American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution by William M. Arkin (Little, Brown and Company 2013), 368 pages.
Among the philosophy of liberty’s core ideas is the well-known precept that a free society must be one of laws and not of men, that the rule of law should stand above the arbitrary caprice of some empowered group. The undermining of this precept in favor of the bureaucratic rule of special emergency managers is the subject of William M. Arkin’s American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution. Arkin is no mere dilettante in the study of the despotic; a Cold War army-intelligence agent, investigative journalist, and author of several books, he has given decades to delving into the labyrinthine world of the U.S. national-security apparatus, a cryptic subject too often hidden from the view of the average observer. Tying together a series of events that have empowered what Arkin calls “the XYZs of the extraordinary,” American Coup pulls back the curtain of secrecy to reveal an often-disturbing confirmation of so much that libertarians suspect. Arkin’s “XYZs” are the framework situated in opposition to the government of laws (the “ABCs”) that Americans take for granted, a counter-constitutional legal world hidden by and “codified through decades of deliberate concealment.”
The result is a small ruling cabal, able to control policy on a national scale not through any conscious or deliberate conspiracy, but rather owing to a continuing sequence of ostensible emergencies; their power is, in theory, contingent on extraordinary security circumstances, yet in practice it has functioned as a self-sustaining, shadow legal system, commensurate to a bloodless coup. The bedrock of the insidious executive power Arkin illustrates is a complacent and overarching trust in the omniscience of apparent experts, the technocrats in federal bureaucracies who supposedly know better than the rest of us. They have managed to gradually wrest governing power, to concentrate it in that formless space of regulatory authority between actual, black-letter laws. Their appeal to discretion as experts is the source of their ill-defined power. All of that Arkin calls “the Program,” “an entity and group” he analogizes to Wall Street, a synecdoche we use to mean not only the place itself, but “also allusively the entirety of interests” we associate with it.
Throughout American Coup, Arkin is careful to demonstrate that the situation he is detailing in the book is not at all partisan in nature, driven less by ideology than by the faceless momentum of institutional interests. Spanning the presidencies of both political parties, the consistent, uniting strand, said Arkin in an interview with Foreign Policy, is “a contempt for (if not a profound fear of) the citizenry.” This unelected manager-class elite sees ordinary Americans as an “other” to be watched and suppressed, and itself as guardians capable of governing during “extraordinary” circumstances. The Program illustrated by Arkin thus carries fundamentally the psychology of a conquering force.
In reading Arkin’s book, the chilling words of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four come in an unbroken echo: “The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city…. [The] consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.” Given that a perpetual state of panic is a necessary precondition to the executive-branch hegemony and martial life Arkin chronicles, there emerges the interest in promoting the semblance of constant threats. The continued sway of the invisible XYZs, animated by crisis, demands that we never actually receive the safety and security we are endlessly promised by the political class.
Arkin’s thesis updates and amends the conceptual edifice of the military-industrial complex for the 21st century, describing an “interchangeable” elite of “the corporate world,” “civilian experts and those in uniform.” American Coup therefore adds not only to a libertarian analysis of the security state, but also to a thoroughgoing treatment of sociological issues related to class, offering a revealing glimpse at the workings of power today. And the power of the Program works precisely because — being itself so nebulous in nature — all of the old whipping boys can conveniently take the blame. Americans are able to choose whichever superficial entity they want to play demon of the week, and behind it all agents of the executive’s various bodies act with impunity, without answering to the American people.
Arkin observes that while power is increasingly condensed in those agencies, it is “working-class stiffs,” “men and women who toil for years out of the spotlight,” who make up the Program itself. In the world of the “information complex,” midlevel mandarins with security clearances and access to top agency secretaries exercise surprising power; they are like Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist, Winston Smith, a member not of the topmost Inner Party, but of the second-tier, the Outer Party. His access to secret information and his occupation of rewriting history in real time gave him a power that even he could not fully appreciate. Through the XYZs of what Arkin calls “the forever war,” a growing group of Winston Smiths — subject-matter experts, government contractors, and technocrats — have ascended to a position of dominance.
Libertarian readers of American Coup may be reminded of Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan. Higgs’s book is a study of “the enduring legacies of programs first created to deal with temporary crises,” tracing the growth of the United States government as a corollary of those programs. Higgs’s work posits the theory of a “ratchet effect,” a leveraging of crisis — conscious or not — to expand the power and “the scope of effective governmental authority.” The relationship between the respective theses of Arkin and Higgs becomes apparent immediately. While Higgs focuses his attention on the growth of the state, and Arkin on the development of a parallel body of rules and a shrouded elite, the objects of their study are in fact impossible to separate. The centralization and unaccountability of power so thoroughly brought to light by Arkin is an unavoidable concomitant of government growth — and the reverse is also true. American Coup is brimming with unassailable evidence in support of libertarianism’s decentralist impulse, which would devolve power down to the most local, and thus responsive, possible entity; indeed, that ultimately means all the way back to the sovereign individual.
Using relief work after Hurricane Katrina as an example, Arkin zeroes in on the problems that arise when the national government overbearingly pushes more local bodies to the margins. Those problems, related to incentives and basic logistical realities, show that libertarians’ distrust of distant, centralized authority (and our related emphasis on less-remote institutions), is not some idle, aesthetic preference. “One reason that federal assistance in New Orleans was such a failure,” Arkin notes, “was that the executive agents who tend to love such seizures of power from local authorities also have little interest in locals, period.” It simply stands to reason that the local community will be both more invested and more aware of the unique subtleties presented by its familiar home environment.
The dichotomy developed by Arkin, that between the ABCs and the XYZs, finds the U.S. Constitution in the former category, along with other presumed proper legal channels, and contrasted with the “essence of executive tyranny our forefathers feared.” Each time the system of XYZs is instantiated, then, Arkin suggests that it is fundamentally irreconcilable with our “constitutional design.” But for many libertarians this kind of constitutionalism belies the historical realities behind the Constitution. Indeed the Constitution we have inherited from the founding generation was a victory (even if not a perfect one) for the Federalists, the proponents of centralized power and a strong executive branch — exactly the features of the U.S. government treated by Arkin’s thesis.
The decentralist principles so rightly celebrated by Arkin and distinguished from the arbitrary power and unaccountability that worries him are in fact not those of the Constitution. If there were decentralists present at the time of Philadelphia’s Constitutional Convention debates, they were the Antifederalists, those skeptical of the executive power embraced by the Constitution, which they saw as “the fetus of monarchy.” The Antifederalist Patrick Henry famously declined even to attend the Convention as a delegate, saying that he “smelt a rat.” While it is unlikely that any among the founding generation could have imagined the federal government Arkin criticizes, the Constitution nevertheless instituted all of its prerequisite conditions.
It is a mistake, then, to regard most of the Framers as libertarian localists. Typifying the overarching opinion of the Federalists, James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, wrote that the new design of government must “support a due supremacy of the national authority.” In American Coup, we have a fully developed image of that supremacy and the danger it poses to civil society.
The potential for tyranny emerges at the moment a small, supposedly special group is granted authority to coercively control all of society. And the reasons for such grants of authority almost always seem to be sound at the moment they are advanced. At times of emergency, the temptation to put faith in the expertise of officialdom is a strong pull. William Arkin’s American Coup deftly shows that that pull is in fact a treacherous undertow with the capacity to secure permanent military tyranny. The proverbial ostrich, head buried in the sand, should avoid Arkin’s alarming study, but for the rest of us the book exposes a pressing truth about the state of American life. One is left to hope that the many lessons contained therein are not ignored.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.