‘If you aren’t guilty, what are you afraid of?’

By Harry Browne

The Homeland Security bill is now law – following in the footsteps of all the new government intrusions of the past 14 months. And as concerns are raised about the new powers of the government, we continue to hear the familiar refrain, “If you aren’t guilty, you have nothing to fear. These restrictions are necessary to catch terrorists, but they won’t hurt innocent people.”


The well-known phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” could easily be reworded to read, “I’m from Congress and this program will turn out exactly as we promise it will.”

Government has failed to educate our children properly, it has made a mess of our health-care system, it can’t balance its budget, it can’t keep its spending in line, it can’t keep drugs out of its own prisons – but we’re assured that it will run a squeaky-clean homeland security program.

It’s bad enough that government wastes so much of our money, but it’s even worse that almost anyone could wind up in prison – even someone who has committed no act of violence against anyone else. Look at the hundreds of thousands of pot-smokers who took seriously the statement that “a woman [or man] has a right to control his own body.”

The guilty and the innocent

Why should we think the so-called War on Terrorism will be conducted with more regard for individual rights than anything the government has done up to now?

And yet, no matter how bad the government’s record, whenever Congress passes a new piece of draconian legislation, we’re assured that only the guilty will be hurt by these laws.

If only that were so. The truth is that innocence is no protection against government agencies that have the power to do what they think best – or against a government agent hoping for promotion and willing do whatever he has to do in order to get it.

In fact, it is almost always the innocent – not the guilty – who suffer most from government’s intrusions.

  • Tell the most unprejudiced businessman he has nothing to fear from the piles of forms he must file to prove he doesn’t discriminate.

  • Tell a homeowner he has nothing to fear when his property is seized by the government in a mistaken – or contrived – drug raid.

  • Tell a taxpayer he has nothing to fear when the IRS drags him into a “taxpayer compliance” audit that eats up a week of his life, costs him thousands of dollars in accounting fees, and threatens him with unbearable penalties.

Being innocent doesn’t allow you to ignore the government’s demands for reports – or to say “No, thanks” when a government agent wants to search your records, your place of business, or your home – or to refuse to observe regulations that were aimed at the guilty, not you.

How laws go wrong

How many times have we seen the following pattern?

  1. The press and politicians demand that something be done about violent crime, terrorist acts, drug dealing, gun deaths, tax evasion, or whatever is the Urgent Concern Of The Month.

  2. A tough new take-no-prisoners law or policy is put into place.

  3. The guilty make it their business to understand whatever new policy might affect them – and they take steps to sidestep the inspections and background checks, and to keep their property out of reach of asset forfeiture laws. The innocent know little about such laws – having been told they have nothing to fear – and are surprised and helpless when some zealous law-enforcement agency, looking to pad its arrest and prosecution records, moves in on them.

  4. After the dust settles, the initial “problem” continues unabated, because the guilty have slipped through the net. But the innocent are left burdened with new chores, expenses, and dangers. If they’re lucky, they suffer only from having more reports to file, less privacy, reduced access to products and services, higher costs, heavier taxes, and a new set of penalties for those who shirk their duty to fight in the War On ________ (fill in the blank). But those who aren’t so lucky may wind up in prison – as have thousands of non-drug-using individuals who were convicted on drug charges.

  5. Needless to say, the ineffectual law is never repealed.

When government force is used to solve social problems, we all suffer and nothing good is ever achieved. But coercion is wondrously effective at harming the innocent. All our lives are diminished.

Even worse, every year, a few million innocent people suffer special burdens – greater than those the government places on all of us. The dismantling of the Bill of Rights allows the government to disrupt their lives, confiscate their property, or even kill them – even though they’ve committed no crimes.

I hope you never become one of them. But no one can guarantee that.