In Our Enemy, the State, the libertarian essayist Albert Jay Nock posited that the State and liberty were and always would be antithetical, and that eventually the Bill of Rights would be whittled down to the Bill of Right.
Nock, and his ideological godfather Herbert Spencer, author of the influential The Man Versus the State, were often dismissed as brilliant, but paranoid crackpots with an “irrational fear of government” (as Sen. Orrin Hatch once put it).
Similar sobriquets had been aimed earlier at the Anti-Federalists. America’s Federalist founders — James Madison in particular — believed that in a democratic republic the people would no longer have to concern themselves about a totalitarian State bent on eliminating civil liberties. After all, the common folks would be writing and enforcing the laws, and those lawmakers and constables would be working for the people.
The Anti-Federalists knew better, and demanded their rights in writing. In that respect they were amazingly foresighted. Democratically elected legislators in a democratic republic are as likely to become corrupted by ideology, special interests, lobbyists, pressure groups, or their own crass stupidity into passing laws that curb civil liberties as is the worst tyrant.
Today, the men and women who carry on the Anti-Federalist legacy are also considered cranks, like those on the left who fret about government wiretaps on suspected terrorists, and the racial profiling of motorists and airport passengers. And there are those on the right who say the government wants to treat them like children and take away their guns, cigarettes, and prayer time.
A FEW OF THESE concerns — smoking bans and red light cameras, say — may seem to some like insignificant matters, which is why they are most often met dismissively: “It’s for your own good,” we are told, or, “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear,” (the latter, no doubt, being what the masses of the Third Reich and Soviet Bloc repeatedly told themselves).
These so-called safety nazis may even demand more cameras, because they “reduce traffic deaths.” How does one respond to such shallow, anti-rationalist buncombe? That the enlightened ideas of liberty, individualism and self-reliance are more important than saving lives?
You could do worse than reference the British thinker AC Grayling who, in a recent Guardian essay, suggested that the old “if you nothing to hide” response is “one of the most seductive self-betrayals of liberty one can imagine.”
You want fear? How about the fear of the “power of the state to detain, inspect, question, collect personal information, intercept communications, and deploy new and more instruments of surveillance and monitoring such as CCTV cameras and ID cards”?
George Orwell predicted that modern technology would turn out to be government’s best friend, and, indeed, an operation that once required two dozen secret police is now handled by an orbiting satellite or a camera and microphone the size of a pin head.
Shrewdly, the State makes these liberty grabs more palatable by disguising them as a genuine, fatherly (careful not to say “Brotherly”) concern for our safety. Even if Father applies his concern randomly. The government may bust the Hummer driver for not wearing a seatbelt, but (in my state at least) the motorcyclist is perfectly within his rights to zip around town sans helmet.
Then there is the amusing spectacle at the airport security checkpoint as the Feds thoroughly strip-search your 80-year-old mother from Dubuque, but prudently steer clear of the swarthy, Arab-looking guy for fear of violating some anti-discrimination law. And haven’t governments for decades trashed the Bill of Rights by banning certain firearms in large cities?
As for the red light cameras and other surveillance instruments, once the public grows accustomed to them will we even notice when they begin to invade what is left of our private lives?
PROF. GRAYLING NOTES that when we give up any amount of liberty it has an effect — directly or indirectly — on our other rights. A citizen may exercise one right (say freedom of speech) to defend another right (say voting rights). But once freedom of speech is diminished, voting rights, and indeed all other rights, are similarly weakened, and before you know it it’s Katy bar the door.
Sen. Hatch’s comment reminds me of remarks made by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek about conservatives and socialists being two sides of the same coin in how they regard the power of the State: “Like the socialist, [the conservative] is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.”
New threats to liberty arise whenever there is a cataclysmic event (terror attack, war, economic disaster, natural disaster), but there is no countering event that increases liberty.
Nock believed there would always be a remnant of enlightened men from all areas of the political spectrum who would resist government attempts to curb liberty. Whether that will be enough to stave off the next onslaught of the totalitarian lawmakers following a future cataclysmic event, I have my doubts.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.
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