Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”     George Washington

January 8, 2006

More Thinking on Government Power in the United States

by Eric

Rather than continue hijacking Brad’s post on Air Travel Security, I thought I’d move the discussion that developed there into its own post. And, I’m trying to consolidate the discussion on two different blogs into one. To see what I mean, look at this post on Eric’s Grumbles. There are some points that really ought to be discussed, although I’m not sure we can come to any useful conclusions.

First, on a personal note, John Newman said to me, “You seem to resent my term police state in reference to this government.”. No, I don’t resent it, I find it to be inflammatory rhetoric that just isn’t accurate. That’s not the same thing as “resenting it”. Let me be very clear. There are problems with how our government behaves, what powers our government has taken to itself, and how we handle the need for new, or changed, government powers. We have created an oligarchy for ourselves that is no longer accountable to the people. That is halfway what our Founding Fathers intended. They designed a system that would be run by an oligarchy, but they intended for that group of men to be accountable to the citizens. As is the nature of all those who hold power, the oligarchy wants to retain power and has done what it can to remove their accountability and retain their power. At the same time, the group comprised of the politicians and senior bureaucrats that holds power in DC will not go too far lest their power be stripped from them, perhaps even violently.

Violent rebellion has occurred several times in this country and the average joe can be awakened, when he feels that he, personally, is threatened. The reason that those who control the military pay attention to what individuals think is that this country is founded on the principle that individuals may violently overthrow their government, if they feel it necessary. Ultimately, when the people feel that all other mechanisms to remedy a problem have failed, they will take matters into their own hands. This is in distinct contrast to most European nations, where the people are conditioned to think that their privileges derive from the government, in general.

The point? In my opinion, a true police state like Apartheid era South Africa, Ba’athist Iraq, the USSR, Nazi Germany, Rumania, etc. is really not possible in this country without a dramatic and violent change that alters our national psyche. Such a situation has arisen in the past, specifically during the US Civil War and during the Great Depression, WWII and the early years of the Cold War. Otherwise, ultimately, we believe so much in individualism, individual rights, and classic liberal political philosophy that a “slow change” to a police state will not be long term successful. In fact, this has happened in this country in the 20th century.

During the 1930′s, we became extremely fascist, right down to the ugly racism that other fascist countries were using to retain control of their people. Centralized industrial planning that drove what companies could, and could not, do was the norm. Employees had their wages set, retailers had their prices controlled, taxation was running as high as 90%, fear of the depression, socialism, blacks and orientals, and war with foreign countries was used to keep the people in line with Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. People like Robert Heinlein, Mencken, Ayn Rand, Mises, Hazlitt recognized it for what it was. And they stepped carefully most of the time, recognizing that in Roosevelt and Truman’s America, the FBI, OSS and Secret Service had powers to investigate, harass and arrest that were comparable to what you might have found in Fascist Italy (although nothing like those found in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or Ba’athist Iraq). In the 1940′s, during the war years, you literally could not travel on airplanes, trains, buses or ships without government authorization to do so. Your food, gasoline, electricity, chocolate, nylons, tires, and much else was rationed by the government. If you held skills deemed necessary to the national interests, you had to take a job determined by the government.

You were subject to curfews at night, especially on the coast. If you were of Japanese, German or African heritage, you were likely to be imprisoned by the Federal Government without trial, without warrant and without the possibility of having a writ of habeas corpus issued to free you if no charges were filed. If you were a congressman who disagreed with the President, you were liable to have FDR pin an Iron Cross on you in the Capitol and publicly deride you as a sympathizer with our enemies (this happened several times, publicly). I could continue this list of how the country worked back then, but it should be obvious that it was overtly much worse than anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, in this country.

Now, on to some points that John Newman and B.W. Richardson have been making in comments on Brad’s post. I think there are a few key points they would like to make, ones that I disagree with, to some degree. And I’ll explain why. I’ll also point out where I think there are problems in this area. And I will say that our government does not deserve the labels being given to it, although it does deserve some other ones. And, finally, to answer a diversionary question from John, I think that Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry would have considered our government to be unacceptably authoritarian. As do I, for that matter. But, really, that is a side issue from whether the following points are true, or untrue. The sort of thing that distracts from the question and creates an emotional situation that doesn’t allow for a logical and objective discussion of the subject at hand.

