Mises Institute, August 11, 2020
by James Bovard
I was born in Iowa, raised in the mountains of Virginia, and attended Virginia Tech sporadically from 1974 to 1976 before dropping out to try my luck writing. At some point in the late 1970s, individual liberty became my highest political value and I resolved to do what I could to defend it. I had seen the federal government sabotage the currency, ravage southeast Asia with an unjust war, and tumble into disgrace with the Watergate scandal. The pratfalls of the Carter administration, following the depravity of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, spurred a sense of impending political and economic collapse.
After moving to the Washington area in 1980, I was appalled to see what passed for good writing inside the Beltway. The prevailing standards seemed designed to make magazine and newspaper subscribers regret ever learning to read. Many articles resembled a numbing four-hour politburo speech. Voiceless prose with a low-watt righteous drone was the tacit ideal. “Go team, go!” was the epitome of literary excellence. There was nothing to learn from the vast majority of pieces except which side of a dispute the author favored. Alternatively, some writers prided themselves on being perpetually overwrought—a blight that reached epidemic levels after the election of Donald Trump.
If I was expecting mental stimulation in Washington, I came to the wrong place. “Political thought” consists of making accusations or making excuses, and not much more. DC’s “mental currents” usually let only the froth rise to the top. Any idea not immediately profitable to one of the political parties or major interest groups usually sinks without a trace. As French essayist Paul Valery warned, “At every step, politics and freedom of mind exclude each other.”
I was astounded at the paltry evidence used in Washington controversies. Policy clashes were dominated by competing groups of know-nothings or know-almost-nothings. Combatants seemed unable to comprehend anything that happened prior to the most recent congressional recess. Perusing federal audit reports from prior years was considered akin to excavating an ancient Egyptian tomb. Because few people bothered becoming well informed, the city was easy prey for intellectual con artists.
According to politicians and their media collaborators, government is practically a hovercraft floating along and gently guiding and assisting people on the road of life. The state that I had met on my life’s pathways was often oppressive, incompetent, and venal. I saw no profit in delusions about the benevolence of officialdom. Instead, I realized that idealism on liberty demands brutal realism on political power.
“A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case,” according to nineteenth-century humorist Finley Peter Dunne. Similarly, I assumed that if only folks knew the facts of the matter about the government, they would rise up and demand an end to the injustices they suffer daily. Did I presume that political truth would set Americans free? Maybe I was not that naïve, but I still thought that damning facts would wake up enough Americans to stop government from destroying everyone’s freedom.
Floundering programs survived in part because critics’ prose was often more impenetrable than a Federal Register notice. I savored the challenge of translating federal idiocy from tangled jargon into plain English. My goal was to write “not that the reader may understand, but that he must understand,” as the ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian advised. If I could lucidly explain government shenanigans, perhaps people would finally recognize how political and bureaucratic racketeering were leading the nation astray.
Some editors appreciated how I scavenged up hard facts to buttress hardline views. Spending time in federal agency libraries and rifling through their archives, I saw how government power was stockpiled by lie after lie. While the specific deceits vanished into the memory hole, politicians’ prerogatives continually grew. I saw that, time and again, early opponents foresaw and forecast how new programs would crash and burn but their alarms were ignored. The system seemingly conspired to bury all evidence of its debacles.
In ancient Greece, the famous cynic philosopher Diogenes scoffed at a rival who had “practiced philosophy for such a long time and never yet disturbed anyone.” I had the same view on writing, though admittedly I’ve been biased toward raising a ruckus since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. But in Washington, much of what passes for journalism is simply shilling for Leviathan. It was impossible to overstate the servility of reporters proud to serve as “stenographers with amnesia.”
In contrast, I was one of those philistines who gave no credence to an agency’s mission statement. After I wrote a piece in 1983 lambasting a new program to lavish subsidies on businesses purportedly to train workers, an assistant secretary of labor denounced my “callously cynical concept of the American free enterprise system” and wailed that “Bovard was determined to disparage all government efforts without giving President Reagan’s reforms a chance.” Actually, I was happy “to disparage all government efforts” doomed to repeat past failures.
