The seizure by the state of assets connected to crime is a controversial subject. Asset forfeiture’s proponents—mainly law-enforcement agencies—view it as essential to fighting crime (especially the drug trade), because it deprives wrongdoers of the fruits of their illicit activities. Civil libertarians worry about the lack of due process for criminal defendants and the danger of official abuse of this crime-fighting tool.
My buddy Chris DeMuth and I are about to embark upon a long-term research project on fines, settlements, and fees collected by federal agencies. If we manage to pull it off, you’ll hear more about it.
Why would otherwise sentient humans volunteer for such a green-eyeshades program? Because the government itself doesn’t collect the data—not in one place, and very often not at all; and it doesn’t keep tabs on the spending, either. To paraphrase a leading public finance expert (the late Robert Palmer), the trend is irresistible—and there’s no telling where the money went. It appears, though, that a bunch of federal agencies have become profit centers for Congress. Our working hypothesis is that that’s bound to have incentive effects throughout the government. None of them, we suspect, are likely to be good.