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Book Review: Feeling Your Pain

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Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years
by James Bovard (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); 426 pages; $26.95.

WHEN THE HISTORY of the last decade of the 20th century is written sometime in the future, chroniclers of the 1990s will probably, at first, be tempted to emphasize the apparent triumphs of freedom around the globe. They will point to the end of the Soviet Union, the revival of democratic government in Eastern Europe, the successes (in spite of a severe recession) of the “little tiger” economies of East Asia, the abandonment of the planning ideal in Africa and South America, and the attempt at political and economic unification in Western and Central Europe.

When these future historians turn to the United States, they probably will point to an amazing economic expansion that incorporated a phenomenal technological revolution and to dramatic growth both in employment and in output of increasingly better and less-expensive goods and services. Overshadowing America’s prosperity, alas, these chroniclers of tomorrow will point out, were some peculiar and bizarre scandals surrounding the White House. A president of the United States, for only the second time in the country’s history, had been impeached.

But beneath the surface of this seemingly free and prosperous America, these historians of the future will have missed much about the United States of the 1990s if they do not consult the series of important books written by James Bovard, who has been America’s muckraker par excellence during the last decade. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines a muckraker as one who searches for and exposes real or alleged corruption and scandal, especially in politics. The same dictionary explains that to be corrupt means to be without integrity or to act without regard to honor, right, or justice.

The decade of the 1990s was an epoch not only without honor, right, or justice in the personal conduct of those in the highest political offices in the United States. It was a decade that also witnessed an accelerated corruption of the institutions that were meant to preserve and secure the liberty of the American people. Bovard has recorded every facet of government’s corruption of freedom in his books Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty; Shakedown: How the Government Screws You from A to Z; and Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen. (Links lead to reviews of these works in Freedom Daily, November 1994, January 1996, and June 1999, respectively.)

Now, once more, Bovard has set his pen to paper to summarize the disastrous consequences of government on the American people, especially during the last years of the administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Feeling Your Pain tells the sad and sorry story of how, in the name of power, privilege, and prejudice, political power has been used to leave not one corner of American life free from the deadly hand of state intervention, control, and abuse.

The word “deadly” has been used intentionally because government power has not only cost Americans portions of their freedom but their lives as well. As part of the U.S. government’s war on drugs, Bovard explains, police powers have been used to violate people’s property rights by entering their homes without clear proof of wrongdoing. In these illegal assaults, innocent Americans have been killed and physically abused; and rather than admit their errors and mistakes, federal and state law-enforcement agencies have rationalized their conduct in the name of fighting drug use. “No-knock raids at wrong addresses have become a national scandal,” he says. “Once local governments militarize the police, they find more and more pretexts to send in the troops, if for nothing else than to keep people in place.”

Equally harmful to the life, property, and tranquility of the American people has been the conduct of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS considers itself a power unto itself, unrestrained and uncontrolled by any high authority, including the Congress and the courts. Bovard quotes from an IRS training film in which the instructor tells the government’s tax collectors:

Make them cry. We don’t get points around here for being good scouts.. Seizure and sales. That’s our mind-set…. If you’ve got an assessment, enforce collection until they come to their knees.

Another tool to destroy the lives of Americans is asset-forfeiture laws, under which government law-enforcement agencies have the authority to seize and confiscate cash and property under the suspicion of illegal conduct. In 1998, Bovard reports, the U.S. Justice Department grabbed private property equal in value to more than $600 million. A major rationale for the government to confiscate cash being carried by Americans into or out of the United States is that the possession of any large sum of money must be a demonstration of evil intent by the possessor.

But equally important to the government is the idea that it has the sovereign right to control the use and physical transfer of money. Said a Clinton administration brief before the Supreme Court: “The government has an overriding sovereign right in controlling what property leaves and enters this country.” Bovard reminds his readers that “this was not a legal doctrine that the Founding Fathers remembered to include in the Constitution.” Even worse, the Supreme Court has upheld the government’s claimed right to do so.

In the arena of commerce, the Clinton administration fought a never-ending war against inexpensive imports from poor Third World countries or former Soviet-bloc nations trying to recover from decades of socialist central planning.

And behind each protectionist imposition, Bovard details, was some domestic special interest fearful of the competition of those attempting to escape from poverty by offering to the American consumer lower-priced goods than their American rivals.

A devious tool in this anti-competitive game, he explains, is the anti-dumping rationale based on the government’s arbitrarily calculating what it considers unfair pricing of goods below cost of production.

Another domestic policy disaster that Bovard chronicles is the actions of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trumped-up charges of racial discrimination in unfairly extending home loans in a manner that has supposedly locked out minority groups from access to the funds to buy homes have been used to extort tens of millions of dollars from mortgage companies and banks.

HUD has even set up a “word police” that investigates the phrasing of home and apartment rental ads in newspapers. He quotes a North Dakota newspaper that pointed out, “You can’t say your apartment is ‘near the university,’ because it implies you’ll only rent to students. You can’t say it’s ‘in the Cathedral District,’ even if that’s what it’s called, because it implies you’ll rent only to religious folks. You can’t advertise that your place is ‘in a quiet neighborhood’ because it suggests children aren’t welcome.” He also records the disastrous public-housing policies that have ruined communities and decent places for low-income groups to live in.

These examples of the areas of government policy that Bovard lays bare give only a small sample of everything he chronicles in his book. Entire chapters are devoted to farm subsidies; the outlandish results from the Americans with Disabilities Act; the stranglehold of federal environmental laws that have reduced private property rights to less than scraps of paper; the government’s war on the American people’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment; the government’s mass murder of men, women, and children at Waco and the killings at Ruby Ridge; the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s misuse and fabrication of evidence to prosecute and imprison innocent citizens; and the U.S. government’s terror bombings during its war on Yugoslavia.

If future historians ever wonder why and how it was that freedom continued to lose ground in America in the years leading up to the 21st century, they will need to look no further than the invaluable muckraking histories of our times that have been provided by James Bovard.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly 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).