TCS Daily

Something for Nothing

By Nick Gillespie - November 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Jonah Goldberg characterizes me as "deeply selfish and myopic," given to "narrow and pinched interpretation," and taking positions "based on a cliche."

Finally, someone who really understands me.

Jonah argues that the "supposed small tyrannies" visited upon us during wartime are usually temporary, which is indeed mostly true. Some do become permanent, including one that is partly due to Milton Friedman, who Jonah will be pleased to learn remains unapologetic about his role in creating our nation's tax withholding system as a means of generating a steady cash flow for the government during wartime.

But for the most part, the tyrannies are temporary. Consider, for instance, the oh-so-brief internment of about 120,000 Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast during World War II - a small tyranny supported by an unlikely crew including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, journalists Walter Lippman and Westbrook Pegler, and then-California Gov. Earl Warren (who as head of the U.S. Supreme Court would later be accused of refusing to lock up even the most heinous of criminals). Rounded up in 1942, all the prisoners were released by the end of 1945 - just three short years! Some of them even got their houses and property back and in 1988, the federal government coughed up $20,000 and an apology to each surviving internee.

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
Jonah contends that he's "yet to see an argument that says [such small tyrannies] are not justified." The main case for locking up Japanese Americans was summed up by an Army general who waggishly insisted, "A Jap's a Jap." Yet at the time, J. Edgar Hoover - later to become famous for investigating such known subversives as Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Alfred E. Neuman - dismissed the need for the camps, saying the removal was "based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than upon factual data." The Navy was against the whole idea and Japanese Americans living on the East Coast and in Hawaii (!) were not treated similarly (nor were the millions of German Americans and Italian Americans in the U.S.). As the longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Baldwin, wrote in his introduction to Allan R. Bosworth's useful 1967 study, America's Concentration Camps, "There was not one single instance of sabotage or espionage [among Japanese Americans], despite all the charges and suspicions." Rather, there was only a bogus "finding of necessity" borne out of hysteria.

Consider, too, the continuous temporary military draft that started in 1940, before the U.S. entered World War II, and ended in 1973, only about 30 years after the Allies defeated the Axis. Leave aside the WWII years. The peacetime draft was clearly a tyranny for hundreds of thousands of young men, ranging from Elvis Presley, who dutifully answered the call at the cost of a thriving career to Vice President Dick Cheney, who doggedly pursued multiple deferments when he was a live contestant in that grim lottery. Indeed, Cheney's singlemindedness on that score leaves you wondering why his wife didn't use "Deferment" to illustrate the letter D in her recent "Patriotic Primer."

Was the peacetime draft justified? Not to conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who opposed conscription as a presidential candidate in 1964. And not to Ronald Reagan, who told my magazine in 1975, "I disagreed with it, and I'll tell you why: ...Lenin said that he would force the capitalist nations to maintain military conscription until the uniform became a symbol of servitude rather than patriotism."

I bring up these two examples not simply because they clearly were not justified, but because they get at a misconception lurking in Jonah's formulation about the apparent benefits of sacrificing civil liberties. He almost seems to believe that "dangling a few men - even innocent men - from a rope" is the necessary price one pays for safety and security. But the internment of Japanese Americans and the peacetime draft did not increase U.S. security or guarantee freedom one damn bit.

Which is precisely why they're particularly relevant to the present moment. Though Jonah agrees that "declaring war on an abstraction like 'terrorism' is a bit of a problem," he has no trouble sanctioning wide-ranging, never-ending new programs to fight such an abstraction. Since the 9/11 attacks, we've augmented the government's ability to do all sorts of things, ranging from keeping citizens in military custody without charging them to eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations to secretly detaining unknown numbers of immigrants to snooping secretly on people's email, fax, and library records without court orders to relaxing restrictions on the FBI and CIA (restrictions that were put in place to curb past abuses).

We've seriously discussed suspending posse comitatus so that military forces could be used on home soil, issuing national I.D. cards, and developing a nation-wide informant system. We've become accustomed to state and federal agencies dragging their feet on releasing documents through open-government laws, to dropping trou at newly federalized airport security checkpoints, and to posing for an increasing number of surveillance cameras.

And, of course, we created a brand-smacking-new Department of Homeland Defense, which will boost the efficiency of some two dozen existing agencies by adding a whole new layer of federal bureaucracy - and absolutely no protections for whistleblowers - to everything.

All of this is underwritten by invocations of "war" and "sacrifice." Some of this - maybe all of it - would be justified if it was indeed necessary for increasing our safety in the long run. But it isn't. If our airways are safer now, it's less because of the three pairs of nose-hair trimmers I've had confiscated in the past year and more because of the passengers on United Flight 93 who took down the terrorists over a Pennsylvania cornfield and the folks who wrestled would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid onto the floor at 30,000 feet. If Al Qaeda is being rubbed out, it's because of traditional, targeted military action in Yemen, not incursions on due process in the U.S.

Jonah writes that "it would be nice to hear what the civil libertarians think we should do in lieu of the Patriot Act." How about getting existing agencies to actually do their jobs, using existing procedures? For instance, National Review recently ran a fascinating expose of how the Immigration and Naturalization Service failed to follow its own procedures in issuing visas to at least 15 of the 9/11 hijackers. You don't need new, expansive laws, or a whole new oversight agency to remedy that.

Jonah is not persuaded that the government is unlikely to use its new powers unwisely. It's not clear that history provides much comfort on that score. The government in general and the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency in particular all have pretty dismal records of staying within their legal limits, so there's no reason to believe that with less oversight they'll be more judicious, restrained, and effective. Nobody can or should mistake today's America for Bentham's Panopticon or Orwell's dystopia. But why give anything away for nothing in return - even or especially in a time of "war"?

TCS Daily Archives