When you cut through the fog, the NSA controversy is about whether we should trust people with institutional power. Edward Snowden’s courageous exposure of massive secret surveillance separates those who say yes from those who say, “Hell no!”
The trusting attitude can be found among progressives and conservatives alike (with notable exceptions), and even some who have identified themselves as libertarians. Matt Miller, an occasional guest host on the progressive network MSNBC, left no doubt where he stands when he flippantly wrote in the Washington Post,
Do you empathize more with those who govern — and who in this case are charged with protecting us? Or has the history of abuse of power, and the special danger from such abuses in an age when privacy seems to be vanishing, leave you hailing any exposure of secret government methods as grounds for sainthood?…
Is there potential for abuse? Of course. An Internet-era J. Edgar Hoover is frightening to conjure. But what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It’s a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight.
So it’s okay if the government monitors masses of innocent people as long as it’s reviewed by a clique of gagged members of Congress and a secret rubber-stamp “court.” That’s what I call trust in power. Frankly, it’s more alarming that the spying is legal rather than rogue. Michael Kinsley once said, “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.”
Miller’s progressive colleague Richard Cohen said much the same thing in much the same tone:
The National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone calls and e-mails — and even social media stuff of the sort you shouldn’t have been doing anyway. [!] To this, a whole lot of people have expressed shock. Oaths to the Fourth Amendment have filled the air. Unreasonable searches are simply unconstitutional, they assert — without asserting that anything has in fact been searched or seized. It has merely been noted and, if suspicious, referred to a court for the appropriate warrant.
The programs certainly can be abused. (So can local police powers.) But oddly enough, proof that this has not happened comes from the self-proclaimed martyr for our civil liberties, Edward Snowden.…
The sweaty beast of power
A defining trait of those who trust power is that abuse is of no concern until it occurs — if we learn about it, that is. It never occurs to them that power is inherently abusive. Donald Boudreaux informs us that Edmund Burke, the conservative Whig, had a keener insight into abuse. Burke, a darling of American conservatives, wrote of America in 1775,
In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.
(Cohen is true to form. After President Jimmy Carter’s energy-crisis speech in 1977, Cohen urged Carter to throw his arms around the sweaty beast of power — that’s nearly verbatim — concluding, “We are waiting for our orders, Mr. President.”)
Both Miller and Cohen, along with others, try to diminish the disclosures by asserting that the government is only doing what Google does every day. The difference between, on the one hand, surveillance by a coercive monopoly with the legal authority to use aggressive force and, on the other, commercial offerings from one of several competing service providers seems to elude them.
The editorial board of the Post agrees with its columnists:
Just as it is important not to exaggerate the national security risks of transparency, it is also important not to give into the anti-government paranoia [!] of grandstanding politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who on Sunday invoked the tyranny of King George III to criticize programs that are the result of a checked, deliberative process across three branches of government. Part of what makes this different is that if enough Americans expect more privacy after the debate Mr. Snowden incited, their representatives in Washington can act on their behalf.
That’s another mark of trust in power: a belief that those “representatives” actually represent us in any meaningful sense. The great unasked question is: How can someone literally represent anywhere from several hundred thousand to tens of millions of strangers?
For every ridiculous thing said by someone on the so-called Left, you can find an equivalent on the Right. Mark Thiessen, once a speech writer for President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, devoted his Washington Post column to assuring those of us who distrust power that “Big Brother is not watching you.” About the mass collection of telephone logs, Thiessen says we have no grounds for concern:
In Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy, and thus no Fourth Amendment protection, for the phone numbers people dial (as distinct from the content of the call), because the number dialed is information you voluntarily share with the phone company to complete the call and for billing purposes.
A third sign of trust in power is being impressed when one branch of government decides that you and I have no “reasonable expectation” that another branch of government will respect our privacy. After all, if you are willing to disclose a phone number to the telephone company (by calling that phone), why would you mind if the NSA stored the number (and other information) for future reference? Verizon, NSA — to quote a recent secretary of state, what difference does it make?!
“The leaks do not describe the many ‘inward-facing’ restrictions directed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to the government that describe the conditions and limitations on when and how the data can be accessed and how they can [be] used,” Thiessen writes.
Lies for our own good
In other words, trust them. The components of government will limit each other. What’s that you say? The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the American people when asked if the government was collecting information on millions of Americans? He had to lie, we’re told. It was for our own good. (The head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, lied too.)
As is said in the law, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. (“False in one thing, false in all things” is an instruction given to jurors: if they find that a witness lied about an important matter, they are entitled to ignore everything else that witness said.)
David Brooks, the New York Times resident conservative, portrays Snowden as an alienated character, like Holden Caulfield, who “has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years,” who was an inadequate neighbor, and who has his priorities screwed up:
But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This seems rather overwrought. Let’s remember that all Snowden did was tell us how extensive the government’s data collection is; it goes beyond what even the author of the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), intended. (So much for its trumpeted legality. Note well: legal and constitutional language is inherently underdeterminate and thus subject to biased interpretation by those with an interest in expanding power.) From what Brooks has to say, you’d think a blank check for the government is what holds society together. Did Snowden indulge in excessive individualism, or did he in fact “look after the common good”? If you trust power, you’ll choose the former.
What these pundits won’t understand is that distrust of power, which lies at the very heart of the centuries-old liberal tradition, is responsible for so much of what is good about our civilization.
Lord Acton’s dictum — “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — is only liberalism’s most famous statement of distrust. Before Acton, David Hume, one of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, noted,
Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.
One could quote the early liberals all day long on this subject, but you get the point. Those who today apologize for the NSA, the Obama administration, and their enablers in Congress betray the deepest ideals of Western civilization. They, not Edward Snowden, are the traitors.
This article was originally published in the September 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.