Absolute power corrupts

For once, Peggy Noonan makes an exceptionally lucid and compelling argument (with a modicum of debunking by Charles Pierce), with respect to the ever-growing “surveillance state” and the often false choice between our security as a nation, and the civil rights upon which it was arguably founded. But I think this is less about technology, and more about human nature; specifically the historically well-documented corrosive effects of absolute power.

Most people agree that the government has to do certain things to keep us safe. The world, after all, is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who will go to great lengths to do bad things, no matter the justification. And most people agree that the details of some of the things the government needs to do to keep us safe need to be kept somewhat secret to be effective. However, that distinction has historically been the slipperiest of slopes, and one that doesn’t take a whole lot of traversing until the bad guys become the very people we entrusted to keep us safe.

If information is power, then total information is not only total power, but a total power that cannot be entrusted to any individual or agency without the strictest and most transparent of monitoring. Peggy Noonan is correct that Congress is the absolute worst choice for this kind of oversight. Charles Pierce is also correct that this is something we have been wrestling with as a country long before 9/11. They are both correct that current advances in technology are vastly enabling these abuses. But technology is just a side-show. The real issue has roots all the way back to the quintessential reason as to why the United States was even created in the first place.

Go read the U.S. Declaration of Independence; specifically the long list of aggrievements by the King of Great Britain used to justify it. The ideology that resulted in the creation of America may be based on the concept of government by the people, but the propelling energy that allowed it to happen was in no small part due to the visceral rejection of absolute power being wielded against the Colonies by the British. Indeed, the whole concept of civil liberties and human rights is contingent on the total rejection of power in absolute form.

The shroud of secrecy with which the national security establishment seeks to surround itself in the name of “keeping us safe” is leading to a concentration of power that is not only unhealthy for functioning self-government, it is fundamentally counter to the foundational rejection of absolute power on which this country was formed. And since concentrated power in government has historically led to abuse of power, then the choice demanded by the security establishment between tolerating more invasive snooping and the right to privacy (as a civil right) is thus a choice between a false sense of security, and the defiant rejection of oppression proudly expressed in our Declaration of Independence.

If we are a country in which “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” then we are a country that manifestly rejects the concentration of power in too few hands, security be damned. Thus, any secrecy necessary to the safety of this country must be debated openly, without fear of reprisal, and oversight must be conducted with as much transparency as possible. Anything else is to surrender our cherished heritage as a country of the people, by the people to the historical dustbin of failed experiments, and to the tyranny of those who believe that civil rights are merely a quaint holdover from a bygone era.

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Filed under Fear, General Grunting, History

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