Bush Speechwriter View on Freedom, 1999

I quoted the National Review’s review of Freedom in Chains (1999) in a blog comment earlier today.   Someone requested the full text of the review, so here it is.

Matthew Scully, the reviewer, was on Bush’s speechwriting team for most of George W.’s first term.

National Review  May 3, 1999

HEADLINE: Tyranny Lite-Matthew Scully; Review

Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen, by
James Bovard (St. Martin’s, 326 pp., $ 26.95)

The dust jacket to James Bovard’s Freedom in Chains lists a dozen high federal officials who have “publicly denounced” the author’s writings, from the FBI director to the secretary of agriculture. Bovard, a correspondent for The American Spectator and contributor to Playboy, earned these distinctions by a rare willingness to slog through government reports, budgets, hearing transcripts, and highway bills to expose fraud and waste in federal programs most of us have never even heard of. It takes diligence, and has left Bovard with a visceral distrust of government you don’t get from philosophy books.

He earned his rebuke from the FBI by investigating the federal raids at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and he sees in those events only the most dramatic proof that “the threat of government punishment increasingly permeates everyday life.” Picking up where his 1994 Lost Rights left off, Bovard tells us that the IRS wrongfully collects some $ 7 billion in penalties a year, “more than is stolen by all the burglars and robbers [in America] combined.” The average citizen pays almost 40 percent of his income to the government. Federal regulations, which multiplied even during the Reagan years, threaten livelihoods and the right to property, giving government “additional prerogatives . . . to trammel, shackle, and punish.”

Drug-enforcement laws have led to abuses of police power, spreading “like a computer virus through the statute books.” Federal attempts to regulate the Internet have “made it a felony for 17-year-old teenagers to exchange by e-mail the same type of zesty love letters that teenagers have sent each other since at least the time of Romeo and Juliet.”

Bovard reminds us over and over again that government always comes down to coercion-the gun-and the state can grow only at the expense of individual freedom. “The greater the state’s legal superiority over the citizen,” he writes, “the closer the citizen is to a slave. . . . Political slavery is revealed at those moments when the paths of the citizen and the state cross, and the citizen suddenly becomes aware of his complete insignificance.”

Waco had a big influence on Bovard, and often he writes as if law-enforcement officers were a greater menace to the average citizen than criminals. If his point were simply that the caliber of personnel even at the FBI isn’t what it used to be (though your average G-man or cop on the beat is still a pretty good character), one would have to agree. But he goes well beyond that, to the point of exaggeration.

I agree with him that laws against marijuana are a massive waste of time and money. But you can still avoid all the legal traps Bovard describes by steering clear of marijuana and other illegal drugs, just as the folks at Waco could have avoided their grief by steering clear of stupid cults or as most of us avoid no-knock ATF raids by not turning our homes into arsenals. In Bovard’s libertarian vision of the world, all the evildoers work for the
government-there are only innocent citizens trodden upon by malevolent government agents, never just foolish people who bring their troubles on themselves. Like the title itself, Freedom in Chains is a little overwrought, reading for stretches as if composed during a long wait at the local DMV: “When law itself is the means by which the citizen is stripped of the fruits of his labor, confined to ever narrower portions of his own existence, and subjugated to a thousand insect authorities-then ‘freedom under the law’ means simply freedom by submitting to your worst enemy.”

There is a point where the libertarian streak of the Right meets the libertine streak of the Left in a chorus of whining against government intrusion, as for example on the question of Internet regulation. “Zesty love letters,” his term for threatened speech on the Internet, is libertarian-ese for pornography circulated by the Romeos at NAMBLA [North American Man-Boy Love Association] and others who are not coerced nearly enough by government.

