All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1996

Shake-Down: How the Government Screws You From A to Z

Our Ham-Fisted Government Runs Amok

Dr. Peterson, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of Business Philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Item: A federal program routinely subsidizes welfare families living in oceanfront apartments in upscale La Jolla, California.

Item: The Food and Drug Administration refuses to approve a machine that gives CPR to heart attack victims because the victims cannot give their informed consent.

Item: The Federal Highway Administration proposed a special waiver for the disabled to allow truck drivers to be qualified to drive even if they were blind in one eye and had weak vision in the other.

The above items are gleaned from this exposé of overweening, inept, ham-fisted government, prodding James Bovard to ask: Has our government run amok?

Good question, and one put forth by the author of Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. James Bovard, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, here exposes a host of outrageous and absurd infringements on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The infringements are rife and they spring from petty bureaucrats and zealous officials, elected and unelected.

Mr. Bovard reminds us of an April 1995 Gallup Poll revealing that 39 percent of Americans hold that “the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” He notes that President Clinton meanwhile regularly denounces public cynicism about government goodness and purity.

The Bovard approach alphabetically arranges cases of government running amok from A to Z.

Under A, for example, he treats affirmative action, noting Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman Clifford Alexander making the case for quotas and declaring in 1968: “We . . . here at EEOC believe in numbers. . . . Our most valid standard is in numbers. . . . The only accomplishment is when we look at all those numbers and see a vast improvement in the picture.”

The U.S. Forest Service got criticized on numbers for not hiring enough female firefighters (many woman applicants are unable to pass the Service’s strength tests for lugging heavy firefighting equipment). Upshot: It advertised: “Only unqualified applicants may apply.”

Under M, Mr. Bovard observes the lengths to which the Drug Enforcement Administration goes to stamp out the evil of medical marijuana: In La Mesa, California, a citizen was sentenced to prison for 16 months for raising a tiny amount of marijuana to treat his AIDS symptoms.

DEA steadfastly refuses to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat glaucoma that could turn into total blindness, despite findings by Yale medical Professor Steven Duke and others of marijuana’s positive therapeutic effects on the disease.

Under Z, Mr. Bovard goes after zoning abuses: Coral Gables, Florida, charges residents $35 to get a permit to paint the bathroom in their home—or the dining room or any other room. Local building inspectors patrol the streets looking for painting trucks parked at homes which may have not paid the fee.

In 1993 the New York City building inspector bushwhacked Fordham University. Fordham had gotten a permit to build a 480- foot radio tower on its Bronx campus. But after getting the tower half-finished, NYC reversed its position and revoked the permit, setting Fordham back by $500,000. (Was Fordham reimbursed? You must be kidding.)

As Bovard quotes Albert Jay Nock: “How little important it is to destroy a government, in comparison with destroying the prestige of government.” Agreed.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises. 

  • 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.