Saturday, January 17, 2009

The nature of freedom

So, I was hanging out at my friend's virtual digs last night, and we got into a heated discussion about police states. (Here if you are interested.) It got me to thinking about the nature of freedom, and how it is on a graduating scale rather than an absolute in most places. After all, even in the most repressive regimes like the Soviet Union, individuals retained the ability to make certain personal decisions with impunity. Likewise, in even the most free states, there are restrictions on the individual that the majority deem acceptable, wise and prudent. My position is that the U.S. has become relentlessly less free over my 42 years. (For this article, I mean "freedom" as the ability of the individual to make decisions and take actions without fear of governmental interference of any kind, whether it be criminal prosecution or civil regulation.)

The following is a short compilation of some of the powers the national government has abrogated to itself over the last 25 years or so.

***Invade sovereign nations to bring that country's political leadership to the U.S. for trial for violations of U.S. law (Noriega, Panama, 1989). This was a violation of treaties our government approved, and thus was a violation of U.S. law. But because Noriega is so unsympathetic a person, no one much cared.

***Invade sovereign nations that might, some day, obtain the capacity to harm the U.S., without regard to their current capability to do so. This is no different at all from what Stalin did to Finland, or Hitler to Poland. Every nation might someday in the future become a threat to any other nation, after all; this simply undoes by fiat the international condemnation of wars of aggression.

***Declare any individual to be a non-citizen and an 'enemy combatant,' who then has no recourse to any neutral judge to contest his detention.

***Ship any person either to our own torture centers or through 'extraordinary rendition' to the torture centers of other countries for the extraction of a 'confession.'

***Hold any person in a cell for the duration of their life without charges, if said person is deemed by the executive branch to be 'enemy combatant.' Said decision is not subject to review for error or bias by anyone.

***Record, preserve, and analyze with computers the transmissions of any data via any media, without warrants or any other approval.

***Through secret letters of demand, which the target is not even allowed to know about, the gov't can without a warrant get any and all information concerning a specific individual from anyone in U.S. jurisdiction. This includes mental health treatment, tax records, physical health treatment, and library records.

As was pointed out to me, the Wiki definition of "Police State," "describes a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population." I have to concede that the U.S., today, does not meet that technical definition of a police state. All the powers claimed by the U.S. government have not been applied to a large segment of the population to date. As of today, only a couple of disaffected nutjobs like Lindh and a few other marginal citizens have been black-bagged to Gitmo, or to years of solitary confinement in a brig, or to heaven only knows what. Most people aren't under the boot heel, so I lose that argument on the numbers.

I could probably dig around and find a less strict definition for "police state," but that wouldn't address my main point, which is that freedom is on the retreat in this country. Bear in mind that our own revolution was not fought after liberties had been taken, but after Parliament claimed the right to take those liberties. That your gov't claims authority to do these things to you, and to me, ought to bother us all far more than it does. But we (the U.S. as a whole, not you and I specifically) are no different from the people in that poem against the Nazis, in which no one spoke up when they went after the Jews, the gays, the commies, and so on, because it didn't affect them personally. There is no general outcry against these abuses, no marches in the streets, because of who the targets have been so far.

I've said for a year and a half that my highest hope is that a new president would begin to dismantle these and other extralegal systems immediately upon taking office. That is my hope. My fear is that the new president will decide that these powers are very useful tools for him, and that he'll only use them for good, and he'll keep a tight reign on them... and then those powers are permanent, since both parties have both officially and in practice signed off on them.

Lord Acton was correct in his axiom, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The bedrock principle underlying our Constitution is that no one person, or group of persons, no matter how wise or well-intentioned, can ever be trusted with unchecked power. It's a good principle. However, the development of our government over time has uniformly been a long, mostly uninterrupted slide away from legislative power and toward executive power. The metaphor I've long used is the transition of Rome from republic to empire. There was never any official declaration of empire, you know. The Roman Senate remained in place almost to the very end. But real power began to shift with Julius Caesar, and by the end of Augustus' reign real power was completely in the hands of the emperor. (Augustus never used that term, by the way, maintaining throughout his life he was merely 'first among equals.' Clever pol, that Augustus).

I am a firm believer that "the past is prologue." That is, history is an excellent tool for predicting future human behavior, because our fundamental nature remains unchanged for all our technological advances. The history of every republic, without exception, is that devolves into some form of authoritarian regime over time. Perhaps humans simply haven't the will to do the work necessary to keep a republic; perhaps their fears make too many willing to trade essential liberties for illusions of security. So in the long run, I am not optimistic that our fate as a nation will be any different. Nonetheless, I can do what I can do to not let it happen in my lifetime, and trust that my children, and theirs, will do the same.


Name: said...


I also share the notion that the question of freedom is not one to be answered in absolute extremes (that is that a society has or lacks freedom).

Freedom and repression exist in some measure in every society.

A police state is more visible in
"repressive" societies because the regimes mince no words about their intentions, but the effective use of manipulation techniques by democratic regimes makes repression less noticeable under democracies (see

Nice article!
- Murna

Eric Wilde said...

Nonetheless, I can do what I can do to not let it happen in my lifetime

This is where I struggle. What can we do?

nightshift66 said...

Wilde, I suppose that varies with each of us. I have opportunities in small ways in my gov't job to resist. We can all teach our children healthy skepticism of politicians and their promises. We are using our right of speech and (virtual) assembly in places like this. How effective any of this will be, time will tell.