Freedom Frauds: Hard Lessons in American Liberty by James Bovard (Future of Freedom, 2017), 184 pages.
James Bovard has been a thorn in the side of the statists for decades. His books and columns have exposed the incompetence, hypocrisy, arrogance, and sheer venality of the American political class much as H.L. Mencken did in the early part of the 20th century. Like Mencken, Bovard cuts right through the mind-numbing slogans, deceptions, and outright lies they use to wheedle the support of clueless voters. To read Bovard is to get the antidote for the poison of government propaganda. Once you’ve read him, you can think clearly about the state.
One of the complaints that “mainstream” writers level against libertarians is that they cause people to distrust government and lose their faith in democracy. To that supposed crime, Bovard must plead guilty. Ordinary people, he shows again and again, should distrust government because it is primarily devoted to enriching those who know how to take advantage of its power to coerce, and they should not have any faith in democracy because it has become a smokescreen covering a vast array of violence and theft. This book demolishes the notion that government — from the local cops to the president of the United States — operates in the public interest.
Freedom Frauds is a collection of Bovard’s columns written in the 1990s and up until 2017. They cover a wide range of topics including war, regulations, government “jobs” programs, police lawlessness, eminent domain, and tax laws and their abuse. The common thread running throughout is that the state and its minions are enemies of people who just want to live their lives in peace.
Early in the book we learn that Bovard came to his radically anti-statist views gradually. He grew up in Virginia, in a conservative family, participated in the Boy Scouts, supported the Vietnam War because it was against the terrible commies, and accepted the standard civics textbook depiction of the greatness of American democracy. But once he was old enough to work, Bovard started to realize that government worked more like a conspiracy to mulct the productive for the benefit of the unproductive. One of my favorite essays is entitled “How I Learned Not to Shovel.”
In it, he writes, “I learned a lot about the nature of government work during the summer I spent on the payroll of the Virginia Highway Department, digging postholes, cutting brush, and, best of all, wielding a chainsaw — an experience that proved invaluable for my future work as a journalist…. For some reason, I was usually assigned to the crew renowned as the biggest slackers. Working slowly to slipshod standards was their code of honor. Anyone who worked harder was viewed as a menace.”
Another thing Bovard learned from that highway work related to the war on drugs. He discovered that many of the prisoners who were compelled work on road crews were not truly criminals at all, but rather were just ordinary people who had been put behind bars for harmless drug offenses. The state treated those men as demons but Bovard understood that they were “human beings who had transgressed an arbitrary line between licit and illicit conduct.” What he learned about the waste and evils of government that summer would later prove invaluable to him.
Throughout the book, Bovard gives readers penetrating insights into what we call “law enforcement.” The problem is that those who enforce the law often trample the rights to life, liberty, and property of the very people they are supposedly sworn to protect. The police, he makes clear, have their own incentives that often work contrary to freedom and justice for the citizenry. The instances Bovard cites range from the merely annoying (for example, police quotas for DUI arrests, which lead to harassing stops of many perfectly sober drivers) to lethal encounters such as that of Eric Garner, who died of a heart attack, very likely induced by a chokehold by a New York police officer during an arrest for selling individual cigarettes.
The really disturbing news is that the police are rarely held to account, even for murder. For instance, FBI agent Lon Horiuchi shot and killed Randy Weaver’s wife (while she was holding their baby) in the infamous Ruby Ridge, Idaho, case, but was never punished. Federal officials pulled out all the stops to make certain that Horiuchi went free. Something is badly awry in a country where government agents can harass and even kill innocent people. Conservative “law and order” types who are inclined to automatically believe that law enforcement officials are “good guys” who are dedicated to protecting the people will have to come to grips with the strong evidence Bovard amasses to the contrary.
Falling in between harassing highway stops and lethal shootings or chokings is a host of police abuse that Bovard exposes. Consider, e.g., civil-asset forfeiture, the practice of seizing private property from its owner based solely on suspicion that the property was somehow involved in or the fruit of criminal activity. After the police grab the property, it is up to the owner to fight through a maze of legal procedures that are stacked against him to prove his innocence and recover the property.
