What We Do Depends on Government Permission

The granting or withholding of that approval is a powerful lever over our lives.

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Ingram Publishing/Newscom

Do you have permit for that? If you want to keep that permit, you'd better do as you're told.

Increasingly, that's the theme of modern America. More and more of what we do is dependent on permission from the government. That permission, unsurprisingly, is contingent on keeping government officials happy. Rub those officials the wrong way and they'll strip you of permission to travel the roads, leave the country, or even make a living.

That's not a recipe for a free country.

In February of this year, the IRS began sending the U.S. State Department lists of Americans who have a seriously delinquent tax debt, so that these individuals can be denied the right to travel overseas.

"[T]his only applies to a seriously delinquent tax debt," cautions tax attorney Robert W. Wood, "more than $50,000. Even so, that $50,000 includes penalties and interest. A $20,000 tax debt can grow to $50,000 including penalties and interest."

Passport revocation isn't contingent on criminal conviction, or suspicion of flight. Your travel documents can be yanked just for the outstanding debt—even if you're already outside the country.

"If you're already overseas, the State Department may, but is not required to, provide a passport permitting your return home," writes former federal prosecutor Justin Gelfand. "And a 1952 statute makes it a crime for a U.S. citizen to enter or exit the country without a valid passport."

That law requiring a passport to cross the border in either direction, combined with the threat to strip passports from alleged tax debtors, effectively makes the country one big debtors' prison.

What connection is there between taxes and the right to travel? None. Members of Congress and other government officials just thought they could coerce more people into meeting IRS demands if they made the right to travel (not so much a "right" any more) dependent on keeping the taxman happy.

Not that the right to travel within the borders remains free of government demands. If you take a look at the website for your state's Department of Motor Vehicles, chances are you'll find language similar to: "Once the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is notified by the Attorney General of Texas, or a Texas Court ordering a revocation, DPS will revoke a Texas resident's driving privilege for failure to pay child support."

Texas didn't impose that requirement on its own—it was required to do so by the federal government. Under the provisions of the welfare reform law passed in 1996, "States must adopt laws that allow them to suspend driver's, professional, occupational, and recreational licenses of individuals who owe overdue support," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Which means that not just travel but also the right to hold a job and make a living is at issue in a country that now requires licenses of roughly one-quarter of all workers.

All 50 states have complied with that federal requirement, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports, although the triggers for revocation vary. Some states allow for temporary licenses—or allow debtors to travel to and from work so they can at least earn the money to pay the outstanding debt. But that's up to the state.

Also up to states is the process for suspension, which is administrative with little in the way of due process.

"Arizona law has given the [Department of Child Support Services, or DCSS] authority to administratively suspend a professional or occupational license (such as a contractor's license) without going to court," boasts the state's Division of Child Support Services. "The DCSS may request the court to suspend or restrict a driver's license or recreational license."

While the details vary, most states allow for a window of time, from a couple of weeks to a few months, to pay up or appeal the bureaucratic gut-punch. Good luck with that appeal.

What connection is there between licenses to drive the roads and work in your field and child support obligations? Again, none. They're just a handy lever to extract compliance from the population without too much muss and fuss. They're such a handy lever, in fact, that government officials have succumbed to the temptation to extend their use.

"[I]n 19 states, government agencies can seize state-issued professional licenses from residents who default on their educational debts," The New York Times reported last fall. "Another state, South Dakota, suspends driver's licenses, making it nearly impossible for people to get to work."

As with revoking passports to extract tax payments and denying licenses to collect child support, stripping licenses from people who fall behind on student loans involves administrative procedures with limited due process. It also, finally, may be a bit much for even some politicians.

"Difficulty repaying a student loan debt should not threaten a graduate's job. It makes no sense to revoke a professional license from someone who is trying to pay their student loans," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bipartisan bill to "prevent states from suspending, revoking or denying state professional licenses solely because borrowers are behind on their federal student loan payments."

Assuming the bill passes, that's great as far as it goes. But it doesn't solve the underlying problem: Too many activities—a growing number—have quietly transformed from rights that we quietly exercise at will into privileges requiring state approval.

"As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens were not required to have a passport for travel abroad," the National Archives report.

On a similar note, only about 5 percent of American workers needed licenses to do their jobs in the 1950s.

And, "In 1930, only 24 states required a license to drive a car and just 15 states had mandatory driver's exams. South Dakota was the last state to begin issuing licenses (without exams), in 1954," the History Channel tells us.

Those bureaucratic developments, all justified as improvements in safety and national security, put people increasingly under the thumbs of government officials and make us incredibly vulnerable to pressures and penalties that are entirely unrelated to our supposed transgressions. Get on the wrong side of a vindictive official or a mindless bureaucracy, and you're effectively subject to house arrest and an economic knee-capping.

Such government control over vast areas of our lives makes it very difficult to pretend that we're free. Free people don't fret that they may lose government permission to work and travel.