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Monday, May 1, 2000

Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen

American Government Conceals Its True Nature

It has been said that one of the devil’s favorite tricks is to make you think he does not exist. In Freedom in Chains, James Bovard shows how the cheerleaders for statism have spent the last two and a half centuries trying to persuade us that government coercion does not exist, or at least is unimportant. To the extent that they have succeeded, they have paved the way for wholesale expansion of that very object whose existence they deny.

The central theme of this book is that the idealist theory of the state, which depends on the concealment of government’s coercive nature, has made the American republic something that would be unrecognizable to its Founders. They were so keenly aware of the clear and present danger of state coercion that they painstakingly sought to establish institutions designed to minimize it.

Freedom in Chains is proof positive that ideas have consequences. The author alternates between identifying the origins in political philosophy of the ideas that have corrupted the American experiment in limited government and providing numerous concrete examples of the unhappy results of such wayward thinking. The first culprit singled out is Jean Jacques Rousseau, who “effectively made self-delusion about the nature of government into the highest political virtue” by using the notion of the General Will to “prove” that any depredation visited on subjects by their government, no matter how egregious, was done with their consent. Bovard then shows how those ideas reached American shores by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries via Germany and England.

As the idea of the state’s benevolence grew, more American thinkers came to see coercion as a small price to pay for the “blessings” it could bestow on us. Thus John Dewey was only slightly ahead of his time (1916) when he opined that “no ends are accomplished without the use of force. It is consequently no presumption against a measure, political, international, jural, economic, that it involves a use of force.” Indeed, those sentiments today probably have the tacit support of the great majority of Americans.

Each chapter of this book is organized around an idea that has served as cover for the power grabs by the state. Prominent among them are democracy, fairness, sovereignty, equality, and pragmatism. Bovard’s chapter on democracy is particularly well done. He takes on not democracy itself, but rather the extent to which democracy has been oversold as a protector of liberty. Democracy is merely a means to select leaders. Like government itself, “Democracy can be more noble for what it prevents than for what it achieves.” Of far greater import to the health of our liberty are restrictions placed on what those leaders can do. As the author aptly puts it, “since there is no sure-fire method of choosing good rulers, the amount of power available to any ruler, good or bad, must be minimized.”

To illustrate the consequences of the idealist theory of the state, Bovard produces a depressing parade of trampled rights ranging from the state-sanctioned murders of the Branch Davidians at Waco to killing with kindness those it has entrapped in its welfare system. Indeed, the litany of depredations at times makes the reader feel things are hopeless. But, if things were that hopeless, this book would not have been written; indeed it would not have been allowed to be written.

Bovard writes with an admirable passion for liberty. Occasionally, that passion leads him to overstate his case. For instance, he cites the fact that 6 percent of the entire U.S. population was arrested in 1996 as prima facie evidence of government perfidy. It would have been helpful had he broken down the arrests into those resulting from violations of the “traditional, accepted principles of justice” and those from running afoul of arbitrary edicts.

As one might expect from a book that identifies the root of the problem as the glorification of the state, Bovard’s solution begins with demystification and desanctification of the state. This requires that we call things by their right names, and Bovard does so with gusto. Thus he unmasks trade policy as the “arbitrary power to restrict Americans’ freedom to buy from and sell to 96 percent of the world’s population,” labels the community service some states now require for a high school diploma “a Kiddie Draft,” and characterizes the Motor-Voter Act as making “it a federal crime for state and local governments to be vigilant against voter fraud.” Statism thrives on the use of language to manipulate people’s thinking. Bovard fights back hard.

Freedom in Chains is a wonderful polemic aimed at alerting Americans that they are being duped into surrendering their freedom bit by bit to government. I recommend it enthusiastically.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.
  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.