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Tyranny of Good Intentions

July 12, 2000


The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Bureaucrats are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice.
Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton
Forum, 2000. xiii + 183 pgs.
Review by Robert P. Murphy


The interested layman will find no shortage of accessible collections of government abuses. The Government Racket, by Martin Gross, or Philip Howard's The Death of Common Sense, certainly fit the bill. Should our layman suffer from an adolescent attention span, he may skim the anecdotes contained in Reader’s Digest's "That’s Outrageous!"

Such a lover of Kafkaesque absurdity will not be disappointed by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton’s The Tyranny of Good Intentions. He will smirk when he reads that Exxon was charged, in relation to the Valdez accident, not merely with polluting the water, but also for hunting migratory birds without a permit.

The reader will snort when he learns that the prosecutors of Charles Keating boasted that their case rested on "legal exceptions to two common notions—that guilt requires intent to commit a crime and that people are responsible only for their own acts" (53, qtd. in original). And such a reader will no doubt chortle when he finds that as a result of Superfund, a pizza company was held liable for environmental damage simply because one of its cardboard boxes had been found in a hazardous waste dump.

But our authors do not intend their discussion of court cases to be fodder for late-night comics. This reviewer senses that the book is intended primarily as an ominous alarm to those self-professed conservatives who concede academically that the U.S. government is "out of control," yet feel no personal concern, for they do not fit racial profiles, own handguns, or smoke cigarettes. Our authors wish to shake such conservatives out of their complacent slumber, and convince them that the danger is real. What of Joseph and Frances Lopes, whose home was "forfeited" when their mentally disturbed son planted marijuana in the backyard?

In response to concerns voiced over this outrage, U.S. prosecutor Marshall Silberberg snapped that the family should "be happy we let them live there as long as we did" (129).

In addition to such sobering tales of government malfeasance, Roberts and Stratton offer us a theory explaining why these abuses occur. In their opinion, Americans have lost the Rights of Englishmen, squandering in a few generations what took their forebears centuries to wrestle from rapacious rulers. A constant theme is that the elusive promise of "economic security" is no substitute for equality before and protection under the law.

In this context, the authors claim that an unemployed English coal miner of the 1930s was far more "secure" than Nikolai Bukharin, a Kremlin official wielding immense political power who was proclaimed by Lenin as "the golden boy of the revolution" (22). All of Bukharin’s achievements and perquisites were useless when Stalin decided that he had been a traitor all along. After a show trial consisting of anonymous accusations and fictitious confessions wringed by torture, Bukharin was declared guilty and summarily executed, while his wife was accorded leniency and merely sent to a Siberian work camp.

As if all of the above were not enough, our authors also offer a final chapter entitled, "What Is to Be Done?" This is the weakest part of the book, for it reads just as the previous chapters—it cites ever more examples of government abuse, yet is devoid of any remedy. Our authors tell us what is not to be done: "The plight of American democracy is beyond the reach of legal reform alone.... Legislation is no solution when bureaucrats stand statutes on their heads and the Supreme Court will not defend the Constitution, or Congress its own powers" (176).

But as far as what is to be done, the reader is thrown this paltry scrap: "Without an intellectual rebirth, a revival of constitutionalism, there is no hope for American democracy" (176).

As an admitted anarcho-capitalist, this reviewer feels such a "solution" will only lead to disappointment. There was never a people so committed to individual liberty and the Rights of Englishmen as the colonial Americans, and yet—as Roberts and Stratton so cogently describe—their freedoms were gradually eroded by the seductive promises of the State.

As the late Murray Rothbard pointed out, consumers need not be "ever vigilant" against unjust encroachments by private firms; competition and private property will see to that. Only when the government monopoly of the judicial system is abolished will we truly see an end to legal atrocities.

In this vein, it should also be remarked that the very title of the book is a misnomer. Aside from a few passing remarks about conservatives wishing to "get tough" on crime, and liberals wishing to protect disadvantaged minorities, the book largely describes the actions of evil people.

Indeed, the American public supported the witch hunts of Leona Helmsley and Michael Milken because of envy, not misguided altruism. Our authors recognize this; they certainly cannot be accused of naiveté.

This reviewer can only conclude that the book's title and non-judgmental preface have been influenced by strategic considerations; the average American still does not believe most politicians and judges are sinister, but simply incompetent. A person with this mindset is likely to reject what he or she considers to be "conspiracy theories."

The above objections notwithstanding, The Tyranny of Good Intentions is a slim volume that offers a scholarly documentation of the deplorable state of the modern American legal system. It also offers a few miscellaneous treats: the origins of the prohibition of hearsay and self-incrimination, and of the term "robber barons," the role then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani played in two of the abuses chronicled in the book, and the insidious effects of Benthamite utilitarianism.

All in all, The Tyranny of Good Intentions will enlighten—and probably surprise—even those who feel they’ve heard it all before.

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Robert P. Murphy, a graduate student in economics at New York University, is a summer fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

For more book reviewers, see that vast trove at The Mises Review.


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