I learned how to smell a “policy rat” and relished hounding and pounding wayward federal agencies and vexing scoundrels of all political parties and creeds. If you could make government a laughingstock, then the battle is half won. As H.L. Mencken quipped, “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” From a federal jobs program that built an artificial rock for rock climbers to practice on, to federally paid “artists” who groped each other’s naked bodies to recognize “male and female characteristics,” to AmeriCorps recruits releasing masses of colored balloons to fight child molesting, I showcased rollicking absurdities wherever I could find them.
My efforts to expose the worst federal abuses have often run afoul of the gatekeepers of big government’s reputation. In 1985, I pitched an article to the Washington Post’s Outlook section on federal agriculture committees confiscating up to half of farmers’ crops to boost prices for the remainder of the harvest. My piece was rejected, because, as one editor told me, federal policies could not possibly be that bad. Almost 30 years later, the Supreme Court finally heard a case challenging the USDA Raisin Administrative Committee’s commandeering of farmers’ harvests. Supreme Court justices were shocked to learn about the tyrannical regulatory regime. Justice Stephen Breyer declared: “ I can’t believe that Congress wanted the taxpayers to pay for a program that’s going to mean they have to pay higher prices as consumers.” Justice Elena Kagan suggested that the statute authorizing crop seizures could be “the world’s most outdated law.” The Supreme Court was oblivious to this particular federal outrage in part because papers like the Washington Post rarely highlighted the worst bureaucratic transgressions.
After a dozen years of battering boondoggles, I shifted away from stories on wasteful spending and nitwit regulations. Instead, I began targeting the aura of legitimacy that sanctified almost everything the feds were doing. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1942, “How little important it is to destroy a government, in comparison with destroying the prestige of government.” Arbitrary power was multiplying, turning officialdom into an ever greater peril to domestic tranquility. Citizens faced legal perils without end, including more than four thousand federal criminal laws and hundreds of thousands of regulatory offenses. I sought to spur folks to ask: What gives some people the right to subjugate and punish other people, especially for peaceful behavior that harms no one?
Washingtonians can always find excuses to absolve the government. In 1993, the Washington press corps responded to the fiery finale of the FBI’s assault on the Branch Davidians at Waco by conferring instant sainthood on Attorney General Janet Reno. Congress’s response was captured by House Judiciary Committee chairman rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who said the eighty men, women, and children who were killed were “despicable people. Burning to death was too good for them.” In a 1994 book and subsequent articles, I assailed DC’s knee-jerk “nothing to see here, move along” reflex and exposed lies and contradictions in the feds’ Waco storyline. Six years after the final assault, the FBI was forced to admit (after endless denials) that it fired pyrotechnic grenades at the Davidians’ home before the fatal fire.
I recognized that atrocities that went unchallenged set precedents that could haunt Americans in perpetuity. After I wrote a Wall Street Journal piece detailing how an FBI sniper had gunned down Vicki Weaver, a mother holding a baby in a cabin door in the mountains of northern Idaho, I was denounced by FBI chief Louis Freeh for “misleading or patently false conclusions” and “inflammatory and unfounded allegations.” Five months later, I procured a copy of the confidential Justice Department investigation into Ruby Ridge, which obliterated Freeh’s whitewash. My articles added to the pressure that resulted in the Justice Department paying a multimillion dollar settlement for the wrongful killings of Vicki Weaver and her son. But the FBI’s long record of outrages did not deter conservatives from exalting the agency after 9/11 or deter liberals from conferring sainthood upon the bureau for its efforts to undermine Trump.
My disdain for prevailing pieties spurred plenty of denunciations. After I dedicated a 1995 book to “The Victims of the State,” Entertainment Weekly scoffed that that I was “paranoid.” So I should have written “lucky beneficiaries” instead? In 1999, a Los Angeles Times book review castigated me as an “unvarnished example of the contemptuous attitude toward the American political system” and implied that ideas like mine were to blame for the “bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.” Similarly, after I mocked the Customs Service for paying “night pay” bonuses to agents who were on vacation, the American Federation of Government Employees denounced me for “senselessly vilifying government workers” and planting “seeds in the minds of sick people such as Timothy McVeigh, resulting in tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing.” Hell, I have never even been to Oklahoma.
