The principle that each citizen should receive equal treatment by the legal system of this country enjoys a long tradition of respect. The notion that no one is to be dealt with in either a preferential or prejudiced manner by the police, courts, or other governmental agencies is enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson declared "that all men are created equal" in terms of their basic societal rights. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that all people will have "the equal protection of the laws."
Few people would object to these ideals. Indeed, when the occasional celebrity is acquitted of a crime seemingly due to social prominence or wealth, a general outcry arises that the system is "broken" or has been "subverted." Others worry that members of certain racial or ethnic groups receive excessive attention from the police or more severe punishments than do individuals from other groups. The sense of outrage and disgust generated in such cases demonstrates the level of general commitment to the fact that in this one area, at least, special favors and unfair penalties are anathema in a society dedicated to justice.
Unfortunately, this principle is rapidly forgotten or overlooked once the issues move beyond our courts. In some very basic realms of life, the notion of "equality before the law" was long ago abandoned and relegated to the cobwebs of history. What is even more (sadly) ironic is that many of these violations of justice have been perpetrated in the name of a distorted idea of "fairness." Both state and federal legislatures continue this subversion in a spiraling number of areas and with increasingly minute control.
Business owners form one of the prime targets for inequality in the way our laws are crafted and enforced. Despite the fact that this nation is nominally a capitalist country, those creative and dedicated souls who create, manage, and expand the businesses upon which the vast majority of us depend for our livelihoods and our constantly improving lifestyles are perhaps the most vilified of any group.
Various reasons for this animosity have been advanced: the envy or greed of those who see wealth they do not possess but wish to obtain; an underlying altruistic ethics which denounces anything done for "selfish" reasons; a wide streak of collectivism (nurtured by Marxists and others) which views capitalism as inherently exploitative and evil; or the misguided actions of citizens who mistake the problems arising from governmental controls as originating with those who are controlled.
Whatever the sources for the disdain heaped upon the practitioners of capitalism, those feelings have been translated into innumerable laws and regulations designed to single these individuals out for selective restraints. In the Nineteenth Century, men such as J. D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and J. J. Hill were labeled as "Robber Barons," implying none too subtly that they stole their wealth from the American people. One result of the vehemence directed against these productive men was the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.
What is important here is not that these men improved the quality of American life; not that non-coercive monopolies are no threat to our economy; and not that historians have distorted the contributions of the industrialists who helped build this land. The point is that laws regulating monopolies; dealing with the production of food and drugs (the Food and Drug Administration); specifying the use of chemicals and other substances affected by manufacturing (the Environmental Protection Agency); determining working conditions (Occupational Safety and Health Administration); deciding how airlines will conduct their operations (the Federal Aviation Administration); establishing the conditions for buying and selling stocks (the Securities and Exchange Commission); stipulating how goods and services can be advertised (the Federal Trade Commission); delineating the ways in which employers may deal with employees (the National Labor Relations Board; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission); defining the quantity of goods a farmer may sell (the United States Department of Agriculture); or designating when and where a government-issued license or certification is necessary in order to open or conduct a business; all of these examples discriminate against those involved in commerce.
Unlike citizens in other aspects of their lives, business operators are not free to act according to their own best judgment and then face legal entanglements only if and/or when they are suspected of violating someone's rights. No, our politicians believe that without up-front restrictions on what business owners can and cannot do, they will run rough shod over the customers upon whom they depend for the survival of their enterprises. While ordinarily people are granted the presumption of innocence, those running businesses are, in essence, assumed to be guilty and thus deserving of control before they have even produced or sold their first widget.
The kinds of rules and demands under which they are forced to operate amount to a kind of prior restraint; an illegal approach in other contexts. For example, compare this with writers working under the protection of the First Amendment. The government is forbidden from scrutinizing a newspaper, magazine, or book prior to publication and preventing its distribution. No such scruples, however, are evident in the zeal of federal and state agencies in probing into every aspect of a business's operation and dictating what is proper or improper in its activities.
The fact that taxation is legalized theft would, in and of itself, be sufficient to condemn it on moral grounds. Even granted that such policies will not soon disappear, however, there is the blatantly discriminatory way in which the income tax is operated.
