The U.S. federal government now has the ability and the “legal authority” to collect electronic data regarding the daily activities and associations of every innocent person in the civilized world. This power, needless to say, is susceptible to totalitarian levels of abuse in the hands of dishonorably-motivated men. It is disturbing, however, that so many American conservatives are reducing this issue to a concern over whether Barack Obama can be trusted with such power. One would like to think that the heirs to Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison would be asking whether anyone should be trusted with it.
The American Founders, great statesmen standing on the shoulders of great philosophers, derived from the wisdom of the ages an all-important lesson, one subsequently distilled for all time by British historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, any normal man is susceptible to the temptations of power, from which it follows that a society that wishes to remain free and just must avoid granting its governing authority excessive powers. Placing one’s trust in the integrity of one’s elected officials while handing them “legal” means to wipe out or circumscribe all your natural rights at their discretion is, as the great advocates of (true) liberalism understood, foolhardy in the extreme, for such blind trust presumes exactly what history and sound reasoning teach us never to presume, namely that the world is comprised of pure and untainted souls on one side, and evil and corrupt souls on the other, such that choosing good leaders is merely a matter of electing one of the “pure” souls.
Obviously, Barack Obama is a Marxist subversive, so there is every reason to fear that excessive power cannot be trusted in his hands. It does not follow, however, that such power can or should be trusted in the hands of a better man. To reason that way would be to forfeit or deny the awareness of man’s inherent imperfection, an awareness which used to be standard issue with every new package of adult common sense.
Hence the case for limited government, and the rule of law. For those educated in public schools, the word “limited” in that first phrase means “limited in power.” The purpose of such a foundational principle is not to cast aspersions on the integrity of any particular man in government, but rather to acknowledge a sobering fact of life, which is that we are all, in principle, morally susceptible to the temptations presented by the opportunity for perceived personal advantage gained without fear of retribution. Thus, although government is a useful and necessary instrument for protecting life, property, and civil order, and therefore an aid in the pursuit of virtue and happiness – or rather, precisely because it is such a necessary and useful instrument – a governing authority that becomes too expansive in its capability to control and manipulate the population from which it derives its purpose loses its legitimacy.
The American Founders were quite clear, and enormously wise, in their insistence that the people must always reserve the right to resist, and even overthrow, their government, if and when its founding purpose has been abrogated. But this injunction requires that the people actually have the practical capacity to resist. In other words, it requires that the institutionalized disparity in strength and material advantage between the government and the people never become insuperable; for if that should happen, the people would be left entirely at the mercy of the goodwill and honorable intentions of their leaders. But it is precisely here, of course, that Lord Acton’s pithy rephrasing of age-old wisdom comes into play, and advises against the likelihood that a government so overgrown in power will remain true to its legitimate purpose.
Then there is the further problem of the dispersal of such tempting power among an enormous group of largely anonymous agents. It is one thing to give a king, a president, or an elected congress more power than is safe in the hands of flawed men. But the tendency of modern authority – a tendency which is almost definitive of what we have come to call “totalitarianism” – is for excessive powers from the top to filter down through an unwieldy and increasingly unaccountable bureaucracy. At present, untold numbers of low-level operatives, computer specialists, and what not, have “legal” tools at their disposal that can intrude upon your private actions and associations against your will, and without your knowledge. The words “national security” name an important function of legitimate government, but they are neither a talisman against personal corruption, nor a magic password justifying the “unlimiting” of government.
“National security,” used as such a magic password, is no different, in principle, from so many other magic passwords used in modern times to justify unreasonable expansions of state authority, such as “affordable healthcare,” “fairness,” “the children,” “equal opportunity,” “social justice,” and so on.
A metastasizing bureaucratic regulatory state is not what John Adams had in mind when, following Aristotle, he spoke of “a government of laws and not of men.” A government of laws does not entail the creation of myriad laws, regulations, and judicial stamps of approval that essentially allow the presiding humans at any given time to do anything they want under the protective rubric of “legality.” A federal government that has the practical, legal ability to “mine” the private activities of random citizens (of that government’s own or any other country) who are not under investigation for any crime, for purposes of building a profile of their proclivities, associations, and pursuits, has outgrown its proper limits, and is no longer, as a matter of design, serving the purpose for which classical liberal theory indicates that governments are instituted among men, namely to preserve and foster individual liberty.
Likewise, for that matter, a government that has assumed the authority to demand the private health records of every individual, to determine the level of healthcare to be provided to every individual, to register or confiscate the weapons of every individual, to know every individual’s private financial and income details, and to determine the educational standards and moral environment according to which every individual is to be raised. (Remembering, of course, that this same government may choose to make exceptions – “legally,” no doubt – to any of these demands for its own preferred cases.)
So I have a question for those conservatives whose take on the current surveillance revelations, and other similar matters, is that these programs, as they are “legal,” merely demonstrate the importance of electing better men than Barack Obama: Have you given up the basic principle of human understanding that underlay the broadly “conservative” political philosophy and statesmanship of the past 2,500 years, namely that power corrupts? That is, are you now prepared to grant your government the practical ability to sweep away every last crumb of individual liberty, and to rely on the integrity of “a decent man” as your (and everyone else’s) only firewall against abuses of the totalitarian-level powers you have ceded to that government.
In other words, aren’t we at risk of taking the bait that the progressives have been jiggling in front of us for several years now, which is to allow one man, Barack Obama, to become the lightning rod for all concerns about illegitimate government power, leaving the broader evil he serves unscathed and safely hidden?
Perhaps a little clarification is in order. The use of “lightning rod” to describe a man has perhaps fallen, through overuse, into that category that Orwell dubbed “dying metaphors,” i.e., expressions that are still used metaphorically, but without a clear understanding of their proper meaning, such that the metaphor obscures, rather than casting light upon, one’s ideas.
The lightning rod (invented by Benjamin Franklin) is a protective device. By “attracting” lightning strikes to itself, and safely conducting the electrical charge to ground, it prevents damage to surrounding buildings. This, I fear, is the function President Obama now serves, and will continue to serve, for the progressive aggressors against American liberty and Western civilization. By attracting all distrust and suspicion of governmental authority to himself, he is protecting a surrounding edifice of ever-expanding, illegitimate power. The removal of Obama will no more undo the structures of unlimited government than would the removal of a lightning rod entail the demolition of the building it protects.
One can only hope that when this progressive authoritarian lightning rod is finally removed from office, his conservative opponents of the moment will not stop throwing their bolts, under the illusion that he alone was the problem, rather than the broader structure he currently shields. That broader structure – government with unlimited and insuperable “legal” authority – is Hell itself, in so far as there is a Hell on earth, because it is the historical home of the devil, the tempter of men, who corrupts by offering men unlimited power “to do good,” knowing all the while that such power weakens the will to do good, and in the process undermines not only the corrupted soul, but all men’s aspirations to freedom and individual dignity.
The American Founders, and the great thinkers in whose footsteps they walked, held this understanding deep in their blood and bones. Do we?
(This article originally appeared at American Thinker.)
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