What’s Bad for the GoosePosted: February 15, 2013
Earlier this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote an excellent piece excoriating many Democrats for supporting the infamous “DOJ kill list memo”. While I agree and sympathize with the point he made, I would like to further expand upon it: I would like to shame all politicians who have not come out against these tactics on both sides of the aisle. They are reprehensible and should be stopped. The fact that they haven’t is, for me at least, further proof that they are neither right nor left, but more concerned with advancing the power of the State, even unto the point of controlling (or ending) the lives of every man, woman, and child they can get in their sights.
The means by which they have done so are particularly reprehensible. To quote Mr. Greenwald:
[T]his document helpfully underscored the critical point that is otherwise difficult to convey: when you endorse the application of a radical state power because the specific target happens to be someone you dislike and think deserves it, you’re necessarily institutionalizing that power in general. That’s why political leaders, when they want to seize extremist powers or abridge core liberties, always choose in the first instance to target the most marginalized figures: because they know many people will acquiesce not because they support that power in theory but because they hate the person targeted. But if you cheer when that power is first invoked based on that mentality – I’m glad Obama assassinated Awlaki without charges because he was a Bad Man! – then you lose the ability to object when the power is used in the future in ways you dislike (or by leaders you distrust), because you’ve let it become institutionalized.
When you take away liberty or give power to the state for any reason – because someone said something you dislike, because someone used guns irresponsibly, because some people drink too much or smoke too much or eat too many doughnuts, because there are bad people in the world and the system is preventing us from keeping our children safe from them – you are not simply giving up that liberty once; you are not giving power to the state for only the uses you have in mind. Power is like a bottomless box of matches, and those you have given it to can light as many fires as they want.
My friend and I discussed this policy over lunch the other day, and how it was a vast expansion of executive power. In less than twenty minutes we worked out a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government that would preserve the purpose of this doctrine while providing some modicum of oversight. After we congratulated ourselves for our brilliance, I pointed out to him that neither this nor anything like it would ever happen. When he asked me why, I posed the age old question, “Cui bono?” (“To whose benefit?”) It’s a familiar question among lawyers, and politics is full of them. Neither side really wants to reign in this sort of power, because they want their guy to have access to it; or, to go back to Mr. Greenwald, “To endorse a power in the hands of a leader you like is, necessarily, to endorse the power in the hands of a leader you dislike.” This is the weakness inherent in the State.
Conversely, to endorse a liberty in the hands of a person you like is, necessarily, to endorse that same liberty in the hands of a person you dislike. We are forever caught in this tension; do we entrust power to an elite of those we distrust, or do we entrust the power of freedom, and all the danger that comes with it, to the masses? The truth is that bad people do bad things, and the more freedom they have to move and act the more bad things they can do. But the more we take away their ability to do harm, the more we take away our own ability to do good; and the only way to do either is to give even more ability to do harm to a handful of people who have proven only two things categorically. First, they believe they know better than you what is best for you, at all times and in all situations. Second, the rules can and should be set aside when they become an insurmountable obstacle to the goal at hand, not because the rules don’t matter, but because the goal is more important, because the end always justifies the means, and because there is no law so high that they cannot see above it.