At some point, government became so large and powerful that its abuses were effectively irrelevant. By the late 1990s, being an investigative journalist was akin to plinking at a rigged carnival shooting gallery. Each time you scored a bullseye, three more targets quickly popped up. I wrote plenty of pieces debunking both the Clinton administration’s “New Liberalism” and the Gingrich Republican Revolution’s pledge to rein in rampaging agencies. Despite growing distrust of Washington, the vast majority of floundering federal programs seemed impervious to criticism.
Just as I was zeroing in on George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” hokum, the 9/11 attacks unleashed havoc. After the biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, craven media coverage helped consecrate federal power across the board and the percentage of Americans who trusted the government quickly doubled. Bush lost me three days after the terrorist attacks when he pledged to “rid the world of evil.” I favored tracking down and terminating the terrorists who masterminded the 9/11 attacks. But when Bush proclaimed, “So long as anybody’s terrorizing established governments, there needs to be a war,” I recognized that the War on Terror would become a license for tyranny.
The more oppressive the government acted, the more slavish the press became. Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed in late 2001: “Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty… only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and… give ammunition to America’s enemies.” Critics were correct that the government was ravaging freedom but we were still damned traitors. One of the nation’s most prominent pundits, Michael Kinsley, admitted in 2002 that he had been listening to his “inner Ashcroft”: “As a writer and editor, I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since September 11.” Kinsley conceded that sometimes it was “simple cowardice” that sparked the censorship.
I didn’t censor myself and quickly found that the harder I hit, the less newshole I got. Even after the appalling Abu Ghraib photos and a “presidential torture entitlement” memo leaked out, most publications shirked the issue or simply printed increasingly far-fetched official denials of barbaric interrogations. My submissions lambasting Bush‘s torture regime were as popular with editors as if I had been advocating cannibalism. A 2006 book review in the Washington Times, where I had been a contributor for more than twenty years, derided me as a “bombthrower” who was guilty of “character assassination” of President Bush. So was it my fault that George never found those weapons of mass destruction that supposedly justified blowing Iraq to smithereens?
During the Obama era, editors became less skittish about criticizing some federal programs but the president himself usually received kid-glove treatment (excepting “full moon” publications howling about Obama being a secret Muslim born in Kenya). Obama, like Bush, received unlimited “benefits of the doubt” whenever he bombed foreign nations. Among other targets, I sniped at IRS spying, Justice Department skullduggery, and the new presidential prerogative to assassinate Americans suspected of plotting mischief.
In the Trump era, journalists have a blank check for attacking the president, but most government abuses continue to be ignored or downplayed. I have enjoyed thumping the FBI , TSA, CIA, and other agencies whose rascalities popped onto the radar screen. While Trump’s tweets regularly detonate his credibility, much of the media has shredded the remnants of its own credibility with one wild goose chase after another, including the RussiaGate debacle that preempted intelligent political analysis for years.
Over the years, federal chieftains have provided my favorite accolades, including denunciations of my work by the secretary of labor, the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of housing and urban development, the postmaster general, and the chiefs of the Transportation Security Administration, International Trade Commission, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Federal Emergency Management Agency. On the flip side, a federal maritime commissioner liked a 1991 article I wrote. High-ranking federal officials have also directly pressured newspapers to stop publishing my work, sometimes more effectively than I ever knew.
Happily, I continue to find some editors undaunted by the rage my articles sometimes evoke. I continue to despise politicians, because most people can thrive as long as they are not pillaged by their rulers. One of my early lodestars was Edmund Burke’s maxim: “People never give up their liberties but under some delusion.” But what if the media fosters delusions that lull people into ever greater submission? And did I greatly overestimate how many people would make any effort to defend their own rights? Either way, it is vital to maintain an intellectual skirmish line against Leviathan’s worst excesses and boldest offenses.
Twenty-five years ago, I taped on my office wall a New York Times article headlined: “For Chechens in Mountains, Fighting Is Winning.” I have no sympathy for Chechen terrorists but respect Chechens’ doggedness in defending their homeland first against the czar, then the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation. That 1995 headline, which remains on my wall, is a reminder that as long as we keep fighting for freedom, we are winning. Politicians will never be able to outlaw the spirit of liberty.