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The Rise of Federal Police Power: Feeding the Anti-Authoritarians
By Robert Folsom | January 27, 2012

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) may be the world’s most boring topic. That I even mention it here by name runs the risk that you’ll stop reading and start clicking to another page.

But please do read on: The word “dull” does not apply to what you’re about to read. To wit, the otherwise boring CFR is behind the massive upsurge in U.S. Federal police forces in recent years — including more than 25,000 Federal cops who DO NOT work for Treasury, Justice, Defense or Homeland Security (the traditional crime-fighting departments).

Instead, they’re employed by such agencies as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (yes, NOAA is the weather service), whose assault-rifle wielding agents participated in the 2008 take-down of a Miami lady for dealing in… sea coral. The Wall Street Journal reported that the coral dealer was busted “for failing to complete paperwork for an otherwise legal transaction.” Following her dramatic arrest, she was fined $500 and placed on probation for a year.

The question of how the weather service ended up with police powers and armed agents is where the CFR comes in. Its purpose is to interpret and apply statutory law as enacted by Congress; the relevant agencies write the interpretive language and enforcement provisions that comprise the CFR.

Which is to say: The regulators themselves decide how they will interpret and apply the law. As for how applying the law with police power was granted to agencies like NOAA, the short version begins with the attacks on September 11, 2001. In turn, “when the FBI’s attention shifted to terrorism matters, Congress gave permanent [police] powers to inspectors general in more than two dozen agencies.”

And when you have police powers, you start hiring police.

The size of the CFR — and the number of Federal cops — began to multiply. In 1970 the CFR was 54,000 pages; today that number is 165,000, and the printed volumes require “27 feet of shelf space.”

Some 90 agencies now send personnel to a law enforcement training facility run by Homeland Security. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2010 “there were 12,606 prosecutions from cases investigated chiefly by agencies other than Justice, Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security. That was a 50% increase from 15 years ago.”

Federal cops and/or criminal investigators today work for the Peace Corps, the Government Printing Office, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.

A series of WSJ articles in December gave detailed examples of absurd enforcement activities against citizens who had no clue that they were committing a crime. For example, a 2005 raid of the Custer Battlefield Museum in Montana was carried out by two dozen Federal cops from various agencies who were “armed and brandishing automatic weapons,” for the crime of selling historical items under false pretenses. Agents returned in 2008 and alleged that the museum’s owner “was in illegal possession of eagle feathers.” In both cases the charges were later dropped.

The growth of Federal police powers is an unmistakable example of negative social mood driving the trend toward increasing authoritarianism. The WSJ’s reporting was good journalism, but lacked this all-important larger context.

Alan’s Hall’s essay in the April 2010 Socionomist fills that gap:

Mention authoritarianism and most people imagine its ultimate incarnation — a dictator wielding top-down control. The socionomic perspective, however, paints a fuller picture. Authoritarianism begins with a negative social mood trend, which in turn spawns a desire among some to submit to authority and among others to coerce their fellows to submit.

Yet within this trend there is indeed a flip side:

At the same time, still others, caught up in the same emotional climate, battle against authoritarianism.

You can read Alan Hall’s entire, two-part essay on this developing conflict, for free. Follow this link to learn more.

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