Civil Liberties

Alan W. Bock, RIP

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I am sorry to report that Alan Bock, a longtime columnist at The Orange County Register and a stalwart friend of liberty, died yesterday at his home in Lake Elsinore, California. Alan, who was 67, retired from the Register, where he had worked since 1980, a couple of months ago after the cancer he thought he had beaten showed up in his liver. His farewell column struck an optimistic note:

I remain convinced that the cause of individual liberty is the most noble and constructive political cause around. Albert J. Nock noted that there are two ways for people to relate: through honest exchange and mutual agreement or by one party imposing its will on the other through force, the threat of force, or fraud. He called these the economic means and the political means.

There are plenty of things more important than politics: your family and friends and treating them right, the search for spiritual meaning in an often confusing and ambiguous world, art, music, science, simple enjoyment of the good things in life, struggling to make good choices rather than destructive ones, and supporting your children in their intellectual endeavors and at soccer and softball games. All these challenges, however, can be handled better – not necessarily easily, but better – in an atmosphere of personal liberty and freedom to make one's own choices than in a repressive regime that makes choices for you and forces them on you.

Thomas Jefferson put it strikingly when he said that the majority of mankind was not born with saddles and bridles so as to be ridden by their natural masters. He also said that the natural order of things is for government to advance and liberty to recede.

There are reasons to wonder about his pessimism, however, with the recent turmoil in the Middle East providing the latest example. Most revolutions (ours was a rare exception) replace on old regime with one just as bad or worse. But the restiveness of the ruled, the death of communism, and other events show that the desire for liberty is also a constant – that most people sense that they can make decisions about their own lives better than a bureaucrat in a faraway capital and that it is their natural right to do so.

Liberty is forever under siege and forever on the advance. I remain optimistic about the long haul.

In addition to his copious newspaper and magazine writing, Alan was the author of four books, including Ambush at Ruby Ridge (1995) and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (2000). I first met him when I commissioned and edited the Reason article that became the basis for the former book, which deftly shows how the 1992 confrontation between Randy Weaver and armed federal agents at his property in Idaho foreshadowed the Waco disaster that unfolded the following year. I believe it was the first book-length treatment of the subject. Likewise Alan's book about the medical marijuana movement, which was published four years after Californians approved the Compassionate Use Act. That book, together with his frequent critiques of drug prohibition for the Register and Alternet, earned him the Drug Policy Alliance's 2007 Edward M. Brecher Award for Achievement in the Field of Journalism.

Over the years I ran into Alan several more times at drug policy conferences and at Reason's offices in Los Angeles. Although he pulled no punches in his attacks on oppressive government policies, he always struck me as a mild-mannered, cordial, kindhearted man with a warm smile and an easy laugh—an impression confirmed by colleagues who knew him much better than I did. The other day, guest-blogging at The Agitator, Alyona Minkovski asked, "How do you convince Americans that libertarians have compassion?" Part of the answer, I think, lies in defending the victims of government overreach, something Alan did not hesitate to do, whether the victims were patients who found relief in a forbidden plant or religious separatists who sought refuge from a corrupt world. But Alan also showed compassion in the way he interacted with other people, and being a mensch is harder than being a critic.

Cathy Taylor, James Bovard, and Justin Raimondo remember Alan here, here, and here. His column archive is here.