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A Chilling Indictment of U.S. Government

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The rhetoric of liberty has sustained the American republic from its founding to the Senate’s recent vote to acquit President Clinton on Lincoln’s birthday. Having no monarchy, no common religion, no ancient history, the country lives by the words of its founders, who wrote and spoke them not all that long ago.

Those words have served us well. They helped us through a terrible civil war. They have brought us to our present state, in which we (most of us) enjoy personal freedom and prosperity unimaginable not many years ago. But along the way an odd thing happened.

As Richard Hofstadter and other historians have noted, from the beginning of the new nation there has existed a paranoid strain of political thinking. The rhetoric of freedom has been turned by a small but noisy minority against the concept of democratic government itself, so that the government becomes not the agent of the people’s common purpose but the very enemy of the people. In the political paranoid’s view, the government assumes an overweening, menacing aspect. It becomes not the creature of the citizen but the citizen’s mortal enemy.

“Freedom in Chains” is an unvarnished example of this contemptuous attitude toward the American political system. From beginning to end it quivers with Bovard’s hatred of government. It is a polemic heavily populated with villains. Jean Jacques Rousseau and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for their support of the common good, are James Bovard’s principal malefactors, but the American people and Bill Clinton are not far behind.

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Bovard’s opinions about the relation between democracy and its citizenry suggest a situation that falls far short of the ideal of the framers: “Governments and citizens blend together only in the imaginations of political theorists. Government is, and always will be, an alien power over private citizens. There is no magic in a ballot box that makes government any less coercive.” “Rather than broadening people’s minds,” Bovard argues, “the exercise of voting too often merely debases their character.

“The problem with democracy is not only that government routinely scorns citizens’ values, it is also that government imposes majority preferences that have no legitimacy. . . . Majorities are routinely the ephemeral creations of political promises to confiscate one group’s property and render it to someone else. What virtue does a majority of tenants have when the one policy they demand consists of little more than the looting of all apartment owners via rent control?”

“Confiscation” is much on Bovard’s mind. Taxes, he says, are “confiscation,” not the price we all pay for living in a civilized society.

Bovard doesn’t think much of civilized society. He opposes Social Security, Medicare, federal job training, government spending on education, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, land use zoning and so on. The reasons for his opposition lie not in an inquiry into the facts but in his ideology: If it is done by the government, it is coercive and confiscatory.

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He admits that some sort of national defense is a necessary governmental function and concedes that the National Institutes of Health have done some good. But in the main he brings toward government relentless hostility and pervasive fear.

All this is nonsense. Is Bovard’s argument harmless? Not necessarily, and not always. In Bovard’s defensive and disingenuous discussion of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, he reveals that he is aware of the possible consequences of his words.

“Regardless of whether Americans consider the federal government illegitimate,” he writes, “attacks that kill innocent people are never justified. The 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was inexcusable. . . .

“The militia movement in this country became highly active only after the federal killings at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas,” Bovard states. “The fact that no federal officials have been held legally responsible for the deaths at Ruby Ridge and Waco made many people presume, not surprisingly, that the government was out of control and a dire threat to their rights and safety.” And that is exactly the view that Bovard expounds in this chilling polemic.

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