Supreme Court rulings on police procedure have been generally “salutary” in protecting individual freedom, Bovard argues. But it would be hard to think of a more coercive act by government than the exclusionary rule, a contrivance Bovard seems to approve of (though it is nowhere to be found in the Fourth Amendment) and that in the name of individual rights leaves people free to be attacked or murdered by criminals loosed upon society by the state. As evidence that we don’t need federally protected wilderness areas, he writes, “The proliferation of contracts for hunting on private land [shows] that, with a sound incentive system, access to private land can easily be negotiated.” In practice this free-market approach to conservation has made a giant industry of canned hunting, allowing every lout who pays his fees to shoot fenced-in and usually baited wildlife.

Bovard is right, of course, to warn against “the moral glorification of the state.” But the glorification of autonomous man has a few problems of its own. When he gets around to explaining his own credo the quotes start pouring forth from the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and John Stuart Mill-not my idea of sound moral guides. “A free society,” writes Bovard, “gives people the chance to be their own disciplinarians. Liberty permits each person to build his own moral utopia or to wallow in his own moral squalor, to live according to his own moral values or lack thereof.” True enough, and doubtless his Playboy readers would agree, except that the squalor has a way of spreading into a tyranny all its own, and typically it’s the wallowers who call on the coercive powers of the state to hold their neighbors at bay.

Still, the book offers a principled and often eloquent vision of the minimalist state. There is an integrity to it, and it is always refreshing to find a man who takes his freedom straight. Only he ought to go easier on the talk about chains and shackles and slavery. Even with all the taxes, meddlesome regulations, and officious bureaucrats, the slaves still have it mighty good here, and a country where you can make a living writing books like Freedom in Chains can’t be all that bad.


13 Responses to Bush Speechwriter View on Freedom, 1999

  1. Jerry February 25, 2007 at 6:11 pm #

    Well that guy has enlightened me. If we all just avoid illegal drugs we won’t get in to trouble. I’m sure people like Lonnie Lundy would be willing to debate that assertion.

  2. Lawhobbit February 25, 2007 at 6:32 pm #

    Hmmm….now when I read Jim’s blog I’m going to feel like I’m wallowing in moral squalor which has a tyranny all its own. Oh well, you do what you have to – hey Jim, could you pass some more of that freedom mud?

  3. Jim February 25, 2007 at 6:49 pm #

    Sorry, Hobbit – freedom mud hasn’t been legal there in Oregon since 1986.

    I hear that if you’re even suspected of possessing it, the U.S. attorney in Portland might grab you and hold you incommunicado for weeks as a material witness.

  4. Lawhobbit February 25, 2007 at 6:52 pm #

    Only if they can find a partial fingerprint on the mud.

  5. Jim February 25, 2007 at 6:58 pm #

    That’s hilarious!

    This refers to the Brandon Mayfield case. Here’s my take on it from the October 11, 2004 issue of American Conservative ( http://www.amconmag.com/2004_10_11/article.html

    Undue Process

    Innocents have been entangled in the Justice Department’s anti-terror dragnet.
    By James Bovard

    The train wrecks of the Justice Department’s domestic War on Terror continue to pile up. Despite the perennial victory claims by Attorney General John Ashcroft and other high officials, three recent cases vivify how federal prosecutors and FBI agents continue tripping over the evidence—or worse.

    On May 7, the FBI arrested Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, for his alleged involvement in the Madrid train bombings of March 11 that killed 191 and left 2,000 wounded. A U.S. counterterrorism official (almost certainly an FBI or Justice Department official) told Newsweek that Mayfield’s fingerprint was an “absolutely incontrovertible match” to a copy of the fingerprint found on a bag of bomb detonators near the scene of the Madrid attack. News of Mayfield’s arrest provided alarming evidence that Americans were involved in international conspiracies to slaughter civilians around the globe, and he was informed that he could face the death penalty for his crimes.

