Vol. 10 No. 11 (November 2000) pp. 588-589.
THE TYRANNY OF GOOD INTENTIONS: HOW PROSECUTORS AND BUREAUCRATS ARE TRAMPLING THE CONSTITUTION IN THE NAME OF JUSTICE by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton. Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 2000. 242 pages. Cloth $24.95. ISBN 0-7615-2553-X.
Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University.
Despite a bibliography that runs a quarter of the book's length, THE TYRANNY OF GOOD INTENTIONS is not a scholarly work. Instead it is a rather elegant polemic in which the authors argue that the constitution has been abrogated, that a bureaucracy not accountable to the voters has replaced the legislative order, and that the "rights of Englishmen" have been eroded by overzealous prosecutions. The work features heroes, most prominently William Blackstone, and a list of villains headed by Jeremy Bentham and including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Felix Frankfurter. The argument proceeds willy- nilly, interrupted from time to time to draw creative comparisons with Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
In twelve brief chapters, Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton describe the fundamental principles enshrined in the Anglo-American tradition - the requirement of a guilty mind, the protections against ex post facto laws and self-incrimination, for example - and the threats to these rights. They claim that Thomas More was correct when he predicted in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, that without the law, nothing stands between the devil and ourselves. They argue that American citizens are face to face with Lucifer, as the mistaken social calculus of the likes of Jeremy Bentham has been allowed to replace individual rights. The list of abuses compiled by the authors has something to appeal to the libertarian in everyone. They mention prosecutorial misconduct (when, for example, prosecutors go after a person rather than a crime), but they never discuss the most blatant example of that approach - the special prosecutors appointed to investigate political figures. Instead they expend their outrage on Leona Helmsley and Bill Gates. They discuss the injustice of forfeiture laws enacted as part of the "war on drugs," as these laws reverse the presumption of innocence, but most of the specified victims of this injustice are wealthy. They excoriate the prosecutors and police who benefit from forfeiture laws, and who, they allege, now drive luxury cars, wear gold Rolexs, and belong to tennis clubs.
One chapter is entitled "Reinventing Torture." Who could favor torture? Actually what Roberts and Stratton refer to is plea-bargaining. Few would dispute that plea bargains are part of an overworked and imperfect system or that defendants are often manipulated to accept a plea that does not really reflect the truth of what happened. Some might disagree, however, that many defendants are "tortured" into a plea bargain when their "fellow church or club members" criticize their families. Michael Milken is one of the worthies the authors' claim was
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so coerced. And, they write, in righteous anger that lasts all of one sentence before returning to the agonies of the powerful, "If government coercion can 'roll' a billionaire, Democrat, Jewish financier who was one of the country's most productive economic resources, what CAN'T it do to a poor, black inner city youth or a middle class citizen?" They've tipped their hands, however. If they were interested in the youth, they might be able to spend a page or two discussing his plight, instead of six pages on Milken.
A major frustration of this book is the serendipity of the authors' victims' list. Many of the examples they cite do raise real questions of prosecutorial misconduct, corruption, or abuses of the rights of the accused. The excesses of the drug war are indisputable. Yet, the tendency to restrict the list of those who suffer from these evils to the rich and powerful calls their objectives into question. Likewise, their choice of J. Edgar Hoover as an example of a federal official who respected the "rights of Englishmen" might generate seems unconventional in the extreme.
Roberts and Stratton conclude that, "without an intellectual rebirth, a revival of constitutionalism, there is no hope for American democracy." An intellectual rebirth will require a more rigorous approach than the eccentric and selective arguments that permeate this book.
Copyright 2000 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.