Exclusive Interviews
James Bovard on His Famous Libertarian Books, America's Failing Freedom and 'Why Life Is too Short to Drink Bad Beer'
By Anthony Wile - September 25, 2011

Introduction: James Bovard is the author of nine books, including Attention Deficit Democracy (2006), The Bush Betrayal (2004), and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994). He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, and many other publications. His books have been translated into Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean. He is a contributing editor for American Conservative magazine and The Freeman and a regular contributor to Freedom Daily magazine. The Wall Street Journal called Bovard "the roving inspector general of the modern state," the New York Times tagged him "an anti-czar Czar," and Washington Post columnist George Will called him a "one-man truth squad." His writings have been publicly denounced by the chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the Postmaster General, and the chiefs of the U.S. International Trade Commission, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as by many congressmen and others of the highest rank and lowest common denominator.

Daily Bell: Thanks for sitting down with us. What is the state of freedom in the world today?

James Bovard: It is under siege in most places where it has not already been abolished.

Daily Bell: How about America?

James Bovard: There has been a long-term trend of trampling rights and liberties. After 9/11, the pernicious trend greatly accelerated.

Daily Bell: Have things gotten worse since you began writing?

James Bovard: Yes, but that is not solely because of my articles.

Daily Bell: Give us some background. Where did you grow up? How did you become a libertarian-oriented person and writer?

James Bovard: I was raised in the mountains of Virginia. When I was a teenager, I watched Nixon devastate the economy with wage and price controls at the same time he took the US off of the gold standard. Political perfidy permeated the 1970s, and I learned to expect very little from politicians. My own dealings with government agencies – such as the summer I spent goofing off while on the payroll of the Virginia Highway Department – also spurred my disdain. See: My Summer Road to Perdition

Daily Bell: Give us some more background. School? College?

James Bovard: I attended Virginia Tech off-and-on for two years and then dropped out. I sold my first piece to the New York Times op-ed page when I was 22, and have been hitting newspapers and magazines ever since – sometimes often, sometimes less frequently. In fact, my first modest effort used a kind of Swiftian approach to ask whether conscription (as opposed to elections) would give us a better quality of congressmen. You can see it here: Satire.

Daily Bell: Impressive. Why did you decide to write libertarian-oriented books?

James Bovard: I wanted to wake folks up to the perils of Leviathan, and books provided far more opportunity to marshal evidence than did newspaper or magazine articles. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of writing.

Daily Bell: Okay, give us a quick take on the impact of the Internet – the Internet Reformation, as we call it – on the libertarian dialogue. Is free-market thinking become more widespread? Have things changed since you started writing?

James Bovard: It is far easier for individuals to discover free-market thinking now than it was 20 years ago. On the other hand, people's reading ability seems to be declining. The habits that people develop while "reading" material on the web sometimes undercut the concentration necessary to grasp new ideas.

Daily Bell: When did you discover Austrian economics – Mises, Rothbard, et al.? Is Keynesian/Fabian finance dying or dead?

James Bovard: I have great respect for the Austrian economics approach. I was gung-ho in favor of free markets from the time I was 15 or 16. A few years later, I heard a speech by William F. Buckley about Hayek's Road to Serfdom. I tracked down that book and then devoured most of Hayek's other books. Hayek's legal/philosophical framework was invaluable for understanding both economics and politics. Hayek also spurred me to do more reading of Scottish, British and French political theorists. His Mirage of Social Justice (Vol. 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty) inspired my 1991 book, The Fair Trade Fraud.

Unfortunately, the Keynesian approach is not dead because it will always be profitable to politicians. Keynes's "multipliers" give politicians a license to do stupid things (or to give tax dollars to their donors) and claim that they are saving the nation.

Daily Bell: What was your first book and how did you get it published?

James Bovard: Farm Fiasco (1989) was the first book. I wrote it after a California think tank contacted me and offered to pay me to write a book bashing farm subsidies.

Daily Bell: Why have your books been so successful? Is it because you decided to focus on government inefficiency?

