Thursday, May 11, 2006

Empire and Liberty: a Reply to Zeke

This started as a reply to a comment from a “Zeke” to my previous post, but it morphed into a post of its own. See Zeke's comment in my previous post. Zeke thinks that domestic spying is an unnecessary encroachment on our liberty.

The place to begin thinking about what is happening to us is in the writings of the Founders. Have a look at Federalist No. 8, in which Hamilton talks about the dangers attendant on maintaining military forces to repel threatened military attack. Hamilton very correctly says: "The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen."

No argument there. But in our wisdom we have decided as a society that we want a globalised world with free movement of people, ideas and goods. There are plenty of advantages to this sort of world; and to a mobile society founded on individual merit, where people are not settled forever in one place, and do not know their neighbors well.

But the type of world we have built imposes certain costs. To begin with, the interconnected, non-agricultural economy we have built. Today most of our citizens are no longer able to support themselves by their own physical labor, but must interact with others to earn currency (like everything else in this society, a function of trust) to buy their bread.

This type of economy has numerous point-failure sources, where small disruptions can lead to tremendous chaos and suffering. This is particularly true now that military technology makes it easy for relatively unskilled and untrained persons to kill large numbers of people in job lots.

Under these circumstances, it is simply not rational to expect that we can avoid a greater degree of surveillance by the police, intelligence and military authorities. Yes, I recognize that there is great potential for abuse and misuse, and that such can and probably will take place.

Of necessity, your arguments against programs such as the NSA's ongoing data mining operation must rest on two grounds (1) such steps are unnecessary, and that we can be protected adequately without surveillance and advance intelligence as to our enemies plans; or, (2) the cure is worse than the disease.

As to (1), given the factors discussed above, I think you wind up getting a lot of people killed because you yield the initiative to our enemies. You are attempting to defend against threats from highly motivated people who are largely unknown to us, and who are not going to walk into the local office of the FBI and simply tell you what you want to know. At least, you cannot plan on that basis.

I think that a variant of (2), above, is the argument most favored by people of the liberal persuasion: what profit is it to stop Al Qaeda if we lose our principles or our souls ? Since we are dealing with people who, if they had enough nukes, would assuredly kill us with them (read their own words on this subject), I think this is a poor argument. Most of us are concerned with raising our children and getting on with our lives. Abstract arguments versus real physical danger are non-starters.

Remember, the Founders were relentlessly PRACTICAL. The Founders established a Republic of liberty because American isolation made it PRACTICAL to do so. The America of Hamilton, Jay and Madison was not in Europe, surrounded by rapacious empires with powerful standing armies which could rapidly invade and lay waste to the country. Had the United States of America been located in central Europe, or had history produced a plethora of contending sovereign nations on this continent, like those of Europe, you may be sure that we would have a different, more regimented, less free heritage.

Unfortunately, events have conspired to remove us from our isolation. There is no going back. Actually, there could be, at least for a time: we could withdraw from the world, wean ourselves from imported oil, cold turkey style; accept a lower standard of living, with poverty and hardship for many. We might for some considerable time keep our liberty. Unfortunately, American real estate is too valuable for us to be left alone. Were we to withdraw from the world, China, Russia, Europe and others would re-arrange this planet in ways that were not at all to our liking.

So here we are. No, I don’t much like the various NSA programs, or the USA Patriot Act, or American soldiers patrolling Baghdad. “Cruel necessity” as Cromwell said. It is wrong to call what is happening to us fascism, communism or any other foreign “ism” of the past. It is probably not wrong to call it empire, and we are in Iraq, and in other places; and chasing Al Qaeda, some of it for imperial purposes. One of these purposes is removing foreign threats to our security and our prosperity, and establishing rules for orderly participation in a globalised society. Finally, I have confidence in our ablility to adapt to changed conditions, and to establish adequate safeguards for our liberty that can co-exist with what is necessary for our security.
If the Democrats get their wish and impeach Bush, or elect a president of their own in 2008; the Howard Deans of the world can shout as loud as they please, but there is going to be no backing away from the empire. Sorry.

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