TCS Daily

Crying Wolf

By Jonah Goldberg - November 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the final entry in the TCS debate over war and freedom. To see earlier posts, please see links below.

Since it's almost over let me jump right in.
I don't think I said or implied or assumed that the federal government is "always reliably competent, remarkably self-regulating, and relentlessly humble in its aspirations." I certainly don't think that's the case. As a conservative, I'd lose my Robert Taft decoder ring for even suggesting such a thing. Checking my tabbed binder of governmental excess, I can safely say that I believe the government has more often been remarkably un-self-regulating and relentlessly arrogant in its aspirations on issues ranging from affirmative action to zebra mussels (that was my last invocation of alphabetical license for the year). I'm often appalled by the things this government has gotten itself into.

But I'm not appalled by the fact it's involved in providing for the common defense. War didn't change this rock-ribbed conservative very much at all - at least when it comes to my view of government responsibilities. In fact, conservatives have always - always - believed that the federal government has the authority and responsibility to protect the nation, because it's in the Constitution (you could look it up). To impute some sort of ideological impurity upon conservatives for supporting efforts to defend the Republic is simply odd. Conservatives argue about how the government should defend us and protect us. At times, it seems, libertarians still argue about whether the government should defend us or protect us. Though Nick seems to be, however tenuously, on the right side of that debate among libertarians.

War vs. Freedom?
Nick Gillespie
Midwife of Liberty
Jonah Goldberg
Something for Nothing
Nick Gillespie
Slippery Sloping
Jonah Goldberg
War Changes Men
Nick Gillespie
Crying Wolf
Jonah Goldberg
Now, of course this doesn't mean conservatives should be rubber stamps for everything the Bush Administration does in the name of security nor be apologists for everything it doesn't do either, Nick's insinuations otherwise notwithstanding. Indeed, the magazine I work for has been quite critical of the Department of Homeland Security, for example, and relentlessly unforgiving on its visa policy failures (as Nick notes). As for myself, I simply don't know if the DHS will be a net boon, it's too soon to tell.

Which brings me to the sobering possibility that I might owe Nick an apology. If Nick's argument really is as "modest" as he claims, I guess I just read him wrong. If he's willing to concede - as it seems he is - that there's nothing essential or fundamental about war which poses a threat to liberty, if he's explicitly rejecting the slippery-slope-ism which so pervades the rhetoric and thinking of his libertarian colleagues, if he's merely arguing that the Bush Administration has tweaked the knobs a bit too far in favor of security and against privacy, well, golly that is a reasonable argument (factually wrong, but intellectually reasonable). And as much as I disagree with it, I am tempted simply to leave him to the rage of his colleagues and readers who, no doubt, will denounce his apostasy from the libertarian party line.

But, I should also say, that's hardly the impression I drew from all his comments about Japanese internment and his fretting about the rescinding of rights and the expansions of government power. If this caveat keeps the libertarian cannibals from lowering Nick into the stewpot, I'm glad.

But as far as Nick's humble, non-ideological, non-slippery-slope argument goes, in all honesty, I think it's a bit naïve, completely and entirely unproven on Nick's part and, most important, ideologically suspect. Admittedly, it's unfair to ask him to prove a negative, but if Nick's argument is purely practical I would have expected a little more - or some - evidence that the federal government has done nothing to improve security.

His assertion that airline passengers have been a greater deterrent to terrorist attacks than efforts to confiscate his nose-hair trimmers (too much info there, by the way) is precisely the sort of argument we would expect from a libertarian and, to a very limited extent, I even agree with it. But I'm afraid simply asserting that "incursions on due process" haven't improved security doesn't make it so.

Wouldn't the more reasonable argument from Nick's perspective be "Sure, the government has had some important victories but they've come at too high a price"? Instead, Nick argues that everything the government has done so far has either been entirely fruitless or would have been just as efficiently done if the government had changed nothing after September 11. Indeed, Nick seems to believe President Bush and Congress should have proposed no new laws, policies or approaches after one of the single bloodiest and costliest days in American history. "My fellow Americans, today was an outrage. But the laws and procedures already on the books are just fine for the struggles ahead...." That strikes me as naïve.

Indeed, that reminds me, Nick asserts that the internment of Japanese-Americans didn't increase security "one damn bit" because there were no acts of Japanese-American sabotage. Well, isn't it possible - and more likely - there was no sabotage because all the potential saboteurs were locked up? That's not to say internment was justified, but Nick's righteously rosy interpretation reinforces my sense that he's ideologically unwilling to concede there can be any good whatsoever to even bad government policies. This is a typical form civil libertarian myopia, which causes people like Nadine Strossen of the ACLU to argue that racial profiling is not only wrong but also entirely useless as a law enforcement tool.

Another example: When I noted that Lincoln hung some men without a proper trial, Nick wrote that I suffer from the "misconception" that "'dangling a few men - even innocent men - from a rope' is the necessary price one pays for safety and security.'" Wrong. I don't think - or to be more honest, I don't know - if those executions were "necessary" in the grand scheme of the war. But even if the hangings weren't strictly necessary, I have no problem believing they were helpful to the war effort. Reading Nick's "humble" assertions, however, he would have us believe that because they weren't necessary they couldn't be helpful either. That's weird.

Similarly, maybe Nick's right when he says that loosening the rules about lawyer-client privilege or military tribunals are a bad idea - though I don't think so. But when Nick says that these measures don't help law enforcement and counter-terror agencies, he needs to prove it because frankly I'll take the word of professionals and experts over Nick's in this regard without thinking twice. And, even the most cursory reading of the newspaper, never mind conversations with terrorism experts, suggests that the Patriot Act has helped. Nick could still make his overkill argument while acknowledging that.

Which brings me to my last point about Nick's last point. At the end there, Nick suggests that I don't quite understand the role democratic debate plays in restraining and correcting government action. I do understand it, I think. What I object to is the form of debate employed by the libertarian camp generally. Nick may eschew slippery-slopism and I congratulate him for it. But the crowd around him certainly hasn't. It's funny, libertarians are so good at mocking and debunking the hysterical protests of, say, the anti-technology crowd. They are brilliant at explaining why we shouldn't fear the future. When conservatives complain about porn or when liberals whine about guns, the libertarians are there to say "there, there: it's not nearly so bad. It's even good." But when it comes to government, all of the sober-mindedness and attention to detail seems to bleed out of their heads.

Nick cites William Safire as some sort of law and order icon; even William Safire agrees with me! Well, Safire may be a brilliant writer and a shrewd guy, but he's a knee-jerking hysteric when it comes to civil liberties. He practices slippery-slopism of the worst kind conjuring wildly exaggerated threats irresponsibly and accusing his opponents of bad faith and sinister motives. In short, he uses the same tactics that Nick and his magazine would rightly denounce if they were employed against cloning or abortion or guns or pornography. Safire may be sincere, but who cares? The upshot is the same for me: I simply don't take Safire seriously when he talks about civil liberties because he can't take off his ideological blinders.

For similar reasons, I would take Nick's "modest" argument a bit more seriously if he were willing to concede a few more inconvenient facts or possibilities. Nick wants me to better appreciate the role of debate in steering public policies. Fine. I'd like him to understand that those who cry wolf every time the government twitches don't enrich public discourse and don't bolster their own credibility.

TCS Daily Archives