In a recent column, Chuck Baldwin (lately nominated as the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate) pointed to something ominous that was largely ignored in the media reporting on the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Spitzer had been found out because of “suspicious” financial transactions his bank reported to the authorities. Dr. Baldwin (who is pastor of a Baptist church in Pensacola, Florida, and rightly disapproves of Spitzer’s behavior), citing a USA Today report by Thomas Frank, noted that “federal police agencies are secretly looking at the financial transactions of the American people all the time.”
Frank wrote that
Each year, federal agents peek at the financial transactions of millions of Americans—without their knowledge. The same type of information that raised suspicions about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is reviewed every day by authorities to find traces of money laundering, check fraud, identity theft or any crime that may involve a financial institution. . . . The Treasury Department’s database now contains records of more than 100 million financial transactions going back to at least 1996. . . . Financial institutions have long been required to report cash transactions over $10,000. Those reports—simple notices of a deposit or withdrawal—account for more than 90% of the records the enforcement network gets each year. . . . Far more controversial are secret “suspicious activity reports” filed by financial institutions and reviewed by teams of agents spread around the country. The investigation of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer began when a bank spotted potentially suspicious transfers from several accounts and filed reports with the IRS . . . The number of suspicious activity reports soared from 413,000 in 2003 to 1 million in 2006 . . .
A fairly common response to this kind of spying is “I’ve got nothing to hide,” and citizens of the Land of the Free have grown accustomed to lining up for drug tests, polygraph examinations, and intrusive security measures, all in the name of law enforcement and, ironically, defending our “freedom.” Pastor Baldwin has encountered this kind of preemptive law enforcement personally; he tells a story of life in our “surveillance society” involving a cash purchase of a pickup truck back in the 90’s:
To my shock and chagrin, a few days following the purchase of my truck, a criminal investigator from the IRS came to my front door and demanded to know where I got the cash to pay for my truck. . . . After a lengthy interrogation, the IRS man left, but not before issuing me a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury. Remember, this was in the late ’90’s, before Jorge Bush and Alberto Gonzales got their dictatorial hands on the helm of the myriad federal police agencies.
Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton have revised and reissued their book The Tyranny of Good Intentions in order to address the ramping up of the national-security state under President George W. Bush. “Since this book was first published in 2000,” they write,
the erosion of the legal principles that protect the innocent has continued apace. One could even say that the US criminal justice system is no longer concerned with innocence or guilt, only with ruining as many people as quickly as possible in order to justify budgets and political ambitions.
The authors focus on the Chief Executive himself:
President Bush has acknowledged that he violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act . . . a felony offense each time he did it. Bush claimed that, as commander-in-chief during his war against terror, he is exempt from the law. . . . The Bush administration argues that its powers are necessary in order to protect Americans from terrorism. The administration has used the threat of terror . . . to create the legal conditions for a domestic police state.
Much of this book is devoted to horror stories about citizens whose rights have been violated, prosecutors who value conviction rates over justice, and a frightened public—conditioned to the expansion of the state—that is all too willing to accept such conditions. The property rights of Americans were once protected by government; today, property seizures perpetrated by government, often on very dubious grounds, have become commonplace. The law once served as a limitation on the state; now, crimes are uncovered where no criminal intent existed, or created by “sting” operations—and, if government cannot find a law on the books under which to charge an offending citizen, it can create one ex post facto and charge him retroactively.
The erosion of our historic rights, as the authors see it, can be traced back to a conflict between what William Blackstone called the “rights of Englishmen” and the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. The latter
argued that Blackstonian legal principles [of limited government] were relevant only in an age of tyrants. With the rise of democracy in which the people hold the power, Bentham no longer saw any reason to fear government power. Bentham argued that in a democracy legal principles needlessly limit the government’s . . . ability to achieve the greater good for the greatest number.
Today, many Americans—“conservatives” especially—side with Bentham.
The authors’ arguments in favor of Blackstone over Bentham are familiar to the readers of this magazine, being frequently employed in polemical battles over mass democracy versus republican government, utilitarianism versus tradition, and the perfectibility of mankind by means of therapeutic legislation devised by the supposedly well-intentioned managerial class and its agents. Roberts and Stratton hint at what a utilitarian view has brought us in terms of the degradation of morals, of ends used to justify the means, and a win-at-all-costs approach that can end only in the ruthless bottom-line mentality of the globalizers.
The Tyranny of Good Intentions has much to recommend it, not least of which is a review of what our historic rights are and where they came from. In many instances, however, the examples Stratton and Roberts cite of specific cases are not adequately sourced. While the book includes an extensive bibliography, it offers scant footnotes. Few Americans are unaware of the arbitrary nature of the bureaucratic-managerial state we live in, but in a scholarly work aimed at educating as well as informing the public, careful sourcing is critical. In fact, the authors’ account of the “Jena 6” case is incorrect. (There was no connection between the now-infamous “noose” incident and the subsequent vicious beating that prompted the arrests of the suspects.) And, while the authors do a fine job of describing the tyrannical results that “good intentions” have produced, they give little attention to the anarchic side of the equation.
I have in mind, of course, the late Samuel Francis’s term “anarcho-tyranny,” in which real crimes go unpunished while the state targets law-abiding citizens in order to enforce its ideology and expand its own power. Roberts and Stratton do note that for ambitious prosecutors it is much easier to pick out targets and pressure them for plea bargains in overcrowded courts than to run a proper trial or punish real criminals. The flip side of this situation is that it is more important to the system to punish behavior that is detrimental to its justifying ideology than to fight real crime. Murder, robbery, rape, and assault often appear less dangerous to it than transgressions against what has come to be called “political correctness.” Cops may be more inclined to deal with traffic violations than to risk their lives and careers (or risk being accused of “racial profiling”) by policing an inner city “no-go zone.”
Stratton and Roberts describe the exploitation of the “War on Drugs” and President Bush’s “War on Terror” as efforts to expand the state’s police powers, which they connect to the erosion of the presumption of innocence and the sanctity of property rights, as well as to the expansion of the surveillance state. Their arguments ring true, but I had some trouble believing that our prisons are filled with innocents framed by the police, even allowing for the prosecutorial misconduct the authors chronicle. The realities of crime and punishment in 21st-century America are perhaps more complex than this book suggests.
[The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice, by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton (New York: Three Rivers Press) 264 pp., $14.95]
Leave a Reply