  1. Passive security controls on travel are equivalent to an active requirement of authorization to travel.

First of all, they really aren’t. But it sounds good. If you had ever lived in an environment where you had to request permission to travel, you would actually understand the difference. I served in the military, where you cannot go more than 50 miles from your duty station without approval from your commander and appropriate paperwork authorizing you to do so. If you think the current security controls on air travel are bad, imagine if you had to go to the government and get permission before you could buy a plane ticket, and then present your travel authorization in order to buy the ticket. And if you didn’t meet the established criteria for travel, or the bureaucrat you were dealing with didn’t like you, or was having a bad day, or you goofed up the request, you wouldn’t get your authorization. If you somehow managed to buy your ticket anyhow (possible in a bureaucracy), you would likely be charged with crimes against national security and thrown in prison, after a trial that no press was allowed into. That is the difference between one and the other. Now, that doesn’t mean that I believe the passive restrictions and controls placed on travel by the government are good, contribute to liberty or are actually constitutional. Just that they are not nearly as bad as this country has seen in the past, or other people deal with on a continuous basis now.

  1. The government has never given up any power, once gained.

No, but the government has had that power taken from it, whether by force of arms or intellectual revolution. The beginning of the end for fascist America was the massive outcry that ended the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism, which was nothing more than a continuation of New Deal oppression of dissent. The intellectual, and at some times physical, revolution of the 1960′s returned significant amounts of power from the government, including some limited rights to choose what to do with your body, restrictions on police power, curtailing of intelligence agency powers, a strengthening of the Supreme Court and Congress in comparison to the Executive, and stronger applications of the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, since classic liberals had long since been discredited, it was the neo-liberals of the left who effected this change, which meant that other intrusions into liberty and individual rights, especially economically, occurred simultaneously. Or, that the economic issues were ignored. That said, the country is significantly more free today than it was in 1935, 1945 or 1955. The same goes for other such interregnums in American history, most notably the civil War. Yes, during each of these periods the government usurped power that it did not give back, or have taken from it, but that is not the whole story and it is a mistake to pretend that it is. Nor is it intellectually honest or historically accurate.

  1. Gitmo, NSA eavesdropping and Jose Padilla are equivalent to the police state behavior of the US during the Civil War, WWI and WWII.

Another great sound bite. And another distortion of reality. Reality is that Jose Padilla being imprisoned was wrong. No doubt about it. It was a failure of the justice system of the USA, allowing the executive to wield powers they should not have. The difference between that and being held incommunicado, without trial, without charges filed, without recourse to a court, like Lincoln did in the Civil War or FDR did to the Japanese in WWII, is night and day. No amount of pressure brought to bear changed things for those people. Public opinion, Congressional pressure, etc. has made a difference for Jose Padilla, and the usurpation of power by the executive is being corrected, even if not completely or perfectly. The same is true for the NSA spying. It is quite possible that we will see charges brought against members of the Bush administration, perhaps even articles of impeachment. The US intelligence agencies did the same types of things in WWI and WWII and no amount of pressure changed it, nor were charges filed against anyone in the executive branch, nor articles of impeachment even discussed.

Gitmo is a different situation, entirely. There is nothing unconsitutional, or even morally wrong, about holding enemy prisoners in wartime indefinitely without trial or resort to the civil legal system. Special laws for military conduct are provided for in the Constitution. Everything at Gitmo is well within the norm for wartime conduct towards enemy prisoners, and well within military regulation and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There’s only one problem with all of it. Congress has never declared war, which is what is necessary to activate the President’s War Powers. Ooooops. Am I upset about the Executive overstepping its boundaries? Damn skippy. Do I think, within the context of wartime, that there is anything wrong with Gitmo. No. But, according to Congress, it isn’t wartme. And that makes it wrong.

  1. An implied position that post 9/11 is worse than pre 9/11, from a perspective of both individual liberty and government power

This is clearly not the case. At least not in terms of actual powers held by the Federal Government under the law. The Patriot Act really didn’t give the Executive new powers. They could already get secret warrants for wiretaps. They could have implemented all of the travel restrictions we deal with now at any time under law that existed long before 9/11/2001. However, two significant things have occurred since 9/11. The first is that Executive power has been consolidated, instead of being dispersed among many different bureaucracies, eliminating some of the inefficiency seen in the pre-9/11 structure. The second is that the Executive has acted in accordance with the idea that they hold War Powers. However, a strict reading of the Constitution shows that the Executive only gains War Powers IF Congress declares war. Which Congress has not seen fit to do. The interesting question is, when this is tested in court, whether the court will agree with the President, or not. It seems nearly certain that the NSA spying cases, as a minimum, will be decided by the Supreme Court.

  1. That the United States is a police state, or, if not, at the beginning of the path to becoming one

No, the US is not a police state. If you declare that we are, you are either unclear on what a police state is, or you are using rhetoric for political or ideological reasons. We are a somewhat authoritarian oligarchy, combined with the trappings of direct democracy. The authoritarian olidgarchy was created by the 100% franchise for direct democracy. The degree of authoritarianism and loss of freedom is more or less comparable to the government of Britain under the Hanoverian Kings. It should be noted that this level of authoritarianism led our Founding Fathers to rebel against Britain. And, I would guess that, if the degree of authoritarianism doesn’t begin to recede soon, we are going to see the continuation of the intellectual revolution that is already starting to make itself felt. I really don’t know how this will play out, but change will come, one way or another. The American people only tolerate overt authoritarianism for so long and then they start rebelling against it.

