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Book Review: Shakedown


Shakedown: How the Government Screws You from A to Z
by James Bovard (New York: Viking, 1995); 132 pages; $14.95.

So you think you are free! So you think that you possess certain constitutional rights that safeguard your liberty from abusive intrusion from the oppressive hand of government!

Well, think again!

Most of us believe that we have freedom of speech. A newspaper was sued by a fair-housing service on Long Island for permitting the use of the word “professional” in employment want ads; it was claimed that “professional” was a racist code word. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission declared that classified ads for apartment roommates in newspapers could not specify whether a male or female roommate was preferred; this was declared to represent sexual discrimination. Real estate agents in Chicago were told that they could not describe houses or apartments for sale with the terms “walk-in closets” or “master bedroom”; it seems that these words implied discrimination against people in wheelchairs and slavery of people of color.

Most of us believe that we are safe in our own home from unwarranted invasion. On the basis of dubious tips by informants, federal and local police agents have done some of the following, usually in the name of the war on drugs: Boston police broke into the home of a 75-year-old retired minister, pushed him to the floor, and handcuffed him; he had a heart attack and died within minutes (no drugs were found in the man’s home). In Everett, Washington, a police SWAT team rammed their way into the apartment of a mother of a 6-year-old girl, looking for her husband; even as she obeyed instructions to get down, she was shot in the throat and died in two minutes (later a judge determined that the charges against her husband were false).

In Seattle, Washington, police broke into an apartment hoping to make a drug bust; the occupant of the apartment was fatally shot while sitting on the couch, when a policemen came in and saw a TV remote control in the man’s hand (no drugs were found in the apartment).

Scary? It should be. Because this is your government-the U.S. government. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you couldn’t put down James Bovard’s earlier book, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty , then view his new book, Shakedown: How Government Screws You from A to Z , as an update on what an out-of-control government is doing in America. Bovard takes you on a surrealist journey through contemporary America, in which governments at all levels-local, state and national-lie, cheat, steal, intimidate, regulate, violate, and even kill. And very rarely is it stopped.

James Bovard’s style is unique. He neither preaches nor emotionally condemns. He does something much more effective-he lets the facts speak for themselves. Under each heading he discusses, he merely recounts the record of actual cases of government tyranny and abuse. Whether it be asset-forfeiture laws that enable the government to steal your house, your car, and your bank account under the flimsiest of excuses and suspicions; or the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for children, in which the young are trained to spy and inform on their parents.

Or Food and Drug Administration regulations that retard the marketing of life-saving medicines and prevent pharmaceutical companies from informing doctors or patients about uses and applications for various medications because the FDA hasn’t approved them.

Or zoning laws, historic preservation acts, or wetlands regulations that in fact impair or destroy people’s right to use or improve their own property.

Or entrapment schemes devised by law-enforcement agencies to entice innocent people to break the law so police records for numbers of arrests or convictions can look good; or acts of police brutality of citizens that are then covered up by fellow law-enforcement agents; or drug busts in which narcotic agents practically force people to buy drugs from them, with drugs manufactured by police departments.

Or the Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it a crime to refuse to hire or fire someone due to his being thought of as a physical danger to others in a workplace-to fire or refuse to hire such a person is a violation of antidiscrimination laws; or laws that restrict contacts that employees with contagious diseases have with members of the public-to restrain their contact with the public would be a violation of their “rights” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In each of these instances, Bovard’s straightforward, “just-the facts, ma’m” exposition leaves the reader shocked, angry, and dumbfounded about the degree to which the American people are already and increasingly unfree.

In his famous essay The Law , the 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out the growing danger of “legal plunder.” Bastiat explained how legal plunder could be identified: “All you have to do is to see whether the law takes from some what belongs to them in order to give it to others to whom it does not belong. We must see whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen and to the detriment of others, an act which that citizen could not perform himself without being guilty of a crime. Repeal such a law without delay,” Bastiat warned. “[I]f you don’t take care, what begins by being an exception tends to become general, to multiply itself, and to develop into a veritable system.”

Through the increasing institutionalizing of legal plunder, the very notion of law is perverted. Rather than a social force for the protection of each individual’s right to his life, liberty, and property, the law is twisted into an oppressive machine for legitimized theft. Everyone comes to view the state as the means by which he can obtain what he wants at someone else’s expense.

Are we not now the victims of the systemic legal plunder that Bastiat warned about? Government agencies tell us what words we may use, because others may find them offensive. The police agencies meant to protect life and property break down our doors, threaten our lives, and sometimes kill us for invalid reasons. Government bureaus confiscate our property, steal our money, and threaten us with imprisonment or financial ruin in the courts if we try to reclaim what is ours. Regulatory agencies tell us how to live, what medications we may take to maintain our lives, and what means of defense we may use to protect ourselves and our loved ones from crime and violent harm. Government departments dictate the uses and improvements we can make on our own property.

And this is just to name a few of the forms of legal plundering under which Americans live their lives today!

Shakedown is a warning signal about just how bad the situation has become. Be sure to read it, memorize many of the horror stories Mr. Bovard recounts, and pass the warning on. Our freedom may depend upon it.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).