Thursday, June 13, 2013

Safety danger

Day two of the Mark Davis tear over the NSA controversy was on the radio during the drive to work Wednesday morning. In this market we get Mark Davis on the ride in, and Mark Levin on the ride home. On days like yesterday, it's an exercise in contrasts. Davis is a bit distracted over the status of Edward Snowden. He is of the opinion that the NSA activities were a necessary, even desirable, part of the effort to keep us safe. Consequently, he labels Snowden a traitor and bemoans the reality that terrorists in the US now know that their phone records are being collected. However things ultimately work out for Snowden, the focus on his status as a hero or a traitor distracts from the larger issue of the NSA program and the spectrum of attitudes towards the associated ramifications for civil liberty. General warrants, like the one authorizing the NSA phone record collections, are simply a bad idea. It really has nothing to do with the character of Edward Snowden, or the legality of his actions.

General warrants have been generally recognized as a bad idea in America since before the Revolution. The aversion to them is part of the American exceptionalism valued by conservatives. Assertions that law abiding citizens should be OK with government scrutiny "if they have nothing to hide" are not compatible with life in a free society. They certainly aren't compatible with a fundamental premise in American law that we are considered innocent until proven guilty. The "nothing to hide" way of thinking is at odds with basic, nuts and bolts, elements of the American system. American citizens should not be put in a position in which they are arbitrarily, and routinely, scrutinized on the off chance that they may be involved in something inappropriate (though the government should be so scrutinized by the people).

The collection of phone records is fairly non-disruptive - it doesn't inconvenience us, or cause us any distress.  But has that become the measure of what is reasonable? When Obama made his recent statement that we "can't have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy" it was clear that the trade off he was promoting was trading privacy for security. I'm not looking forward to finding out what we are willing to accept in our desperation for 100% safety. It is not reasonable to agree to scrutiny of expanded government authority only after that expanded authority has resulted in harm. Limiting the authority of the IRS as a matter of principle would have served the American people much better than waiting until evidence emerged that they effectively silenced, or impeded hundreds of groups that they disagree with for an entire election cycle.

Davis is OK with the NSA having authority to collect phone records, but having it occur under the current administration makes him a little uncomfortable. It seems reasonably clear that authority that makes us uncomfortable in the hands of an administration that we don't like, is authority that should not be granted to any administration. This is a pretty fundamental element of the limited government concept. Liberty is much more easily surrendered than recovered.

Suspicion of power is a basic tenet of Americanism. The Founding Fathers talked at great lengths about the need for vigilance in the defense of liberty against government authority. At a time when the headlines are overflowing with validation of the founder's warnings, scoffing at the concerns of civil libertarians over the NSA phone record issue is misplaced. Right of center guys like Davis failing to err on the side of liberty, or even being understanding towards others that do, is cause for concern. We're close to having a society in which safety and security always trump freedom, and that's a dangerous place to be.

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