Troy Media – By Pierre Lemieux
I met Conrad Black twice. The first time was at George Jonas’ birthday party in mid-2005. Hosted by Black’s friend and lawyer Eddie Greenspan, it was a very enjoyable event in a very civilized place. Cigarettes were available on all tables, and I was invited to smoke my cigar in the house. The second time, later that same year, was two days before Conrad Black was indicted in Chicago. I had invited him to a lunch meeting of my Freedom Club, a Montréal salon I created with my late friend Bob Bexon.
Black and I are very different persons. He is – or was – a rich international jet setter, and what I would call, with due respect for a friend, a somewhat politically naïve conservative. I am a poor libertarian author who views politics with no romance (to paraphrase James Buchanan, the Nobel prize-winning economist).
Can’t call U.S. really free anymore
During our conversation, Black claimed the United Kingdom and the United States were free countries. I think America is the least un-free country in the word (at least for somebody with my own personal preferences); yet I argued and would still argue that neither America nor England can be called really free anymore.
Ironically, Conrad Black admires Franklin D. Roosevelt, who tightened the first bolts in the implacable machine that was to send Black to jail three quarters of a century later. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a creature of FDR, was an early and crucial actor in what has become the persecution of Conrad Black.
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Black had a dual political personality. On the one hand, he congregated with many liberticidal establishment figures, the sort of people who meet at Davos or the Trilateral Commission and conspire for increased state power to social engineer our lives. In 2001, the British government made him Lord Black of Crossharbour.
On the other hand, Lord Black gave a refreshing libertarian orientation to the newspapers he owned and built. It was under his leadership in 2001 that Britain’s Daily Telegraph launched its “Free Country” editorial series with an extraordinary piece by Charles Moore. That piece ended with, “The Labour Government’s Queen’s Speech is a shopping list of attacks on our liberties. Libertad o muerte!” Future historians will remember.
Everything I have seen and read suggests that, as he has himself claimed for half a dozen years, Conrad Black is innocent of the crimes he was charged with – and “crimes” should be put in quotes.
The case, no doubt, is complicated, but it started with a contractual disagreement with some investors, the sort of thing that should have been settled in civil courts. Instead, the SEC and some little prosecutors in Chicago unleashed all the power and resources of Leviathan against the international businessman.
They did not charge him with murder, assault, theft, or any old-fashioned fraud, but with vague crimes that did not exist a few decades ago, and to which they added obstruction of justice. The laws are now so numerous and complex that little room is left for contracts between sophisticated financiers – “capitalist acts between consenting adults”, as philosopher Robert Nozick would have said. Witness the “honest services” theory, which was pared down by the Supreme Court as Black sat in jail, cancelling two of the four charges under which he had been found guilty.
The author of the Federalist Papers # 62 (Hamilton or Madison) saw the danger of such a proliferation of made-up laws: “The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”
It could happen to you
In our countries, the criminal justice system evolved as a means to protect individual liberty against violent criminals, real thugs, and obvious thieves. Plenty of safeguards were built in so as to prevent the system from persecuting innocents and becoming a simple tool of the state. These safeguards have continuously eroded during the 20th century.
Institutions have their logic, and we end with up a criminal justice system that regularly throws the full power of the state – and God knows how powerful it has become – against individuals whose “crimes” are contractual glitches, or are simply generated by changing interpretations of complex and mutable laws. Conrad Black is one (ironical) example among many. It could happen to you, too.
Pierre Lemieux is an economist and author who lives in Maine. His latest book (with William Bonner) is The Idea of America: What It Was and How It Was Lost (Laissez-Faire Books, 2011).
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