James Bovard: I enjoyed throwing rocks at the government. It was fun to find the facts that would debunk some political or bureaucratic salvation scheme.

Daily Bell: Did you have trouble finding publishers in the beginning?

James Bovard: Some of the first book projects I carved out did not make it into print, but they were valuable training.

Daily Bell: Let's take some of your books and examine them. Give us some commentary.

Fair Trade Fraud: How Congress Pillages the Consumer and Decimates American Competitiveness …

James Bovard: Here are some epigrams from that 1991 work:

  • Government cannot make trade more fair by making it less free.
  • "Fair trade" is a moral delusion that could be leading to an economic catastrophe.
  • The US government has created a trade lynch law that can convict foreign companies almost regardless of how they operate.
  • American trade negotiators have exerted far more effort to close the US market than to open foreign markets.
  • It should not be a federal crime to charge low prices to American consumers.
  • The myth of fair trade is that politicians and bureaucrats are fairer than markets – that government coercion and restriction can create a fairer result than voluntary agreement – and that prosperity is best achieved by arbitrary political manipulation, rather than allowing each individual and company to pursue their own interest.
  • Our great grandchildren may look back at the trade wars of the twentieth century with the same contempt that many people today look at the religious wars of the seventeenth century – as a senseless conflict over issues that grown men should not fight about.

Daily Bell: Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994)

James Bovard: More epigrams …

  • America needs fewer laws, not more prisons.
  • It is important to have a sounder distinction between democracy and thievery than simply counting votes.
  • Beggaring the taxpayer is the main achievement of the welfare state. The federal tax system has turned individuals into sharecroppers of their own lives.
  • The key to contemporary American political thinking is the neutering of the State – the idea that modern government has been defanged, domesticated, tamed.
  • A law is simply a reflection of the momentary perception of self-interest by a majority of a legislative body.
  • Politicians have sought to maximize social progress by maximizing the number of people labeled to be criminals.
  • Without a realistic concept of government, political philosophy is only an exercise in moral aesthetics.

Daily Bell: Shakedown

James Bovard: In this short 1995 book, I sought to mix muckraking and mirth – to shock readers at the same time I provoked belly laughs. The book had volley after volley of bureaucratic rampages involving asset forfeiture, HUD, the Food and Drug Administration, money laundering, the Endangered Species Act and even breast-feeding (as far as it related to harebrained child abuse accusations). I sought to plant the seeds of skepticism in readers' minds by vivifying how, across the board, government was far more abusive, oppressive and deceptive than they suspected.

Daily Bell: Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen (1999)

James Bovard: OK, more epigrams …

  • Paternalism is a desperate gamble that lying politicians will honestly care for those who fall under their power.
  • The Night Watchman State has been replaced by Highway Robber States – governments in which no asset, no contract, no domain is safe from the fleeting whim of politicians.
  • So much of political philosophy throughout history has consisted of concocting reasons why people have a duty to be tame animals in politicians' cages.
  • The surest effect of exalting government is to make it easier for some people to drag others down.
  • The growth of government is like the spread of a dense jungle, and the average citizen can hack through less of it every year.
  • Trusting government nowadays means dividing humanity into two classes: those who can be trusted with power to run other people's lives, and those who cannot even be trusted to run their own lives.

Daily Bell: Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years (2001)

James Bovard: Some more …

  • Clinton exploited and expanded the dictatorial potential of the US presidency.
  • The power a politician acquires for government will survive long after his photo opportunities have faded.
  • Faith in the coercive power of the best and brightest permeated Clinton administration policymaking.
  • The lies that Clinton got away with were far more important than the ones on which he was caught.
  • The better that people understand what Clinton did in office, the greater the nation's chances for political recovery.

