A Modest Proposal on Asset Forfeiture

Fenster writes:

I don’t know if you have followed the issue of asset forfeiture in these United States.  It is a situation that smells something rotten.

You may know that the law often allows police or other authorities to keep the ill-gotten gains from a criminal transaction.  That’s bad enough as far as creating a financial incentive.  But the moral hazard is serious enough that police often take assets when no criminal action has been shown to have occurred, or if the owner of the asset was not aware of the crime.  Spending sprees are known to result as well.

Here’s a fun John Oliver rant on it.

Reform efforts are underway–slowly, slowly considering the opposition of law enforcement, which appears to now be addicted.

Serious reform efforts attempt to block police from spending sprees.  In my state, Massachusetts, it appears that reform is more modest, and limited to reporting, presumably under the doctrine of sunlight being a good disinfectant.  That’s pretty weak tea.

So–speaking of modest proposals, here is one of my own: if it is currency burn it, at least any amount above and beyond administrative overhead for managing the asset forfeiture process.

Start with a distinction between a hard asset, like a car and a house, and currency.  The former is real.  The latter is not.  Currency is in fact nothing other than a convention we have established such that the rightful owner can store value for the acquisition of real things at a later date.  It is a shared symbol, and has legitimacy not only out of habit but out of the shared belief that the owner of the symbol has undertaken legal action, like labor, that entitles that person to store value until a later date when a real asset or real services may be obtained.

It is for the latter reason–the legitimacy of ownership of a claim on future resources–that we deny lawbreakers their ill-gotten gains.  But what then entitles the authorities to gain access to the symbolic shared value of the currency seized?

Should it not just be destroyed?  Nothing of real value will be destroyed in the process.  The only thing that will go up in smoke is paper.  And the only real world effect would be that the authorities would not be able to avail themselves of what amounts to free assets and services.

So I can see no conceptual justification for the transfer of symbolic assets generated in illicit ways to allow for free purchase of goods and services.  Nothing of value is destroyed in the destruction of that currency–it is only the free purchase of goods and services later that is halted.  And beyond the conceptual justification is a practical one too: the complete elimination of the moral hazard of financial incentive. I daresay that when the financial incentive is gone the temptation to what amounts to theft will be greatly diminished.


NOTE: Since the blog posting I corresponded with the ACLU of Massachusetts.  A representative confirmed that the legislative initiative here amounts to baby steps.  But as to my idea about currency obliteration:

Currency in the U.S. has legitimacy in the sense that the U.S. Treasury does know how much currency is in circulation and it is a crime to destroy currency. That is why all currency has serial numbers. We could not have police departments destroying currency as if it were paper – because they do not operate in a bubble and that currency is attached to and accounted for in our financial measurements as a country. Additionally, we would be adding another level of problems with additional corruption when money that should have been destroyed ends up back in circulation due to theft and other issues of corruption.

So it appears my modest proposal has about the same legs as Jonathan Swift’s.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Politics and Economics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Modest Proposal on Asset Forfeiture

  1. Zimriel says:

    But it’s not paper, exactly. Since it became unmoored from the gold standard it became equity.


    • Fenster says:

      I see your point. I will grant you that it is more than just paper in that sense–that it represents not only shared agreement on stored value but a kind of shared interest in the economy as a whole. But it is still a different thing from a hard asset. And equity remains a kind of convention.

      Let’s say a person paid a drug dealer in actual equities–stock in a publicly held corporation. That would be a close parallel to your concept of currency as equity.

      I think even in that case you could argue that the stock should be burned,or retired. The shares, while abstract, represent by societal convention a slice of ownership in an enterprise. Also by convention, we have agreed that when an illegal act takes place and a person holds such ownership shares due to that act they are not entitled to the benefit of the equity. What has happened is that one societal convention (the criminal law) has stranded the ownership thread established by another societal convention (corporate law).

      The main idea remains in place: equity ownership, whether in the overall economy or a firm, needs be legitimized via some recognizable theory of ownership. The law strips that away from the drug dealer and at that point the ownership is I think in limbo–until such time that another law comes into place awarding the equity to the cops. But that’s my point: under what “equitable” theory is that award made? Finders keepers? Possession is 9/10th? We need a new assault vehicle?

      Granted the law is a ass and can say what it wants. And right now it seems to want to say that the cops get to keep the money. And that the “equity” survives in some fashion, despite the fact that the criminal law has left it stranded. I personally think that since it has been stranded, there is no one to fairly return the ownership to, and that the claim ought to vanish–that is to say, the economy (or the firm) would have one fewer external claim against it.


  2. Horace says:

    I understand your position. I’ll suggest one of my own. Do not provide any money for administration and place all money gained, including money from the sale of tangible assets, into a fund to help victims of crimes. Perhaps start with victims of the specific criminal, if known, but then expand to victims of other crimes who had not been made whole.


    • Fenster says:

      That’s very sensible and a number of reform ideas go down this road of funding crime victim compensation. It is a way of connecting the equity back to the original owner if you will and doing it in a way such that the objects of eventual expenditure bear some sort of connection to the reason the equity was severed from its nominal owner in the first place–crime. That to me is wholly satisfactory.

      Burning the money is too in a way though the spirit in which the Modest Proposal was made owes more to Trump than Swift: overstate, overstate, toujours overstate.


  3. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Patriactionary and commented:
    Fenster raises an interesting and IMO important moral / ethical question.

    I’m inclined to agree with commenter Horace at the original post.


  4. Pingback: Possible Good News on Civil Asset Forfeiture | Uncouth Reflections

  5. Pingback: More Good News on Asset Forfeiture | Uncouth Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s