One of my personal theories of political systems is that, for any given culture, based on a variety of factors, there is a certain level of authoritarianism and usurpation of power that the poeple of the culture will tolerate. As The USSR, Czechosolvakia, Rumania and Poland found out between 1980 and 1990, when the factors influencing that society change, then the level of authoritarianism the people will tolerate changes. One key factor is how much personal danger the individual member of that society feels exists, compared to how much loss of personal freedom (as opposed to a more diffuse set of societal freedoms that may not impact the individual directly) they feel. When the two grow out of balance, the individual begins to take action. Today, the balance is such that only a few more radical libertarians and anarchists feel compelled to take action. But, that balance is slowly shifting, which is why we are seeing a backlash in opinion, and more people speaking out against the government.

Yes, our society is not perfectly free. But, the truth is, no society in the history of man has been perfectly free. There have been times and places that have had more liberty, and times and places that have had less, in our history. And an objective reading of our history makes that very clear. Or would you choose to trade the government and society of 1935-1945 for today’s, believing that there is no real difference?

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4 Comments

  1. 1.Amendment IV

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    2.You can give examples till you are red, white, and blue in the face that the country is freer than it was in certain years, it doesn’t matter, we are not free as intended by the founding fathers. Maybe you will accept degrees of freedom as okay, I won’t.

    3. Again, if it can happen to Jose Padilla, it can happen to anyone. It is the principle, not the number of people detained.

    4. I never said it was better before 9/11. That is why I brought up Echelon & Carnivore.

    5.When the government openly kills members of the Weaver family, a religious group in WACO, abducts Elian Gonzalez, spies on its citizens in numerous ways, has the authority to prosecute businesses that do not snitch on customers, is given legal power to entrap citizens, is given legal authority to lie to citizens, gives police military style weapons and equipment to use against citizens, you can use all the euphemisms you can think of, rationalize, intellectualize, and try to turn black and white into gray til the sun don’t shine, it doesn’t change the fact that we are becoming a police state.

    Comment by John Newman — January 9, 2006 @ 7:13 am
  2. First, John, if you think I’m trying to argue that things are perfect and wonderful in these United States, you clearly haven’t read my writing.

    Second, your refusal to look at the past and see where things have been much worse for the cause of liberty appears to be an ideological strait jacket.

    Third, We are not a police state. If we were, you and I would not be having this conversation in a public forum because both of us would be held in a prison run by secret police because we are enemies of the state. We probably would not have it privately, either, because neither of us would trust the other enough to have that sort of conversation.

    Fourth, yes, things are not in good shape, nor is the country what it was intended to be. However, there are corrective mechanisms within our society and culture that are already addressing many of the more egregious abuses of power by the government. Other abuses of power, ones that matter to you and I, may not get addressed because the larger segment of our society is not worried about them. Our job is to educate, enlighten, inform and help to move things in the right direction. Screaming that we are a police state simply ensures that that you are viewed as a fringe radical by the greater portion of society, especially since we are no such thing.

    Discussing, on the other hand, why the “War on Drugs” is a really bad thing in a calm, rational fashion and providing alternative ideas, may achieve something useful.

    Your ad hominem attacks (i.e. “Maybe you will accept degrees of freedom as okay, I won’t.”) achieve nothing in this discussion and demonstrate that you haven’t bothered to read what I write. Instead, you shove clear examples of historical police states within the US to the side and just tell me that’s beside the point. You disregard clear examples where the people of this country have reclaimed abusive power from the government and tell me that’s beside the point. What’s the point of this conversation? Are you an ideologue? Or someone who will look at the reality of our 230 years of history and see it for it is. And view today within that context?

    Comment by Eric — January 9, 2006 @ 11:34 am
  3. Well, I wrote a fairly detailed response, but it seems to have disappeared into the bit bucket. Let’s try again, although I don’t have as much time now.

    I have never said that things are okay now, or used the words “accept degrees of freedom”. There was no need for an ad hominem attack (implied). However, you and I definitely have a different view on things. Degrees of freedom is all that you can ever achieve. If you think that you will ever find a human society that allows individuals to be 100% free, you are quite mistaken. Freedom of the individual and control of the individual is a constant tension in a human society, with the society achieving an equilibrium between the two that is workable, based on a significantly large number of factors. When the tension is no longer balanced, change occurs. Freedom and control are not static, unchanging things, they are dynamic and continually changing. The government is not the only portion of society with the ability to change the tension and upset the equilibrium. Witness the end of slavery in the Western world, the dramatic changes in personal liberties brought about by the American Revolution, the shift from radical liberal revolution to despotism of the French Revolution, and many other large events throughout history.

