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Book Review: Lost Rights

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Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberties
by James Bovard (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); 408 pages; $24.95.

Several years ago, Chicago School economist George Stigler argued:

Even with the vast expansion of public controls over earning and spending in the United States since the Civil War, there has been an enormous expansion in the average individual’s liberty. He has many more occupations to choose among, many more areas in which to work and live, and enormously more products to consume. . . . Economic progress has increased choice even in highly regulated societies.

Part of the problem that friends of freedom have in persuading their fellow citizens that their liberty has been limited and is further threatened by the state is precisely the phenomena to which Professor Stigler draws our attention. The market during most of the last hundred years has remained sufficiently open and competitive that it has succeeded in generating capital formation, rising real wages, and an increasing supply of goods and services, in spite of rising taxes, increasing government spending, and a widening circle of government rules and regulations. Since the market has usually continued to offer new opportunities and more choices in many areas of life, even as the state at the same time has been restraining opportunities and closing off choices through restrictions on our economic liberties, many Americans find it difficult to see that their liberty is threatened by the political authority. Other than the fact that they have to pay more in taxes, many ask: In what way am I not a free man in a free country? After all, this is America!

This problem is what makes James Bovard’s recent book Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberties so valuable. He takes the reader through practically every aspect of economic and social life in America and shows the various ways in which the state has come to control, terrorize, and intrude into the various corners of human activity.

Mr. Bovard’s method is an especially powerful one. In each chapter, he creates a narrative of horror stories of how the state has used and abused its power in the average American’s life — a narrative of real episodes in such a large number that a systematic ruthlessness by the state and its agents is impossible to deny. By the end of each chapter, any ordinary reader cannot but feel a mounting anger and frustration as he comes to appreciate exactly to what extent the government controls and often ruins real people’s lives — even here, in America.

Are you poor and unskilled? Don’t try to work for less than the minimum wage; the government will come down on the employer like a ton of bricks. Want to work for an employer who would be glad to hire you? Forget it if it is a union industry, because state and federal authorities will do everything in their power to stop you, unless you join the union and pay dues for union services that you may neither want nor agree with. Want to work at home on contract for some employer? The federal government has banned many forms of “cottage industries” as “exploitation,” no matter how convenient and profitable it may be for you and the employer.

Forget about being self-employed in many cities if you have in mind driving your own taxi cab or jitney. These are monopoly privileges for those lucky or wealthy enough to obtain the necessary government license to make a living in this way. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you’ll find the same licensing restrictions; for the privileged few in these and similar professions, licensing assures smaller supplies and higher prices than a more open market would provide.

You think you own your property and that it is constitutionally protected from unreasonable search or seizure? In the name of fighting organized crime and the drug cartels, the state has imposed forfeiture laws that enable government at practically every level to seize any of your property under any vague suspicion in the mind of a government agent that your property was acquired illegally; and the burden of proof falls on you — the accused victim — to prove that you are not guilty; and even if you succeed, don’t expect an easy time getting your property back from the state.

You consider that your home is your castle? Just try to remodel or modify it or add any structures to it without appropriate zoning ordinance approval; and even if the approval is acquired, it may be revoked after the construction work has been done. You may be stopped from doing anything with your property if it is declared to be a historical landmark — and landmarks are in the eyes of those who have the political power to make or influence such decisions. Also, as Mr. Bovard points out, eminent domain has become an arena for fun and profit, in which local governments seize the property of some, so it can be allocated to other private individuals who wish to use it for profit-making purposes but do not want to pay market prices to acquire the land.

The affirmative-action laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act have become swamps of political privilege and plunder, in which in the name of equal opportunity and equal treatment, the state has the power to treat people unequally. And the power to make these decisions is held by bureaucrats possessing their own prejudices, biases, political pressures, and imperfections of knowledge.

Want to grow and smoke some forbidden substance on your own property, even when that property is out in the country far from any people who might be offended by your behavior? At any moment, federal authorities may arrive — airborne — seizing your property, searching your papers and belongings, and arresting you if it suits their purpose. In the name of fighting its self-declared drug war, the government bans useful pain killers and assists in the spreading of AIDS. As Mr. Bovard says:

Drug prohibition has resulted in millions of casualties (people who have used drugs tainted with benzene or paraquat, people sentenced to prison for possessing drugs, innocent bystanders shot or terrorized by drug battles in their neighborhoods or housing complexes), and yet has failed to prevent pervasive use of illicit drugs.

Own a gun for sport or self-protection? Here is what Mr. Bovard says:

The federal government has long acted as if the Constitution does not apply when government seizes people’s guns. In 1983, Rep. John Dingell, liberal chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “a jack-booted group of fascists who are perhaps as large a danger to American society as I could pick today.”

Furthermore, Mr. Bovard explains:

The bans on assault weapons are products of political hysteria rather than a public safety campaign. . . . Some politicians claim an unlimited right to seize private weapons of self-defense yet accept no concrete obligation to provide safe neighborhoods. . . . [C]rippling citizens’ rights to defend themselves has far more impact on poor people than on rich people, since low-income inner-city neighborhoods have far higher crime rates.

These few paragraphs merely give the barest of indications of the areas of social and economic life that Mr. Bovard discusses, and they give no feel for the impressive and moving evidence that he provides about how disastrous the interventionist and controlling the state has become in our society. Read the book. It is invaluable intellectual ammunition for the next time someone asks you, “Okay, so what freedoms have we lost, and which liberties are being threatened?” This book tells you.

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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).