Economists assume that each individual has his own preferences that guide his actions. The moral problem starts when an individual wants to force his preferences on other individuals’ choices. If, for this kind of moral sin, God had wanted to strike Steve Bannon off his horse on the road to Damascus and perhaps punish him with a nervous breakdown, He would have done exactly what He did on August 20: get Bannon arrested by federal agents on a Coast Guard boat.

Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and Trump adviser. A believer in providential or natural justice (which is of course something different from economics) might think that Bannon’s arrest was a wake-up call or punishment for his protectionist crimes, that is, conspiring to impose his own preferences by force on individuals who want to trade.

We can imagine that when Bannon saw the Coast Guard boat approaching the yacht on which he was sailing along the Connecticut coast, his nationalist heart bounced in his manly chest. He must have thought something like: “Here is our great Coast Guard tasked with keeping foreigners and their goods off our coasts (including Mexican rapists if they ever try to get around The Wall). The mighty Coast Guard is here to protect me, an American citizen.”


Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way
to Damascus (Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, the Coast Guard was there to arrest him—another instance of a military unit assuming internal police functions, the sort of thing that the Founders feared from a permanent army.

I don’t know if Bannon is guilty of the crimes he is accused of, which have not been proven in court. And I will not discuss here the economics and ethics of the plethora and reach of laws that, in America like in other Western countries, give an air of quasi-inevitability or even quasi-normalcy to the words of Lavrentiy Beria, chief of Soviet state security under Joseph Stalin: “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”

It was not the least irony of Bannon’s nationalist adventure of August 20 that the Coast Guard originated from Revenue-Marine, a service created by Congress in 1790 at the request of Alexander Hamilton with the purpose of collecting customs duties—even if, at that time, tariffs were used more to finance a small government than to protect Americans from foreign goods. As usual for a government bureaucracy, mission creep has proceeded.