    Employing Patriot Act powers, the feds, prior to the arrest, conducted secret searches of Mayfield’s home and tapped his phone and e-mail. After the arrest, they froze his bank accounts. The FBI’s arrest affidavit revealed that its agents had “observed Mayfield drive to the Bilal Mosque located at 415 160th Ave., Beaverton, Oregon, on several different occasions.” Another incriminating detail in the arrest warrant: Mayfield advertised his legal service in the Muslim Yellow Pages. (Mayfield, a former Army lieutenant, converted to Islam and has an Egyptian wife.) In early April, the Spanish police described Mayfield “as a U.S. military veteran who was already under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged ties to Islamic terrorism,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

    Yet the key to the case—the fingerprint—was shakier than a George W. Bush press conference. The FBI quickly claimed to have achieved a match on the partial print, but, on April 13, Spanish government officials warned the FBI that their experts were “conclusively negative” that Mayfield’s print matched the print on the bomb detonator bag. The FBI responded by flying one of its fingerprint analysts to Madrid to explain to the Spaniards why they were wrong. But during the Madrid visit, the FBI expert never requested to see the bag or to get a better copy of the print. The arrest warrant in early May wrongly informed a federal judge that the Spaniards were “satisfied” with the FBI’s match.

    Mayfield was arrested as a “material witness,” thereby permitting the feds to hold him as long as they pleased without charging him with a specific crime. The Justice Department refuses to disclose how many people have been or are being held as “material witnesses” in prisons around the country.

    After Mayfield was arrested, FBI agents raided his home and office and carted off boxes of his papers and his family’s belongings. Among the items seized were “miscellaneous Spanish documents,” according to an FBI statement to the federal court. These supposedly incriminating papers turned out to be the Spanish homework of Mayfield’s son. Perhaps elite FBI investigators suspected that “Hola, Paco. Como Estas?” was a secret code.

    Though the FBI never possessed anything on Mayfield aside from a misidentified fingerprint, it did not hesitate to cast him in sinister colors. The FBI informed a federal judge: “It is believed that Mayfield may have traveled under a false or fictitious name.” But Mayfield, whose passport expired the previous year, insisted he had not left the country. The FBI apparently never bothered to check whether Mayfield had been absent from the U.S. before making one of the most high-profile terrorism arrests of the year.

    On May 20, after Spanish authorities announced that they had found a clean match with the fingerprint, the Justice Department acquiesced to Mayfield’s release. A few weeks later, Attorney General Ashcroft informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that his case vindicated the American system of justice: “As a matter of fact, the pride of our system is that people are found innocent because we adjudicate these things.” But there was effectively no adjudication in this case because Mayfield was classified as a “material witness”— which meant that the feds could hold him as long as they chose, or at least until his detention became too embarrassing. Ashcroft also testified, “When we learned that the reservations of the Spanish were so substantial, we went to the court, asked for the release of Mr. Mayfield.” In reality, the Justice Department did not acquiesce until the Spanish government announced that they had arrested the Algerian whose fingerprint matched that on the bag.

    FBI director Robert Mueller visited Portland a month after Mayfield’s release and announced that FBI agents had acted appropriately. Yet, as a Portland Oregonian editorial noted, “If not for the Spanish authorities doing their own investigation, Mayfield likely would still be in jail today.” And sadly, the unfortunate Mr. Mayfield is not an isolated case…. [other cases discussed in the article..

  6. Tom Blanton February 25, 2007 at 9:39 pm #

    Scully’s advice to steer clear of “stupid cults” has me wondering if the National Review is a smart cult.

    Would Scully argue that Mayfield shoudn’t have joined that stupid Muslim cult?

    But, who can argue with “the slaves still have it mighty good here”?

    Scully reveals what modern conservatism has adopted as a philosophy:

    Merely obey the dictates of the paternalistic state and your slavery will be quite enjoyable.

  7. Jim February 25, 2007 at 10:32 pm #

    Tom – great quip on National Review, the smart cult.

    At least none of their cruise ship tours have sunk so far, least that I know of.

    Scully’s review captures fashionable conservative thinking on freedom before GWB. With friends like these, gun owners, dissidents, and Deadheads don’t need any enemies.