Daily Bell: Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (2003)

James Bovard: Others that come to mind …

  • Nothing happened on 9/11 that made the federal government more trustworthy.
  • The Patriot Act treats every citizen like a suspected terrorist and every federal agent like a proven angel.
  • The worse government fails, the less privacy citizens supposedly deserve.
  • There is no technological magic bullet that will make the government as smart as it is powerful.
  • Killing foreigners is no substitute for protecting Americans.
  • It is impossible to destroy all alleged enemies of freedom everywhere without also destroying freedom in the United States.
  • A lie that is accepted by a sufficient number of ignorant voters becomes a political truth.
  • Citizens should distrust politicians who distrust freedom.
  • In the long run, people have more to fear from governments than from terrorists. Terrorists come and go, but power-hungry politicians will always be with us.
  • Habeas corpus is an insurance policy to prevent governments from going berserk.

Daily Bell: The Bush Betrayal (2005)

James Bovard: Here …

  • Truth is a lagging indicator in politics.
  • The arrogance of power is the best hope for the survival of freedom.
  • We need a constitutional amendment to make the federal government obey the Constitution.
  • There are no harmless political lies about a war. The more such lies citizens tolerate, the more wars they will get.
  • People have been taught to expect far more from government than from freedom.
  • Neither Washington nor Jefferson ever intended for the President of the United States to become the Torturer-in-Chief.

Daily Bell: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006). …

James Bovard: A final few …

  • In recent years, Americans have devoted far more effort to spreading democracy than to understanding it.
  • Rather than a democracy, we increasingly have an elective dictatorship. People are merely permitted to choose who will violate the laws and the Constitution.
  • Instead of revealing the "will of the people," election results are often only a one-day snapshot of transient mass delusions.
  • A democratic government that respects no limits on its own power is a ticking time bomb, waiting to destroy the rights it was created to protect.
  • Bogus fears can produce real servitude.
  • As long as rulers are above the law, citizens have the same type of freedom that slaves had on days when their masters chose not to beat them.
  • Democracy unleashes the State in the name of the people.
  • The more that democracy is assumed to be inevitable, the more likely it will self-destruct.
  • Attention Deficit Democracy produces the attitudes, ignorance and arrogance that pave the way to political collapse.

Daily Bell: Thanks. What is your latest book? You must be working on something. Tell us about it.

James Bovard: Attention Deficit Democracy was the most recent book (2006). I wrote it to disprove scurrilous rumors that I had become an idealist.

Daily Bell: But what are you working on now?

James Bovard: Whittling on some memoir essays on some of my adventures from teen years onwards. I hope that my Parole Officer gives permission to publish them.

Daily Bell: Do you think your books have made a difference? They are very inspirational and well researched in our view.

James Bovard: Thanks for your kind words. It is hard for me to gauge the impact of the books. They have given some people good laughs, and they have made me many enemies over the decades.

Daily Bell: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic these days?

James Bovard: I try to have a firewall inside my head – where my natural optimism on life is not tainted by my cynicism about government and politicians. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic at this point – just jaded. Comedian Lily Tomlin best expressed the challenge of our times: "No matter how cynical you become, it is not enough to keep up."

Daily Bell: Do you believe there is a kind of power-elite cabal that is trying to set up one world government? We call it the Anglo-American power elite.

James Bovard: Don't forget the French. They were the ones who dragged NATO into the war in Libya. I hope that whatever Anglo-American power elite exists can be soon exiled to some isolated Colorado mountaintop where they hold gassy conferences in perpetuity that no one attends.

Daily Bell: What do you think about the wars in which the US is involved?

James Bovard: The US has not had a "good war" since long before I was born. I have been disappointed to see how both George W. Bush and Obama have gotten away with so many false statements regarding their foreign conflict. And I am appalled to see how the Obama team is using drones to kill people in more nations than we yet know.

Daily Bell: What is your opinion of 9/11? How did it happen?

James Bovard: US foreign policy sowed anger through much of the Middle East. Eventually, a cadre of Arabs decided it was worthwhile to kill themselves to try to strike back. US politicians exploited the attacks to seize far more power over Americans and much of the world.

Daily Bell: Is the US getting less free?

James Bovard: Perhaps not in the last 24 hours, but I would not want to wager heavily on that score. Politicians have been seizing and abusing more power with almost every passing year. I am still waiting for the "Liberty Rebound" – or at least a "dead cat bounce" for freedom.