    Your contention that we are witnessing a slow transition to a true police state is, in my opinion, incorrect. I appreciate your quote from Mayer, but the reality, viewed historically, is that the change from republic to police state had already occurred by the time those “signs” were there. It happened in 1932 and 1933, long before those signs. And the police state behavior was already present before 1938. The secret police were already arresting in secret, torturing, murdering, running concentration camps.

    Other than that example (which is not a real example anyhow), I’ve been wracking my brains and cannot think of a single society that has become a true police state through a long, gradual change. I can think of societies that have gone from being somewhat free to somewhat authoritarian in that manner, but that isn’t the same thing. The United States was a true police state during the years 1941 to 1946, roughly. And it was a dramatic and sudden change brought on by Pearl Harbor. The US was authoritarian, even fascist, from 1933 to, roughly, 1955, and that change was somewhat more gradual. But even that change was brought on through a dramatic series of events (Wall Street Crash, bank failures, etc.), not a gradual, unseen change. Historically, there is no evidence I see that such a thing as a gradual change to a police state actually occurs in societies. If there is something I’m overlooking, I’ll be glad to consider it.

    The reality is, if this was a police state, or even the beginnings of one, even a mild one, you and I would not be having this conversation in a public forum. We probably would not have it privately unless we knew each other very well. And we would still be extremely cautious, lest we end up in the hands of the secret police.

    Another reality is that societies have problems, justice systems have failures, law enforcement oversteps their boundaries, the executive abuses power, and so on and so forth. But, in general, such things don’t mean catastrophe for the system. Most societies have corrective mechanisms for such mistakes. Believe it, or not, we are watching society take corrective action against the executive abuse of power that is occurring right now. Not perfectly, not always in the way you, or I, think is best, but it is happening. Will we correct to a perfect situation? No, instead, we’ll find a new equilibrium, a new balance of the tension between individual liberty and government power.

    We will never return to even the degree of individual freedom that could be found in the United States prior to the Civil War. There is no competition that will force that to happen. As long as the United States is the best choice for individual liberty and economic gain and safety and security, which we are, there is no need for our society to try harder. In a limited market, there’s not much driving change to attract more buyers. Now, if we were to suddenly see a major country become more liberal than the US, that could bring about the change we desire. In the meantime, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep working for liberty and freedom, nor do we accept the status quo as being just fine and dandy. But, we do have to decide, each and every one of us, what is our best interests, as an individual, for our family, for our society, etc.

    It is not in my best interest to be an ideologue who screams police state as loud as I can every time a police officer beats up a suspect. Because, by doing so, I destroy any credibility I do have in pointing out the problems. And the problems you point at are real ones. Things that need activism to try to effect change. If you happen to read more than just the three posts where we are having these conversations on this blog and my personal blog, you will see where I discuss many of these problems and take society and government to task. That is part of my activism. What you won’t see is me going to the extreme, because it is not an extreme situation.

    Finally, as a rational anarchist, I recognize that I am free no matter what rules society or government of direct democracy or my employer or anyone places upon me. I am free because I, and I alone, am solely responsible for myself and my decisions. If I find your rules tolerable, I comply. If I find them intolerable, I don’t. I act within my moral conscience, regardless of what you try to dictate to me. (you in the generic, third person sense) If the situation is intolerable, I have a moral responsibility to act on it. And I am acting. If this were truly a police state, in the way you think it is, I would not be talking to you in this forum, I would be taking direct action that put my life in danger to effect revolutionary change. I am committed like the pig, not the chicken.

    Comment by Eric — January 9, 2006 @ 1:00 pm
  4. [...] What the environmental movement doesn’t seem to understand, or refuses to understand, which isn’t quite clear, is that they have played into the hands of the very folks that most of them detest. Politicians, the media and lawyers, Crichton’s PLM complex, have capitalized on this entire thing to perpetuate a “state of fear”. Not the police state that some claim. This isn’t about secret police and military power and totalitarianism. These folks just want to perpetuate their own power, continue as the ones on the inside of the oligarchy. As far back as the 1890’s (or further, depending), politicians and the media were discovering that there was power and personal profit involved in creating fear. And, unlike the past, with modern methods of disseminating information, they could induce a much larger portion of the population to buy into their fear-mongering. Then they would position themselves as the ones who could “do something about it”. Thus we had fear of the Wobblies and possible communist revolution in the USA that helped bring FDR to power, fear of Japanese-American saboteurs that gave FDR’s government unprecedented (and unconstitutional) power, the Red Scare of McCarthyism, fear of Hippies and anarchy in the 60’s, another Red Scare in the 70’s, a crime scare starting in the 80’s and so forth. Interestingly, the current preoccupation with, and fear of, environmental disaster dates to the fall of 1989. [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers»Blog Archive » Elitists and a Society of Fear — January 23, 2006 @ 9:31 am

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