  8. Orville H. Larson February 26, 2007 at 12:57 am #

    Do you remember the TV show “The FBI” (ABC, 1965-74)? It starred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as the brisk, efficient Inspector Lewis Erskine. The FBI worked in close cooperation with the show, and thus exerted a tacit influence over it.

    “The FBI”, of course, portrayed the Bureau in keeping with Hoover’s propaganda. Today, we know the FBI isn’t a superhuman law enforcement agency but an ordinary, flawed outfit that lived off its myth for too long.

    As John Kennedy once said, “The three most overrated things in the world are the state of Texas, hunting trophies, and the FBI.”

  9. Adam S. February 26, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

    I believe that Mr. Scully’s article is the most preposterous thing I have read in quite some time. The response from the majority of conservatism has never been anything even approaching contrarian. It is always like Big Daddy, sitting in a rocking chair in the shade, drinking a mint julep, saying “Yep, it’s good to own land” One person noting the lack of cogency in conservative responses, declared that they will only worry about State Socialism when we establish a Communist dictatorship here, too late for that.
    Mr. Scully also typifies the lingering staleness, the everlasting halitosis that is the National Review. From the beginning that magazine has never been really conservative, and has only featured marginal “Libertarian Window-Dressing” (e.g. Rothbard and Chodorov)in its pages as a sop to distract us from its perpetual march to the center left. One can listen to any mainstream conservative broadcast and observe a movement that has reached near parody performance. Like Kafka’s officer, Scully is willing to let himself be chopped to bits by the political machinery to prove that the State protects his freedom.

  10. Adam S. February 26, 2007 at 3:36 pm #

    I am always amazed at so-called conservatives. They want government out of the way, until it comes near them. Every time that government shrinks into unobtrusiveness, “conservatives” come out with cries of “the excesses of democracy” or “the failure of the marketplace” We must always take the word of fairweather conservatives with a grain of salt. It was a conservative in Nazi Germany who said when Hitler came to power,” O thank God! We’re free of our freedom”

  11. Jim February 26, 2007 at 6:45 pm #

    Ya, I have difficulty understanding the complacency that so many conservatives have with boundless power. They seem to think that “their team” will control the gates…

    Great quote regarding Hitler coming to power. Do you recall who said that?

  12. Bigbenr May 2, 2007 at 8:50 am #

    You republican gun nuts are really easily brainwashed, and the sad part about it is that your own party is brainwashing its own constituents.

    Go ahead. make a comment about how I “worship Micheal Moore” and how “evil liberals are ruining this country.” hehe

    And please also disregard the fact that the President got us into another Vietnam, and the fact that there is A FULL SCALE CIVIL WAR GOING ON NOW. CHILDREN SHOT IN OUR STREETS!!!

    Whatever the NRA tells you, right?

  13. Bigbenr May 2, 2007 at 8:54 am #

    Greetings, my children! You have been called here to recapitulate the principal steps of our new program. As you know, we had hoped to have twenty years between wars to consolidate the great gains which we made from the WW II, but our increasing numbers in certain natal areas ia arousing opposition to us, and we must work with every means at our disposal to precipitate WW III WITHIN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS. This IS IT..THIS IS IT!
    Of course the good and noble Republicans would never do such a thing, everyone knows that. RIGHT! It has often been said that the first casualty of war is the truth and we know that to be true. We have been down this same road before and seen this same scenario even before George, the puppet, Bush was elected president our government had no excuse for invading a sovereign nation, so we invented one, 9-11 was the answer. The government of Afghanistan nor the government of Iraq had anything to do with 9-11, but were blamed anyway.lurking behind the scene are the NEOCONS pulling the strings to start these wars. The evil bastards, and that is a kind word for what they are, have their eye on, first, the Middle east and eventually the entire worlds oil, and most of the world’s leaders are co-conspirators in their plot. Now they are trying to start a world war between the Muslims and the West.