Russell Madden is a communications instructor at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Extortion has always been a favorite activity of governmental agencies. Ordinarily, threatening someone with harm unless he accedes to another’s demands is rightfully a crime. Whether the perpetrator is a neighbor seeking to use your lawn mower or an organized-crime thug reminding you to pay your monthly “protection fee,” such behavior is condemned and prosecuted rigorously. No normal person enjoys having his desires thwarted or his values seized against his wishes.

Webster’s dictionary says that to extort is “a) to wrest or wring (money, information, etc.) from a person by violence, intimidation, or abuse of authority; obtain by force, torture, threat, or the like, b) to take illegally under color of office.”

What can a citizen do in the second instance, when the extortionist knocking at his door is someone whose job it is to protect him from that very crime? Unfortunately, in today’s political reality, legal extortion is the guiding principle that authorities at all levels of government practice with enthusiasm. Few citizens realize precisely what is occurring when the state shakes them down. Typically, a property owner or business owner is required to comply with government demands in return for being permitted to engage in some activity. Compliance, in other words, is the payment for protection from state prohibition. This type of theft does them far more damage, results in a much greater loss of wealth, and diminishes their freedom to a greater extent than all the criminals currently preying on honest citizens.

At a local level, such extortion manifests itself in myriad rules, regulations, taxes, permits, and demands for compliance. A person’s property becomes not a resource to be used by him in furthering his personal goals and values, but an extension of “public” property, to be controlled, limited, or expropriated according to the whims and preferences of whoever directs the agents of the state.

A Man’s Home Is No Longer His Castle

Building codes force a homeowner to construct or remodel his house—his property—in alignment with the judgment of a government-certified “expert.” Regardless of whether an individual prefers to add certain safety devices or use particular materials, the building inspector dictates what is acceptable or not. Where a property owner can site his home; whether he can have an office or run a business on his property; whether he can rent out a room to a boarder; where he may plant a tree or cut one down; how many cars (of a certain age) he may park in his own drive; whether he may build at all—the number of ways that government may require compliance from citizens is nearly limitless. And if a homeowner has the misfortune of purchasing a property designated as “historical,” esthetics alone (that is, the aesthetic choices of strangers who did nothing to help the individual purchase his property) can force him to use a certain color paint, erect only certain styles of fencing, or alter the looks of the house according to narrowly delimited standards. Whether one can afford such changes or even likes the results of these demands is irrelevant. The homeowner complies—or else. . . .

Developers and entrepreneurs are likewise politely assaulted by those government officials who demand certain perks or benefits. For every new house built, a municipality may demand a small fee to be delivered into the city or county coffers. The officials may require that a certain portion of land be set aside for parks, trails, and playgrounds or placed into a land bank to “preserve the natural environment.” If the builder resists or attempts to negotiate a more acceptable situation, the government agency may simply state, “Do it our way or we’ll just take the property we want through eminent domain.” (The government prefers the first course; a taking under eminent domain requires “just compensation,” according to the U.S. Constitution.)

Other agencies may interfere with an entrepreneur in order to have him locate his business in an area with a particular racial make-up. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board recently told Louisiana Energy Services (LES) that its license for a new uranium enrichment plant would require “further study.” Why? The board feared the selection of the site may have been influenced by racial considerations and might result in “environmental injustice,” that is, subjecting black residents to more pollution than white residents, even though the regulators had earlier declared the plant safe. Had LES chosen a predominantly white location, perhaps it would not have been threatened with the termination of its $855 million plans. Refusal to knuckle under to the intimidation may result in denial of permission to build. In other instances, business owners who violate “environmental” laws such as wetlands regulations face financial ruin and even imprisonment. The message is clear: “Do it our way—or else. . . .”

Officially Reviled Businesses

If a businessman creates products that are under official censure or that suffer from public distaste, the extortion rises to new levels. Tobacco companies are threatened with ruinous Medicaid litigation and potential prohibition of their product though they have violated no laws. Various draconian demands are made on them. The extortion attempt is eagerly joined by nearly every state and supported by the federal government. Then the extortion is compounded by the demand for billions of dollars in return for immunity from litigation.

Beer and liquor manufacturers are heavily taxed and regulated. Where and what hours they can sell their products, what information they can place on their labels, and how much alcohol they can put in their products are all determined by those who have no financial stake in the success or failure of the business. Perhaps not too far down the line those who produce “junk” food, dairy or meat products, or even “gas- guzzling” sports vehicles will be required to pay protection money as well. They’ll quickly learn that if they refuse “protection,” there will be no product to sell at all.

Cities, counties, states, and the federal government save their boldest attempts at extortion for the realm of income taxation. Adding insult to injury, they have the audacity to label their actions with an Orwellian usage of the term voluntary. Because the men with the guns rarely come directly to your door, the politicians and their minions pretend that no violence, intimidation, or threats are involved in getting you to surrender your property. Every year more than a trillion of dollars are quietly extorted from those who have earned that money. Each of those dollars represents time stolen from the owners, a partial enslavement, another retreat from the freedom each citizen has as his right. Of course, in addition to the income tax, there are sales taxes, property taxes (used primarily to support schools whether you have children or not), estate taxes, luxury taxes, employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment), and excise taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, and alcohol. Indeed, almost no human activity is exempt from such extortion. An individual may voluntarily “choose” not to pay certain taxes, but the “or else” in these cases does not pay even lip service to due process. Without a court order or a trial, the Internal Revenue Service can seize a person’s bank account, padlock his business, garnishee his wages, or sell his property to satisfy a tax debt. The implicit threat: pay the IRS whatever it claims you owe it—or else. . . .

These examples of officially sanctioned extortion could be extended indefinitely. Every behavior a citizen engages in only under the threat of punishment, every peaceful action he avoids due to official intimidation, every bit of property or time surrendered at the literal or figurative point of the government’s guns represents an abuse of his freedom and rights, a denial of his moral autonomy, an initiation of violence that proclaims that neither his life nor his property are truly his. Every citizen who seeks to cash in on that booty, every person who demands that his neighbor conform to his wishes, every individual who clamors for what he did not earn contributes to an atmosphere that permits, condones, and even encourages expanding legal extortion.

An honest person does not seek to enrich himself at the expense of his fellows. A moral person does not claim that his desires or his needs establish a claim on the time, wealth, or property of a neighbor. A person of integrity does not abhor extortion on an individual level while encouraging it on a social plane.

As a culture and most especially as individuals, we need to recognize extortion, whatever its guise, and categorically reject it. The consequences of failing to root out and eliminate such attitudes are too grave to ignore. We either increase freedom and respect for property rights—or else. . . .