Bovard recounts the idiotic case Bennis v. Michigan in which a woman’s car was seized because it was “involved” in a crime. What crime? Her estranged husband had taken the vehicle for a liaison with a prostitute. Obviously, Bennis herself had done nothing wrong and her car couldn’t be guilty of anything. It seems like something out of Alice in Wonderland until Bovard explains that police budgets are padded when they sell forfeited property. Why bother with the dangerous work of fighting true crime when nailing someone for a non-crime to seize lucrative property can pay off so nicely?
And before leaving the subject of private property, Bovard excoriates government for another category of offenses — eminent domain. Perhaps unwisely, the Constitution grants government the power to take private property by eminent domain, provided that just compensation is paid and the land will be put to some public use. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court opened the door to abuse of eminent domain in 1954 when it ruled in Berman v. Parker that land confiscation just for beautification was permissible. With that precedent, local officials began seizing large tracts of land, usually from poorer people so that know-it-all planning elites could redesign cities. The result was “urban renewal” projects in cities great and small, which did grave damage to their social fabric, unleashing a wave of homelessness and violence.
Bovard correctly notes, “The combination of the Court’s acceptance of legislatures’ definition of the public interest and its deference toward government agencies’ interpretation of laws creates an overwhelming bias against citizens who are seeking relief from government oppression.” Indeed so — just ask Susette Kelo, whose modest home was taken so that New London, Connecticut, officials could hand a large tract of land over to a company (Pfizer Chemicals) just because Pfizer would presumably pay more in taxes than the homeowners did. That eminent-domain case ended when the Supreme Court sided with government planners, ruling that they could use eminent domain as long as they claimed that the public will somehow benefit from a land seizure.
By that point, Bovard probably has “liberals” who believe in the beneficence of government planning feeling uneasy.
Bovard never pulls any punches, but arguably his strongest attacks are against politicians who say they are advancing or protecting our freedom, when in fact they are undermining it.
First, he blasts Franklin Roosevelt for “telling people that control of their lives was a mirage; thus they lost nothing when government took over.” Especially damaging was his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, where he claimed that people deserve freedom from want. That notion, Bovard writes, “liberated government while making a pretense of liberating the citizen.” Roosevelt later expanded on that statist idea by declaring in 1944, “True individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.” Ever since, presidents of both major parties have justified increased federal domination over Americans as necessary to provide everyone with economic security. “Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech provides a push-button invocation for any U.S. president who wants to sound as though he cares about liberty,” Bovard writes.
The idea that you aren’t really free unless you have been guaranteed financial security by the state may sound reasonable, but it is very pernicious. It steals from the productive and turns the needy into dependents. Bovard attacks it straight on: “Faith in welfare state freedom depends on a political myopia that focuses on only one side of the ledger of government action. It measures freedom according to how much government does for people and totally ignores what government does to people…. In an age of unprecedented prosperity, government tax policies have turned the average citizen’s life into a financial struggle and ensured that he will likely become a ward of the state in his last decades.”
Moreover, fraudulent freedom language is often used by presidents when they want public support for foreign military adventures. George W. Bush was particularly brazen in that regard, arguing that the terrorists “hate us for our freedom” and therefore the United States must fight wars in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan so that Americans can remain free. All a president needs to say is that we are fighting for freedom and off go thousands of American soldiers to kill and be killed in remote parts of the globe. Bovard acidly writes, “Bush freedom was based on boundless trust in the righteousness of the rulers and all their actions. Bush offered Americans the same type of freedom that paternalist kings offered their subjects in distant eras. But Bush’s supposedly lofty intentions were no substitute for the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Thanks to the way our presidents have undermined the rule of law and debased the language, we are gradually losing our freedom; it “is destroyed piecemeal, one emergency edit at a time and with continual public assurances that the government does not intend to go any further — unless absolutely forced to by events beyond its control,” our author accurately observes.
Of course, such events keep occurring and government power keeps expanding. It isn’t our savior; it isn’t our friend — it’s our enemy.
I would love to send every American a copy of Freedom Frauds, but if I could select only one group, I would send it to young people. Let them get a true understanding of the nature of government at an early age — before all the political messaging and deception takes hold of their minds. Guarding against that is the inestimable value of Bovard’s book.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition in Future of Freedom.