- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

All over the Russian countryside, in the dozy, dusty retirement compounds where former commissars and comrades now reside, history's has-beens mutter about what might have been: Cheap coal for the proletariat. Steel mills covering not a dozen acres but a dozen square miles and employing thousands of men, women and children. Rockets so powerful they could land a cosmonaut not on the moon but on the sun. And, of course, mandatory psychiatric treatment for anyone who utters a word about Silicon Valley.
Believe me, they are out there aging sourly in all the old Soviet republics, the last of the Soviet elites, grumbling about Mikhail Gorbachev's errors, convinced that the Marxist path was a better way. Their days are filled with gloom unless by chance they can get a report, perhaps on Radio Liberty, of the latest assault on capitalism by the U.S. Justice Department led by Comrades Reno and Klein. Break up Microsoft. Jail the tobacco executives. Crack down on Sotheby's. And set the 82nd Airborne upon young Elian's safe house. The Justice Department of the United States is doing V.I. Lenin's work.
History moves in curious ways. Since the early 1980s, capitalism has brought havoc to the aging Soviets' once orderly world. Now from the unlikely locale of Washington there is hope the bloom may be off the capitalist springtime. In one day in early April one government ruling against Microsoft set off two of the most volatile days in the history of the stock market. Lawrence Lindsey, a retired governor of the Federal Reserve, tells us, "The Nasdaq swung as much on those two days as did the Dow during its famous 1987 crash." And Mr. Lindsey goes on to report that "a massive uncertainly" was created "for the fastest-growing segment of our economy."
That is good news for those made dizzy by all the economic growth of recent years. Along with tax cuts, the squelching of inflation, and a reduction of defense spending, the rapid increase in productivity created by the advances of Computer Civilization has set off the greatest economic boom in modern times which is another way of saying the greatest economic boom of all time. Yet now it appears that government American government is about to step in and sedate the boom.
Its armies of lawyers, public relations specialists, regulators, and snoops can come down on any business, smear it and embroil it in years of distracting court cases. Always it claims it is doing some great good for the commonweal, but usually it is doing some great good for government. Consider the assault on tobacco. For years the Justice Department has smeared the companies as purveyors of poison. Yet has the government proscribed the poison? Not at all. Rather it taxes the poison providing ever more revenues for the government and tobacco at higher prices. Ironically the same administration that harasses the tobacco industry, the Clinton administration, is composed of people who in their youth, and most probably even today, favor the legalization of marijuana. And now that the Clintons have grown up they can legalize the weed and tax it.
In the case of Microsoft, we have the ridiculous spectacle of government lawyers and regulators with no demonstrated knowledge of the computer industry vowing to take this advanced industry over and improve it. Precisely how will they break up Microsoft, giving stockholders more value, Microsoft's clients cheaper software, and the industry more competition? Is there any evidence that the Justice Department's Joel Klein and his marplots have any of the requisite skills to do anything other than disrupt the economy?
But the disruptions of the Justice Department's virtue patrols are not confined to the most successful of American businesses. They fall even on smaller ones, even to the benefit of foreign competitors. Now the American auction house, Sotheby's, is being sorely pressed by the Justice Department, and its officers smeared, all because the department entered into a plea agreement with agents of Christie's, a French company and Sotheby's main competitor. Christie's claims it secretly with Sotheby's fixed commissions. Yet, commissions are published just as real estate commissions are published. Moreover, Christie's allegations against Sotheby's cost Christie's nothing. Is Justice going to extradite French citizens? On the other hand, its actions against Sotheby's could free Christie's of a rival.
Of course the most poignant show of force from the Justice Department came recently in Miami. The use of force was admirable. All the old Soviet elites must have been heartened, though even so staunch a liberal Democrat as Harvard's Laurence Tribe admonished that it "strikes at the heart of constitutional government and shakes the safeguards of liberty." This Justice Department is not only highly politicized. It is reckless.


R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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