TOWNSEND, Massachusetts - I live in Massachusetts where the governor and state legislature seem bent on giving new life to the moniker "Taxachusetts." Our local news headlines lately have been all about turnpike toll increases, gas tax increases, sales tax increases, and a new kind of road use tax assessed through the use of a GPS tracking device that tallies the miles a car travels over state asphalt.
Sadly, Massachusetts isn't the only place considering such a tax - known as a VMT (vehicle miles taxed). Following a pilot program, Oregon officials concluded that a VMT was a "viable" option for that state, and although the U.S. Transportation Department has said a VMT program "is not and will not be Obama administration policy," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made conflicting statements, including, "We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled."
Now, I'm not a black helicopter, Trilateral Commission-Star Chamber conspiracy theory kind of guy, but I don't like the way this is headed. So this isn't just an anti-tax rant. Rather, it's a warning about giving state and federal agencies the authority to track the comings and goings of individual citizens. Little thought is being given to the negative implications on privacy, liberty, or peoples' faith in government.
To date, the clear trend favors unfettered tracking. Government use of GPS is being tested on a number of different fronts in the courts, and the government is winning. In many states, sex offenders' movements are monitored by the use of a GPS ankle bracelet, and while a judge in Massachusetts recently ruled that a suspected sex offender cannot automatically be required to wear such a device, their use was lawful in specific instances. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin appeals court just this week ruled in favor of the warrantless attachment of GPS devices to automobiles in order to track individuals suspected of crimes, athough that court did offer the caveat that it was "more than a little troubled" by the practice. Other jurisdictions are using the devices to ensure compliance with court orders restricting the movements of offenders in domestic violence cases.
As use of GPS tracking devices moves into the realm of revenue collection, spokespeople for the state and federal agencies involved have offered verbal assurances that citizen privacy would be a primary consideration. Such acknowledgements and caveats are cold comfort for anyone who is concerned by steady governmental encroachment on individual privacy and liberty.
Some would explain away these developments as necessary in an age where the people require more protection of their public servants. Threats both foreign and domestic, they argue, lurk in every shadow and safeguarding from such dangers costs money. Technology, of course, is the cure for both ailments. It's easy, it's getting less expensive and tagging your car or boat is only nominally intrusive - until you consider where the information about where you go and what you do ends up.
I very much doubt that I am the only person who - even in a post-9/11 world - is more troubled by the imminent prospect of having Big Brother as my constant driving companion than I am at the remote chance of becoming the next victim of al Qaeda or a more mundane villain. Nor am I interested in making it any easier for Uncle Sam to gain access to my wallet.
But I also get the sense that this relentless but nevertheless quiet assault on personal liberty and "creative revenue enhancement" has inflicted a kind of societal post traumatic stress disorder on the American people. We're in a stupor and don't know how to respond, nor do we have the collective strength to respond. We've been bombarded by overhyped fear of terrorism, economic collapse, environmental disaster, and social crisis to the point where we barely put up a fight even as Congress demands trillions of our money without a clear reason why. I have to wonder: do we even care anymore?
In his Barr Code blog, former GOP congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr recently wrote of the public's waning faith in government and of how recent studies show the country is growing increasingly suspicious of its public agencies. That's, in part, Barr concludes, because the politicians and bureaucrats who staff these agencies conduct themselves as if they are above the laws they have sworn to uphold.
The many tax cheats nominated (and confirmed) for cabinet positions within the Obama Administration, along with the previous administration's penchant for secrecy, illustrate Mr. Barr's point.
When the message coming out of Washington is, "Do as I say, not as I do," and all the while the hands and eyes of government continue to probe into the personal affairs of the average Joe, it is clear that there is a disconnect between the citizens and our elected officials.
No taxation without representation was once a rallying cry against tyranny. Today it seems the Sons of Liberty have lost their voice.
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