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Book Review: Freedom in Chains

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Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen
by James Bovard (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); 326 pages; $26.95.

Are you better off than you were 25 years ago? Listening to critics from the left, the impression would be created that Americans are experiencing a falling standard of living and facing immanent mass unemployment and a growing inequality in income and opportunity among various groups in the society.

W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, in their recent book, Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off than We Think, (Basic Books, 1999), marshal the statistical data to demonstrate that, by practically every measure, Americans at the end of the 20th century are far better off than they were both a half-century and a quarter-century ago. For example, they show that while, by standard measurements, average real wages appear to have declined in recent years, in fact real standards of living for the average American have dramatically improved. They argue that the better indicator is the rise in average levels of consumer expenditure as measured by per capita personal income adjusted for inflation. Looked at in this way, real income for the average American has increased by almost 50 percent over the last 25 years. And the actual poverty rate in the United States, by this reckoning, is negligible.

They show that the real cost of purchasing practically every good on the market has fallen significantly, if the measuring rod is the amount of work time that has to be devoted to earning enough money to buy various goods and services. Furthermore, the quality of goods has improved and the variety of new goods has increased during the last quarter of a century. At the same time, the amount of leisure time at the average American’s disposal has gone up, as well.

What has made all this possible? Cox and Alm eloquently argue that it has been due to the dynamic creativity and innovation of the market economy in the United States. American capitalism has been an impressive machine for generating both jobs and wealth. And they conclude that America’s future can offer even more of the same in the 21st century if only the market is left free from regulation, excessive taxation, and the politics of special interests and redistribution.

So is America a land of individual freedom and unrestrained market opportunity? James Bovard offers a significantly different picture of contemporary America in his new book, Freedom in Chains. In his previous books, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty and Shakedown: How Government Screws You from A to Z (see the reviews in Freedom Daily, November 1994 and January 1996), Mr. Bovard itemized in depressing detail the degree to which government in modern America controls, regulates, and brutalizes the citizenry of the United States. In his newest book, he places this growth of state power into a wider political and philosophic perspective.

For more than 200 years, political philosophers have attempted to portray the state as the great god that stands above the narrow, selfish interests of the individual subjects over whom it has control. They have rationalized political power as the tool for righting great social wrongs, remaking imperfect man into a more noble creature of goodness and virtue, harmonizing the purposes of the multitudes for a higher common good, and planning the organization of society for the betterment of all. The state and its servants have been idealized as the essence of the best that is or could be in man.

But what, exactly, is the state and political power? Regardless of how political theorists and apologists may have tried over the centuries to describe it, the state and political power ultimately means one and one thing only: coercion. When everything else is stripped away and the state is left bare, its fundamental nature is the claim to have the right to threaten and if necessary to use physical force. And those who control the reins of political power claim the right to threaten and use force against their fellow human beings.

Mr. Bovard is not an anarchist. He shares with the Founding Fathers the belief that a political authority is, unfortunately, necessary to serve as a guardian of the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property from the violent acts of others. But at its best, it is only an institutional device for facilitating social order, the essence of which is peaceful and voluntary relationships among the members of society. Political power is neither a holy entity nor an engine for good in any sense other than maintaining the peace among men.

To demonstrate this, Bovard, with his usual masterfulness, documents state power in action, both in the past and in our own time. For the state to care for men under the assumption that men are unable to reasonably care for themselves, he shows that government must necessarily deny all of us the freedom to make our own decisions, whether it be in planning our own futures, selecting the type of work we find most attractive and profitable to pursue, or choosing the things we each conclude will provide us with the greatest happiness.

The state is always real people elected to political office or appointed to a bureaucratic position. It is these real flesh-and-blood people, not some divine beings, who then proceed to control, regulate, punish, imprison, and even kill the citizens of the United States when the government’s controls and regulation are disobeyed.

How could it have come about that political power has come to be viewed as possessing the “righteousness” to dominate our lives in this way? Bovard suggests that a primary source for this dangerous attitude has been the modern concept of democracy, under which it is presumed that since “the people” elect those who rule, the elected “servants” can never oppress those whom they represent. He clearly shows that modern democracy is not a tool for controlling political power but instead an engine for special interests and ideological demagogues to gain the implements of force to use against others in the society.

How, then, do we reconcile the image conveyed by Cox and Alm in Myths of Rich and Poor that America is still a land of freedom and prosperity and Bovard’s view in Freedom in Chains that a great deal of liberty has been lost in modern America? In relative comparison with the totalitarian states of the 20th century or even the interventionist-welfare states of contemporary Europe, America still does offer a greater degree of personal and economic freedom that has allowed the creation of the wealth and prosperity that Cox and Alm highlight so well.

Yet, in absolute terms America today is a much less free country than it was, say, 50 or 100 years ago. The degree of personal and economic liberty taken for granted in 1899 is completely lacking in 1999. And it is this absolute loss of freedom that James Bovard is reminding us of and warning us about in his important work. How much freer and more prosperous we could have been today if the ideology of statism had not triumphed both around the world and in the United States! And if we do not take heed of Bovard’s warning, what freedom we still retain may be lost sooner than we think.

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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).