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Book Review: Revolutionary Language

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Revolutionary Language
by David C. Calderwood (Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse.com, Inc., 1999); 324 pages; $13.95.

AN IMPORTANT but little-known battle between the forces of statism and the forces of liberty of the early 1990s pitted the “law-enforcement” community and national security paranoiacs against one man who happened to believe that people ought to be able to communicate in secret if they wanted to. That man was Phil Zimmerman, a computer specialist who had developed a system of encryption — encoded writing — that he hoped to sell to businesses.

As he was preparing to do so, however, Congress began consideration of a bill that would have made it illegal for individuals to use strong encryption measures. The justification, of course, was the need to fight crime. If criminals could use secure communications, the argument ran, then it would no longer do any good to wiretap them, and law enforcement would be hampered. Therefore the obvious solution (obvious to Congress, anyway): outlaw the use of strong encryption for everyone.

Zimmerman could see that the legislation would make it impossible for him to sell his product, called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), so he decided to give it away. He uploaded it to the Internet, where it could be accessed by anyone. Federal officials fumed, thundered, and threatened, but Zimmerman had let his genie out of the bottle. Whether their purposes are good or evil, people now have the capability of communicating in virtually perfect security. (PGP is far better than “pretty good.”)

The Phil Zimmerman story is background for David Calderwood’s novel Revolutionary Language, an unabashedly libertarian book that received the Freedom Book of the Month award in January 2000. Calderwood uses the authoritarian crusade to prevent individuals from communicating without the government’s listening in as the setting for a story that blends science, economics, philosophy, and a lot of frightening truths about the powers the government now possesses.

Heroic resistance to tyranny

The hero is Andy Archer, a young computer programmer who is beginning to make a good living as a consultant. One of his clients, however, turns out to have engaged in illegal drug transactions. To get at the company, the federal prosecutor orders the arrest of Archer on the grounds that since he had contracted with the firm to improve its computer security, he was part of a conspiracy to violate the law. He didn’t know about any illegal transactions, but that doesn’t matter to the prosecutor, who wanted a way to get at the company. After a calculatedly brutal arrest, Archer is told that he can either write a back door into the company’s books, or face serious consequences.

He faces the consequences — some hard prison time and eventually parole on the condition that he not work in the computer field. (Sounds like the Milken case. Calderwood isn’t just making up his government powers and tactics.) Andy takes the best job he can find, working as a janitor in a small college.

There he is befriended by a professor who is the leader of the campus libertarian circle. From him Andy learns all the strong reasons for doubting both the efficacy and beneficence of the state (i.e., public-choice theory). The professor also allows him to secretly use his computer. Andy summons up the courage to complete his Internet privacy project.

But the government has managed to learn about Andy’s suite of programs and is in a state of panic. One federal agent says,

“It’s obvious that the complete suite would undermine the ability of the IRS to generate revenue as called for under current law and the Sixteenth Amendment. I would venture that mere possession of the program could be prima facie evidence of criminal intent, exposing the individual to criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture.”

Another opines,

“We are faced with the potential widespread dissemination of a program that could turn the Internet into a vast underground economic conduit. We have limited resources with which to combat this terrorist act.”

Ah, there’s the rub: what the state doesn’t know about it can’t tax. Perfect communication secrecy would lead to more and more exchanges of goods and services where the government doesn’t get a cut. A “terrorist act” indeed.

Here comes the government

At this point in the book, all hell breaks loose and the government comes after Andy with a vengeance we know it to be fully capable of following the Elián Gonzalez raid. It would be bad form to give away any more of the suspenseful and surprise-filled conclusion. All I should say is that it is a page-turner. For a long time, the Left has used fiction effectively to inflame people’s minds about the alleged evils of capitalism, leaving them with the non sequitur that all would be wonderful if only the government had more power. Revolutionary Language is part of a libertarian counterattack, using fiction to demonstrate that it is the power of the state that people should fear and oppose, not production and voluntary exchange in the free market. The book is liberally laced with free-market wisdom and refutations of conventional, civics-book notions about the nature of government. To accomplish that and at the same time awaken people to the need to keep the Internet free of government interference is a splendid feat.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.