Who's Afraid of John Ashcroft?

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With the nomination of John Ashcroft to be Bush’s Attorney General, many conservatives and libertarians have begin to look more closely at the office itself and what it means to the American public. Many questions have been raised regarding Ashcroft’s qualifications to enforce the federal laws of the United States. As would be expected in the modern mass media, the rhetoric surrounding such a question assumes that enforcing the laws of the American central government is indeed a desirable and even heroic mission. In the minds of many, the office is charged with the task of preserving civilization itself by not permitting average Americans to act in what the modern intellectual Left sees as a depraved and anti-social manner.

John Ashcroft has been much hailed for his honesty, leadership, and sound judgment in the exercising of his duties both as Attorney General of the state of Missouri and as a United States Senator. Few who know him question his qualifications in executing the duties of the office of the Attorney General. The real question, at hand, though, should be whether or not it is possible for any man or woman, no matter how honest, to conduct the affairs of the justice department in such a way as to not continually destroy our American rights and liberties.

In many ways, the Justice Department is the flagship institution of the modern imperial American state. Created in 1870 to enforce the numerous fiats of the newly aggressive federal government, the department was to act as the personal civilian army of the executive branch in Washington. As a legal measure of Reconstruction, the new federal police force was used not only to govern everything from election laws to private hotel policies in the South, but also to enforce regulations on commerce which were being used by urban corporate interests in Northern cities to extend the wealth of the new industrial class across the entire continent.

As the power of agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission grew, a larger and larger machine was needed to control not only the large employers and corporate entities, but were also paying increasing attention to the smaller businesses and entrepreneurs who could rarely afford the expense of bureaucratization imposed on them by federal agents. Thus, the Justice Department is a creature of American Empire. It is an institution that would be unrecognizable to most American of the 18th and 19th centuries who generally accepted a state of affairs in which the ordinary business of life was legislated and regulated by state governments and not by the central government.

The exact opposite is the current state of affairs on the United States today, and the Department of Justice has been the primary engine of that change. As the sheer volume of federal law churned out by the Congress becomes more burdensome every year, it is only natural that a federal police force be sent out to oversee more and more of American life. As a result, the statistics show a very clear increase in the “federalization” of law enforcement in America.

Statistics on the federal law enforcement presence released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics illustrate unmistakable increases in the numbers of federal agents, prosecutions, and convictions. From 1997 to 1998, the number of federal criminal court cases increased 13 percent. The number of people brought to trial by federal police increased 12.7 percent from 1997 to 1998. The number of federal law-enforcement officers has increased from 69,000 in 1993 to over 83,000 today. The number of federal inmates is up 90 percent since 1990 from 57,000 to 109,000 people. Most of them are in prison for drug or immigration offenses.

Some of the statistics are attributed to the federalization of crimes that were formerly state offenses (in itself a bad development), but much of it can be attributed to federal police officers’ willingness to take on ever smaller and more insignificant cases. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, the threshold for triggering federal prosecution has declined in recent years and continues to do so. Smaller and smaller amounts of drugs are necessary to trigger possession prosecutions and businessmen from smaller and smaller companies are being harassed for hiring the and firing the “wrong” people. Federal agents have fewer and fewer qualms about shutting down businesses who do not sufficiently cater to the special interest groups to which the DOJ has been pledged to serve at any given time.

This is the federal law enforcement situation that the next Attorney General will inherit. It is a federal department committed not to protecting the rights and property of individuals. It is committed to disarming Americans, harassing them with unending legal intimidation, and sanctimoniously denouncing as “criminals” anyone who doesn’t openly embrace their edicts and their interpretations of federal law. It is difficult to see how the very existence of the Justice Department and the office of the Attorney General is at all congruent with the philosophy of American rights and liberties.

John Ashcroft may be a fine man, but it is unlikely that he will ever be able to truly combat a bureaucracy so committed to spying on, harassing, and prosecuting average Americans of average means. After a decade of expansive federal law under Bush I and Bill Clinton, it is impossible for any ordinary person to know what is expected of him from the federal government. The millions of pages dedicated to governing the actions of every small businessman, every worker, and every citizen are impossible to follow. Ashcroft’s enemies question his ability and willingness to enforce the laws of the United States. They complain that he may be unwilling to browbeat the American people into accepting the legislation wrought by urban intellectuals, recipients of corporate welfare, and hysterical loudmouthed “activists”. One can only hope that they are right.

January 17, 2001

Ryan McMaken is a graduate student in American politics at the University of Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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