So-called "progressive" taxation has been an integral part of the income tax code since its inception in 1913. Under this scheme, wealthier and more productive citizens are singled out for special punishment. While earlier maximum tax rates of ninety-percent have declined, they still approach forty-percent today. This Marxist notion of "fairness" flies in the face of the evident fact that different tax rates are applied to different classes of people. The only "equality" involved in this instance is that with the income tax, the rights of every working person are transgressed every time he receives a paycheck.
Beyond the progressive nature of the tax are the innumerable and shifting deductions which are permitted...depending upon the group to which you belong. People with children receive deductions childless couples do not. Home businesses receive different treatment than those conducted elsewhere. Homeowners can deduct mortgage payments while renters cannot deduct their own housing expenses. People with low incomes may not only not pay taxes, at all, but may receive "earned income" as a bonus.
Discrimination is also evident in sales taxes when certain politically disfavored items such as cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline, or luxury goods are taxed at higher rates than other goods.
Nearly any substance or tool can be abused. A person with a gun can murder someone. A drunk may crash his car into another automobile and kill the driver. Someone high on cocaine or other drug may become aggressive or wander naked through the streets. Few people would disagree that such actions should be prohibited and punished. The problem in today's society is that laws no longer truly distinguish the innocent from those guilty individuals who transgress against others' rights. Simply by being a member of a particular, unpopular group, many people find themselves subjected to a selective restriction on their freedom.
There are tens of thousands of laws in this country restricting the ownership or use of firearms, some based on no more than the weapon's appearance rather than its function. Despite the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that states treat their citizens equally under the law, discrimination is rampant in this area. In some jurisdictions, a sheriff or judge arbitrarily determines who will or will not be permitted to carry a handgun for protection. Wealthy or prominent citizens have their requests granted while an ordinary person's life is not deemed valuable enough to justify a concealed carry permit. In Iowa, for example, it is virtually impossible in some counties to obtain such a permit while in an adjoining county, any law-abiding adult can receive one.
Yet even if permits were freely issued, the very fact that a "permit" is required to lawfully carry a weapon demonstrates the unequal treatment that gun owners receive for a constitutionally recognized and guaranteed right. A journalist or pastor would be outraged -- and rightly so -- if they had to petition for permission from a government bureaucrat in order to exercise their First Amendment rights.
The right to defend oneself -- a right far more basic than those of free expression or religious practice -- is, however, routinely and legally constrained, restricted, or rejected. Again, while there are a number of explanations that may account for this situation, the fact remains that gun owners are denied equality under the law. Though the Second Amendment clearly and unequivocally states that the right to firearms "shall not be abridged," such forthrightness escapes those who feel uninhibited in passing more and more anti-self-defense laws.
As for drugs and alcohol, our laws also single these products out for special attention. Even if you have never (and never will) abuse their use, you are -- like business owners -- presumed guilty beforehand and thus subject to tight control. Requiring prescriptions to obtain certain medical drugs; limiting how, when, and where alcohol may be produced, sold, or consumed; the outlawing of most recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin; the proliferation of drunken checkpoints on our highways; all testify to the manner in which alcohol and drug users are held up to special scrutiny.
The principle used in dealing with these substances could be stated as: "Because X can be abused by some people, everyone must be denied/restricted/regulated in using it." But, of course, this "principle" is a prescription for tyranny. Again, essentially anything can be misused: a hammer can be wielded to bash in someone's head; a pillow can be used to suffocate you; a computer can be used to hack into your bank account. None of those potential rights violations justify laws discriminating against innocent people in how they conduct their lives.
This pernicious principle is evident, as well, in the examples given in the first section of this essay. For example, because some business owners may endanger their unsuspecting workers, all business owners are subject to OSHA inspection and paperwork. Our government needs to abandon its attempts to forestall every undesirable behavior or to punish all of us for the transgressions of the few.
Laws should deal solely and exclusively with real or imminent threats to our rights and our freedoms, that is, with those people who initiate direct or indirect violence against us. Any other approach on the part of those who craft our laws can only destroy what each of us equally deserves: the full and unrestricted protection of our liberty.