Welcome to Spy Nation

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The other day, I received a grim reminder of just how vulnerable my family and I are to government predations. While picking up our youngest daughter at nursery school, my wife let our two boys (age seven and eight) stay in the van in the parking lot.

Just after she got our daughter, a small, nervous man met my wife in the hall and demanded to speak with her. The man worked for Child Protective Services in Maryland, and he was there to point out that it was against the law in this state to leave young children alone in a vehicle. While my wife decided not to argue with the man or challenge him, he made it be known with no uncertainty that he had the power to remove our children from our home.

The whole incident left me a bit shaken after my wife gave me an account that evening. Our three youngest children are adopted from overseas (one from Guatemala, two from Ethiopia), and we have spent our life savings on those adoptions. Because my wife was not aware of a certain state law, government agents (in the name of protecting our children, of course) could have burst into our home unannounced, grabbed the children, and trundled them off to foster care — thus ruining all of our lives.

Spying on other people in Maryland is not left to government agents. Whenever I drop our boys off at school, I see a sign prominently posted that encourages people to call an 800 number (in anonymity, of course) to report "abuse." Furthermore, a directive came to us where I teach that said we were by law required to report any signs or claims of abuse to the "proper authorities." This directive includes my adult students, some of whom are in their 40s and 50s.

I do not deny that much child abuse exists in this country, but such state policies can lead to another kind of abuse that I believe is more dangerous and more insidious: the abuse of individual citizens by government employees. In the name of "protecting the children," government has made it easy for individuals to engage in score settling by lying, and already has a sorry record of imprisoning innocent people.

In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention Act, known as the Mondale Act (after Walter Mondale), which promised large amounts of federal funds to states to stop what was called an "epidemic" of child abuse. It was not long afterwards that individuals began to be charged with almost unbelievable crimes of sexual molestation, especially at day care centers. From the McMartin case in Manhattan Beach, California, to the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey, to the alleged "sex ring" in Wenatchee, Washington, dozens of people were rounded up, tried in what could only be called kangaroo courts, and sentenced to multiple life terms.

(To prove that there is some justice in the court systems — at least at the state level — most of those convictions have been overturned on appeal, as appellate judges systematically pointed out that most of the defendants did not come close to receiving fair trials, that the prosecution coached witnesses and suborned perjury, and generally created witch hunt conditions.)

Unfortunately, the spirit of the Mondale Act lives on, as state officials in Maryland are constantly urging individuals to spy on one another. This creates an atmosphere that is hardly conducive to justice, and makes individuals vulnerable to the whims of others. For example, if a neighbor decides he does not like my children (or me), all it takes is an anonymous call on the state "hotline" to turn our lives upside down.

Nor is the "spy on your neighbor" mentality only found in Maryland. The infamous Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program encourages children to turn in their parents for smoking marijuana, and state authorities have destroyed more than a few families under this program. (The authorities don’t tell the children that they want to put their parents in jail, just that they want to "help" them. By the time the truth comes out, it generally is too late and the children realize that the government has hoodwinked them.)

As in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s U.S.S.R., the government depended upon "vigilant" citizens to spy on others. While it may be necessary at times for someone to report real incidents of child abuse or neglect, what is currently going on in this country goes way beyond the bounds of necessity. The purpose of creating "spy nation" is not to protect children, but to make sure that everyone is properly intimidated by government authorities.

While my wife and I will make sure that we never leave our boys unattended in the van again, we also understand all too well that no matter how good a job of parenting we may do, the state may have another agenda. Please keep in mind that a "nanny state" actually is nothing more than a "police state." In the end, there is no difference.

September 15, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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