Government Pirates: The Assault on Private Property Rights & How We can Fight It by Don Corace. Harper Collins. 288 pgs. $14.95 paper.
This book is exactly what its subtitle declares, and the author has done a fine job. It is well written, concise and direct. In short, succinct chapters he covers each area of concerneminent domain, zoning, wetlands preservation, the Endangered Species Actfirst defining the issue and then describing illustrative cases. Mr. Corace knows his subject, and when the reader is done, he will know it, too. An excellent final chapter explains why we should care about these issues, and outlines ways to take action. We should all have this book in our libraries as a compact reference volume.
The limitations of the book become apparent when we consider its audience. Readers acquainted with the struggle to maintain property rights, like the readers of this newsletter, will learn nothing they do not already know, and I wonder about the effect on readers without such knowledgebecause the book lacks an historical dimension. This is, we are not told if the problem has changed over time, nor are we told why the assaults seem so determined (as in the Green cases) now. Of course, there is an ahistorical dimension in all these cases: officials making life difficult for property owners, for example, or greedy corrupt politicians are always with us, and without some history a reader unversed in these matters may think that the current assault is just the same old story of general injustice. But I think the attacks are more widespread and more determined than a business as usual account would explain, and I think there is an ideological animus operating here.
This is no place for a weighty analysis of the history of ideas for the last sixty years, but we can pick out a few themes relevant to our subject. The most far-reaching development grew out of the favored position of the U.S. in the world economy after the war, which generated great wealth, widely apparent by the latter 1950s. That in turn led to a growth in government at all levels, with a consequent increase in the endemic disease of government, bureaucrats and bureaucracy. The climate of opinion, the prevailing world view from the 1940s into the late '60s, was a mild liberalism accepted passively by all right-thinking people, a form of authoritarian benevolence that culminated in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, a venture that not only enlarged governments but also spawned quasi-governmental agencies of all sorts, as well as pseudo-independent bodies supported by grants, multiplying the number of people with officious attitudes, at the same time that they were given more intrusive powers.
The postwar liberal consensus collapsed during the student protests of the late '60s, not because the protest movement was so strong, but because college administrators and other responsible officials revealed under pressure that their convictions had been hollowed out over the years, that they were empty bags of wind. They did not really believe the sonorous phrases they had been uttering for years, and suddenly no one else did either, which is why, over the next few years, humanistic learning was destroyed in our universities. From our point of view, this had two consequences: since growing incomes in the '50s meant that many children of workingclass or lower middleclass background were able to go to college, they went at a time when a college education was losing its traditional meaning as it became schooling in a trade. These students would eventually find employment in government agencies and government-linked offices, an affluent class of timeservers in fluff jobs, one of the most ignorant schooled (not educated) subclasses ever to emerge in America, the yuppies. At the same time, with the collapse of liberal hegemony and the spread of aimless radicalism, various causes began to animate the cultural elite, and the significant thing about these causes is that they regarded individuals as members of groups. Furthermore, they were all absolutely cockeyed and ultimately destructive of our society (think Greenism).
So what has the history of the last sixty years given us? A
huge intensive bureaucracy, always inherently suspicious of individuality,
now inflamed with groupthink; a semi-elite, densely ignorant,
dedicated to utterly irrational causes underpinned by groupthink;
a consequent loss of public common sense, epitomized by the eminent
domain cases cited in the book, in
which slick land developers in collusion with stupid and/or corrupt politicians perpetrate expensive frauds on individuals and the public. The reason private property takes such a beating in this kind of climate is that it is the ultimate refuge of autonomy, and if there is anything feared and hated by groupthinkers, it's autonomy. That's really what the assault is aboutthe instinctive fear of the autonomous individual. That's what we must keep in mind as we read this book: that it's not simply a compilation of outrages, that it shows a determined attack against the qualities that used to be distinctive of Americans: selfreliance, sturdy independence.
There is one hopeful note in this gloomy history. Since the
development of conservatism, beginning in the '60s, right-thinking
people have been increasingly virulent in their attacks on their
political opponents, as if they fear the loss of their control
of the public mind (as in the
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