Ages ago, when I was an undergrad at Georgetown, I was a content, optimistic liberal. Yes, there were lots of terrible problems in the world, but I thought governments could and should help solve them. Libertarians were anarchists in camouflage, for whom governments were the problem, not the solution. The less government, they felt, the better.
I was sure I was right about libertarians. When I suggested to friends at the Cato Institute, the principal libertarian think tank here in Washington, that they might really be closet anarchists, they squirmed with what seemed like an uncomfortable recognition of the truth.
One becomes more conservative over time as one observes the limitations of governments and the human beings who populate them. Even with the best intentions, governments are inefficient, bumbling, heavy-handed and sometimes corrupt. Nearly 15 years in public service taught me one important lesson: Most of what goes wrong with government policies is a result of incompetence or bad luck, and not carefully crafted conspiracy or mendacity. So maybe government isn’t always part of the solution; sometimes it can be part of the problem, even if it doesn’t mean to be.
Events of the past five years in Washington have frightened me still further to the right – even into seeing libertarians in a new and more favorable light. What libertarians value most is individual freedom from tyranny, oppression, confiscation of one’s property and governmental interference in what should be private choices.
While it would be unfair to label the current U.S. administration as tyrannical, or anything near it, a troubling number of its actions appear to erode the privacy of our citizens and the rights of those who may be categorized as “terrorists,”enemy combatants” or even “illegal aliens.”
The FBI’s misuse of its authority to obtain private telephone records, the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the “rendition” of terror suspects abroad (i.e., sending them to other countries to be interrogated and possibly tortured) are just a few examples. More recently, the Justice Department’s apparently politicized firing of federal prosecutors may threaten the integrity and credibility of those individuals as well as the judicial process itself.
And then there is the inexplicable neglect of war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere. There were apparently plenty of complaints about their treatment, but they were ignored by administration officials until The Washington Post broke the story. None of these problems alone threatens the scope of our freedoms, but together they suggest a pattern that could eventually erode our rights and our system of government.
What has given rise to this troubling pattern of abuse and neglect? Is the Bush administration full of closet autocrats and heartless bureaucrats? Probably not. Like most administrations, it is composed of smart, energetic, ambitious individuals who will push hard to realize the goals of the president and further their own careers. What changed in the past five years is that the institutions of restraint and oversight collapsed. The limits on administration overreach in matters of national security and many other things were weakened.
In short, the Congress became a rubber stamp for the president and the media became a sycophant. From 2001, the Republican Congress exerted very little critical oversight over the administration’s policies and programs. And the media, for several years after 2001, was reluctant to criticize the President. The reason was not that the Congress was controlled by the same party as the White House or that the media was in cahoots with that party. Congresses, no matter which party is in the White House, are typically obstreperous. And the press loves a good scandal, regardless of who perpetrates it.
The key to the collapse of our institutions was Sept. 11, 2001, and its impact on the country as a whole. The United States had been attacked, we were all wounded, and the president was our leader in responding to threats to our national security. For a time, it was broadly seen as unpatriotic to criticize the president on any issue or any excess. Thus, there was very little debate about the invasion of Iraq, or the treatment of enemy combatants, or the care of wounded soldiers or the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. And people who did raise criticism were labeled unpatriotic, even treasonous, and accused of abetting the enemy.
The failures in the war in Iraq and other scandals in Washington eventually became too obvious to ignore. And the election of 2006, which turned control of the Congress over to the Democrats, has finally begun to resuscitate the checks and balances so essential to the health of our political system. What worries me greatly is what might happen to these checks and balances and ultimately to our rights and values if there is another major terrorist attack.
We need to ensure our national security, but maybe Benjamin Franklin was right when he warned over two centuries ago, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
I still am enough of a liberal to believe in the good that governments can do. But we’ve got to keep an eye on them, too. Thanks to terrorism, I’m also becoming a libertarian.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Tuesday.