Brief Review

Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, by James Bovard, New York: St. Martin's Press, 335 pages, $24.95

In Lost Rights, journalist James Bovard chronicles the shockingly accelerating disappearance of the rights and freedoms of the ordinary American. Bovard has established himself through his two previous books (The Fair Trade Fraud and The Farm Fiasco) and countless columns as the preeminent exposer of government's responsibility for rigged deals, under-the-table handouts, special-interest ripoffs, and spectacular waste. Now he moves to a larger canvas: the whole range of government interference with the rights and liberties of the individual citizen.

"We face a choice not of anarchy or authoritarianism," writes Bovard, "but a choice of limited government or unlimited government." What have we chosen? After 335 bloodcurdling pages, it is crystal clear that, whatever the American people might have chosen, what they have gotten is virtually unlimited government. And when government has no limits, its subjects have no liberty.

Bovard's style is rapid fire. An indefatigable researcher, he inundates the reader with horror upon horror in a veritable tsunami of government atrocities. In the first page of the first chapter, he presents a vivid and wide-ranging summation of the different ways government can tyrannize today:

"The attack on individual rights has reached the point where a citizen has no right to use his own land if a government inspector discovers a wet area on it, no right to the money in his bank account if an IRS agent decides he might have dodged taxes, and no right to the cash in his wallet if a DEA dog sniffs at his pants. A man's home is his castle, except if a politician covets the land the house is built on, or if his house is more than fifty years old, or if he has too many relatives living with him, or if he has old cars parked in his driveway, or if he wants to add a porch or deck. Nowadays a citizen's use of his own property is presumed illegal until approved by multiple zoning and planning commissions. Government redevelopment officials confiscate large chunks of cities, evicting owners of homes and giving the land to other private citizens to allow them to reap a windfall profit. Since 1985, federal, state, and local governments have seized the property of over 200,000 Americans under asset forfeiture laws, often with no more evidence of wrongdoing than an unsubstantiated assertion made by an anonymous government informant.

"Government officials now exert vast arbitrary power over citizens' daily lives, from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bureaucrats that can levy a $145,000 fine on a Chicago small businessman because he did not have 8.45 blacks on his payroll to federal agricultural bureaucrats that can prohibit Arizona farmers from selling 58 percent of their fresh lemons to other Americans. Customs Department inspectors can wantonly chainsaw import shipments without compensating the owner, Labor Department officials can nullify millions of employment contracts with a creative new interpretation of an old law, and federal bank regulators are officially empowered to seize the assets of any citizen for allegedly violating written or unwritten banking regulations."

The 10 chapters of Lost Rights contain the frightening details of these and many, many other invasions of liberty by governments beyond citizen and judicial control. The modern American police state has its way with its people through zoning, asset forfeiture, historic preservation, wetland controls, scenic rivers, urban renewal, marketing orders, antidumping laws, Superfund, banking regulations, licensing, labor regulations, gun control, union protection, transit monopolies, public school control, disability rules, and anti-pornography laws. Those who resist the dictates of the phalanx of repressive agencies at the local, state, and federal level are dealt with summarily, from fines and court orders on to outright murder and massacre, as at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Bovard appears to be the most exhaustive researcher in the country. Lost Rights features over 2,000 footnotes, ranging from daily newspaper stories to court cases to congressional hearings. The evidence is overwhelming, and terrifying. We are losing our liberties, with no organized force or leadership working to reverse this terrifying trend.

Bovard concludes, "The time has come to face up to the pervasive failures and to radically reduce government officials' power to coerce, expropriate, and subjugate other Americans. The American people placed its faith in the State, and the State failed. We need a new faith in individual liberty."

More accurately, we need to revive the old faith. But if the last bit of American liberty glimmers and dies, consumed by the onrushing power of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable state, it will not be because no one sounded the warning. James Bovard has done so, powerfully and exhaustively. Our only hope to remain a nation of free people is for enough people to absorb this message, and resolve to reclaim their liberty and the genius of the Old Republic.

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