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Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.

JAMES BOVARD, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), 408 + pp., including Index. $14.95 paper (ISBN 0-312-1233-7).

Government actions are human actions. Sometimes human beings treat other human beings badly. And those men and women who act in or as government can and do use its power to coerce others.

None of us can know much about what "our" governments--federal, state, and local--actually do. This volume informs us about several forms of governmental (chiefly federal) operations. The author draws on many years of observation and study. There are 2,039 endnotes of documentation.

The opening sentence of chapter 1: "Americans' liberty is perishing beneath the constant growth of government power." Perhaps "perish" seems too sweeping. But as the evidence piles up page after page, the cumulative effect leaves no doubt that conditions are far worse than any individual's own experience would indicate.

"The New Leviathan," the first chapter, cites specific examples in an eloquent statement--for example, "the bankruptcy of a chain of twenty small California newspapers for including a classified ad with the words 'adults preferred' " (p. 3).

"American political thinking suffers from a romantic tendency to appraise government by lofty ideals rather than by banal and often grim realities" (p. 5). Then hundreds of pages of examples plus the lessons we should learn.

Ours is increasingly a government not of laws but of men and women. Congress passes statutes with vague and imprecise language. The civil service frames regulations (after five years or more in the case of taxes) that do not always state clearly what is and is not permitted. Administrators often have wide ranges of discretion.

Businesses and individuals are at the mercy of the men and women who execute the laws and the judges who make final decisions. Gradual encroachment on our liberties is illustrated chapter by chapter.

"Seizure Fever: The War on Property Rights" (chap. 2) tells a frightening story of asset confiscation and, among other things, the incentive this power gives to officials to take and hold on less than even flimsy evidence. (Officials can often benefit personally by holding and using seized property.) Environmental and zoning laws in effect permit the taking of property without compensation despite the U.S. Constitution. The benefits of planning land use can be taken without restitution paid to those who suffer.

"The early American principle of almost unlimited freedom of contract has now been replaced by the principle of `government knows best'" (p. 83). Typically, one--perhaps a small--group exerts strong political pressure so that others suffer without effective recourse.

Subsidy programs bring controls of various kinds with the potential for increases-as some college administrators know. As with federal housing programs, conditions can get worse and worse year after year, with no real remedy. When only a relatively small number of persons feel the direct effects at any one time, pressure for correction may be small.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and extensions of controls on employment (affirmative action) bring new problems for employers; the compliance burdens on small companies can be relatively heavy. Gun controls restrict liberty. Efforts to control drugs have brought incalculable damage of many kinds while drug usage remains high (chap. 7).

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) possesses and uses enormous power. The author's criticisms and documentation must convince anyone that "our" government should not tolerate some kinds of actions. When tens of thousands are engaged in administering a maddeningly complex tax system to take large amounts from families and businesses who want to escape, under such conditions, arbitrary, abusive exercises of power are inevitable. But what seems inexcusably shocking is the failure of internal checks and review processes to correct lower level error. Of course, we do not know how many corrections are made. But cases that become public in litigation reveal the IRS holding to positions that are utterly inconsistent with standards of good government. And we know that the awesome power of the IRS to force high litigation costs on taxpayers can in effect deny them justice.

Cannot Congress help protect against IRS excesses? One hopes that 1998 will finally bring reform after years of consideration in Congress and the Treasury Department. But one quotation is sobering: "A 1991 survey of IRS executives and managers revealed that three out of four IRS managers feel entitled to deceive and lie when testifying before a congressional committee" (p. 281). A leading senator observed, "We probably know more about the KGB in the Soviet Union than we do about our own Internal Revenue Service" (p. 281).

Restrictions on speech are often defended as protecting against obscenity, but the chapter, "Spiking Speech, Bankrupting Newspapers, and jamming Broadcasters," presents a distressingly large variety of examples of restrictions on the freedom to communicate and identifies possible penalties for overstepping what are too frequently vague and undefined boundaries.

This valuable book doubtless has errors. What it omits would in some cases modify the message presented. And new conditions (e.g., "reinventing government" and the C4ending of the era of big government") may bring some relaxation of restraints on freedom. But new legislation will add new rules. State and local regulations greatly exceed what can be listed in a single volume.

Moreover, in voluntary actions (e.g., some environmentalism), in legislation, and in courts--as well as in bureaucracies--change goes on. Some encroach on liberties, some restore freedoms.

We owe much to Bovard for alerting us to conditions outside our experience. Our debt is even greater for his portrayal of the cumulation of burdens. We pay

dearly for idealizing the state. There is no virtue ... in denying the

limitations of government. Good intentions are no excuse for perpetual

failure and growing oppression. The more we glorify government, the more

liberties we will lose. Freedom is largely a choice between allowing people

to follow their own interests or forcing them to follow the interests of

bureaucrats, politicians, and campaign contributors. (P. 334)
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Author:Harriss, C. Lowell
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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