Daily Bell: Should central banking be abolished?

James Bovard: Central banking has worked out great for the banks and the politicians. Practically everybody else has gotten shafted. I have been amazed how the mainstream American media kowtows to and glorifies the Federal Reserve. Ron Paul has done heroic work in putting the Federal Reserve on the national radar screen. Open their books and their prestige will collapse.

Daily Bell: Is the EU on the way out?

James Bovard: I hope so. Greek politicians will steal anything that is not nailed down. It was folly to add Greece (and several other countries) to the EU. The notion of a free trade zone covering all of Europe was a vast step forward after World War Two. Seeking to create a political union should have been recognized as a Pandora's Box even before it commenced. Simply because two nations drop trade barriers does not mean that politicians should put more people under their thumbs.

Daily Bell: Is the US headed for an endless depression? Is it in one?

James Bovard: No, it is a bad recession. At some point, the current gang of political rascals will be pushed out of power and American economic vitality could begin to revive.

Daily Bell: Is China an up and coming power?

James Bovard: At least for now. We will see if it blows up financially.

Daily Bell: Are we headed for more wars?

James Bovard: As long as politicians can profit from stampeding the citizenry, I fear that it is only a question of time until more conflicts are ignited.

Daily Bell: A world war?

James Bovard: Hopefully not. One benefit of John McCain's defeat in 2008 was that the US government became much less likely to fight Russia over Georgia.

Daily Bell: Any other points you want to make?

James Bovard: "Life is too short to drink bad beer," as a savvy commentator once said.

Daily Bell: Resources you want to draw to our readers' attention?

James Bovard: www.jimbovard.com

Daily Bell: Thanks for sitting down with us.

James Bovard: Thanks for the excellent questions!

After Thoughts

James Bovard was born at the right time, possessing the proper talent – a combination of acute intelligence, skeptical humor and investigative discipline. But he is still lucky to be living when he is. It suits his peculiar genius.

One hundred years ago, those in government were not so obviously hypocritical. And government itself was generally much smaller, and thus had not fully exhibited the destructive tendencies of the modern era. The Age was, in a sense, one of naïve sincerity. Even socialism and communism seemed feasible (unfortunately so); applicable, too.

But today, government abuses (as a result of those "isms") are so obvious and manifold that Bovard's books might not have quite the impact that they did in the silence of the pre-Internet era. It's hard to be shocked by anything Western governments do these days, given the increasing wars and swelling economic dysfunction. More people are talking about it, thank goodness.

Bovard lived through the rankest hypocrisy at the very top of his talent. At the time when he was at his peak, (not to say he has diminished, only that he has for the most part turned to the essay form on his blog), he churned out brilliant, investigative book-length journalism on a variety of topics. In fact, for someone like Bovard, it was "easy pickings." Those who run Western governments, and especially America, were still trying to pretend, with increasing futility, that government was good and that American exceptionalism was in full flower.

Today, the Anglosphere power elite and its enablers continue to offer this meme, but it has withered considerably. Times are different. Technology has unraveled the matrix; reality has undone the lying. The Internet Reformation has made the intelligentsia far more sophisticated and even free-market oriented.

Pre-Internet, of course, there were only a few voices explaining what had gone wrong, and Bovard's was unique. He delighted in taking on hypocritical bureaucrats and their programs and then confronting them with discordant truths. The mass of contrary evidence he turned up could make your ears ring.

One thing that always struck us about his books was how rigorously researched they were, coming with copious numbers of footnotes. There was apparently no arguing with his fact-checking or his conclusions, which is why he was a secret pleasure for so many libertarians who rushed to buy his latest work as soon as it appeared.

We eagerly await his next book – a medley, no doubt, of indisputable logic, suppressed indignation and slyly humorous argumentation … all Bovardian notes. Whatever he publishes, it will likely gather anew his grateful audience, one that respects his life work and remembers when he was a far lonelier voice, presenting truth to power.

In fact, we tend to believe, as the years go by, that the full measure of his efforts will gradually reveal themselves and his compositions will be increasingly admired.

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