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Why government cares about your bank account

Posted By Harry Browne On 01/22/1999 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

“Know Your Customer” is a proposed government regulation by which banks will be required to develop a customer profile that details your banking habits — your pattern of deposits, withdrawals, cash transactions, and the like. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) wants your banker to have this profile so he can tell the government whenever your financial transactions deviate from your established pattern.

This isn’t a new approach. Since 1970 the misnamed “Bank Secrecy Act” has forced banks to tell the government anytime you use a bank wire or cashier’s check to pay someone $10,000 or more. Treasury agents pressure banks to ignore the $10,000 threshold and report ever-smaller transactions — so today the government is likely to be told if you spend even $3,000 in an unusual way.

“Know Your Customer” is just one more step toward giving the government complete access to your financial affairs — to assure that you don’t deal drugs and enjoy your profits, even if you have no interest in drugs.

Four reasons cause government to intrude ever more deeply into your private affairs:

First, it’s human nature for any bureaucrat to expand his empire. So if you give government the power to regulate someone’s life, you shouldn’t be shocked when the bureaucrats use the power to regulate your life.

Second, congressmen have to prove they are tougher on crime than their opponents. Thus they continually hand the bureaucracy new policies to appear to be fighting crime.

Third, government programs never accomplish their stated objectives. So when a program like the Bank Secrecy Act fails to stop the drug trade, it is continually expanded — with more penalties, more surveillance, more reporting, more requirements of all kinds — to try to make the program work.

Why do such programs fail? Because those at whom it is aimed make it their business to know the regulations and circumvent them. A drug dealer won’t keep his money in the bank — to have his transactions reported to the government and his assets seized by zealous DEA or Treasury agents.

But you — secure in the knowledge that you’re doing nothing wrong — feel no need to know about new laws and regulations. So you do nothing to protect yourself from snooping in your bank account, from asset-forfeiture programs that can confiscate your bank account because of suspicious transactions, from informants making up stories about you, or from any of the other legal inanities. When the drug warriors swoop down on you, you’re unprepared, vulnerable, and completely overwhelmed. As a result, you may lose much of your property or even go to prison.

This, of course, contradicts the politicians’ standard reassurance: “If you’re not guilty, you have nothing to fear.” It is the innocent — not the guilty — who have the most to fear from the avalanche of laws and regulations.

And fourth, government intrudes ever further because victimless crimes can’t be enforced as crimes of violence can. Since there’s no victim, no one files a complaint and testifies that he’s been harmed. So the government attacks such offenses with informants, sting operations, asset forfeiture, bank-account snooping, and all the other trappings of a police state. But it doesn’t succeed. It doesn’t stop gambling, it doesn’t stop prostitution, and it doesn’t stop the drug traffic — the supposed target of the FDIC proposal.

Thus this new regulation is an inevitable — but futile — step in the government’s attempt to prosecute victimless crimes. Despite the intrusions on your private life, it will do no more to stop the drug trade than any of the other police-state tactics.

Libertarians understand that we can’t stop government snooping by fighting every new intrusion on your privacy. Our opponents will win too many of those battles, and government will get more and more intrusive. Instead, we must fight to take completely away from government the power to prosecute victimless crimes — as well as render the government powerless to enter any area of your life for which it has no explicit constitutional authority.

Only then will you be safe from prying eyes and zealous confiscators.

In the meantime, you can let the world know how you feel about this by signing a petition online. a project of the Libertarian Party.


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