Shallow-Bottomed Optimism of Jay Winik
the Mother of Liberty?
C. Winik’s article "Security
Comes Before Liberty" (Wall Street Journal, October
24, 2001) is already a classic by virtue of the title alone. The
title does not bode well. Things get worse straight-away.
I try to keep things in perspective. Last week was, after all, Gang
Initiation Week for Neo-Conservatives, which explains why every
man-jack of them was going on about the benefits of torture. This
is the most fun these fellows have had since the good old days when
James Burnham, war-keen forebear of the Neo-Cons, used to advocate
torture back in the 1960s. Without torture, how could Portugal keep
hold of Angola or France hang on to Algeria (although the latter
cause was already lost)?
do we actually care whether those people hold Angola or Algeria?
I leave all that to one side, so we may deal with the more pressing
aspects of Mr. Winik’s article. Winik laments that "Today our
international might may be at its zenith, but we as a nation have
never been more vulnerable to debilitating and destablilizing attacks
at home." Now, a perversely critical sort of person might see
a structural, causal relation between the uses of that international
might and recent events. He or she could notice that without "justifying"
those events. This, too, may be left to one side.
People from the Nicest Families Do It
now takes us on a historical cook’s tour of repression by US administrations
during certified emergencies. He seems to be of two minds (at least)
on this. On the one hand, it must have been good, because only the
very best presidents have done it, and we may deduce their goodness
from some assumptions about their character. Thus – Adams, Lincoln,
Wilson, and FDR. I don’t know if this must necessarily warm the
hearts of opponents of those worthy gents – then or now; if it doesn’t,
the proof falls somewhat flat.
Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s arbitrary arrests of more than
13,000 Northern citizens and a goodly section of the Maryland legislature,
St. Woodrow’s reign of terror, and FDR’s "relocation"
of Japanese-Americans all get their due. I cannot tell if Winik
is warning us, cheering us up, or just handing out lessons
of history. Maybe he isn’t warning us, since he states that these
historically vindicated repressions were far more severe than anything
now planned by the Bushites. Let us savor our good fortune.
especially like Winik’s discussion of Wilson’s little efforts at
protecting freedom from the terrible Huns – his propaganda committee,
for instance, which "cultivated a kind of war madness. All
dissent became suspect…." The country entered upon an unedifying
bout of jack-booted paranoia. The government even tried people for
offenses as slight as criticizing the Red Cross. There is Progress!
Now the US government itself bombs the Red Cross, although not in
our immediate neighborhood.
Winik tells us not to worry. He writes: "It is hard to think
of a group of presidents more passionate in their staunch support
of democracy than Adams, Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt." Well,
his own evidence calls for a contrary conclusion, if by "democracy"
Winik has in mind constitutional, republican government based on
a guarantee of certain liberties. Never mind, assumptions about
these men must overrule their actual deeds.
concedes that, except for dear old Abe, the Gang of Four had little
real reason for their campaigns of repression. But don’t worry,
folks, however unconstitutional or unnecessary our past waves of
repression have been, we always get our liberties back after the
propositions, then, are the following: Good democrats may "suspend"
our liberties. Historically, these suspensions have mostly been
unnecessary and unconstitutional. Don’t worry about it. Things always
go back to normal. I do not believe that even the Neo-Cons’ favorite,
much-mooted foreign agency could torture a coherent thesis out of
in passing, if repression during emergencies is always praiseworthy,
understandable, or whatever, then why, oh why, has Winik not said
a kind word for Senator Joe McCarthy? I guess Tailgunner Joe isn’t
on the list of certified democrats of good character. Anyway, we
mustn’t fret: Things will be normal again.
but according to vice president Dick Cheney, quoted in the Boston
Globe, "Many of the steps we have now been forced to take
will become permanent in American life. They represent an understanding
of the world as it is, and dangers we must guard against perhaps
for decades to come. I think of it as the new normalcy," says
the genial VP.
to paraphrase John Lennon, we might say the Veep’s a dreamer, but
he’s not the only one. For Winik, "the Bush administration
has thus far shown remarkable restraint." Not so, old chap,
they have only been plodding, bureaucratic, and systematic. That
is their style. Country club Republicans, you know. The intended
outcome is a whole set of permanent inroads on our liberties. Interested
readers should look at two recent articles on the oddly named enabling
act (something about patriotism) just signed into law, one
by Bryan Bender, and one
by John Nichols.
Many Restored Freedoms
does not seem to think that inroads on freedom are cumulative. No,
indeed, "our democracy can, and has, outlived temporary restrictions
and continued to thrive." This is an odd failing in an historian,
one attributable perhaps to the current Hegelian mood of the Neo-Cons.
Each liberticide wave, on this view, enters into a new synthesis
of freedom and unfreedom. The new blend is then taken as the
only possible form of freedom at this historical moment.
ancestors signed on for a different plan.
us see how this works in practice. The election of 1800 smashed
the Federalist Party, leaving them only their foothold in the judiciary.
The hated Alien and Seditions laws fell largely by the wayside.
Yet in a matter of a few years, Jefferson sought – in another emergency
– to enforce an embargo with methods which would have made Adams
blush for shame. (See Forrest McDonald on this.)
for Lincoln’s assaults on liberty, so lovingly detailed by Winik,
did none of them have lasting effects? They did indeed. First comes
the wonderful set of "precedents," appealed to ever since,
for suppression of liberties in emergencies. One of these happy
precedents was mass conscription. Another was the pernicious doctrine
that presidents have, constitutionally, a vast treasury of unknown
powers under the commander-in-chief clause. Raoul Berger demolished
this doctrine twenty some years ago, but no one took notice. Further,
Republican neo-mercantilism – subsidies, tariffs, greenbacks, new
kinds of taxation – outlived the war. If Reconstruction is taken
into account, all manner of unconstitutional proceedings became
possible in the backwash of Lincoln’s war. One wonders, too, if
the courts’ utter uselessness, as far as liberty went, during Wilson’s
crusade did not involve the institutional memory of how Lincoln
ignored and overrode unfavorable court decisions during his emergency.
of World War I? It is true that citizens jailed for the "crime"
of thinking they had chartered rights were pardoned by the dull
Republican presidents who succeeded Wilson. Nevertheless, the war
left behind new sources of state revenue and a further precedent
for mass conscription. The "war socialism" overseen by
the War Industries Board spawned a full-blown theory of corporatism
– government-business partnership – which high-minded reformers
sought to impose in peacetime under the first New Deal.
habit of political surveillance survived the war and carried through
into the New Deal and the New Dealers’ war. If the scale of state
activity lessened after each emergency, the new bureaus, methods,
precedents, and state aspirations attendant on each crisis lingered
on, waiting for their next opportunity for expansion.
Robert Higgs has chronicled the steady upward curve of state-building
in his very useful book, Crisis
and Leviathan. Now, a high-falutin Neo-Con (if Winik is
such) could sneer that much to which I have pointed is "mere"
economic freedom beneath the notice of Left-Reaganites. Some idle
rhetoric about "democratic capitalism" arises from that
quarter, but very little focused defense of free markets will be
wonders, though, if Japanese-Americans who lost their livelihood
and property under the benign FDR and Dog Fala were robbed of their
civil liberties or of their economic liberties. Perhaps the two
are somehow connected. Under the truncated definition of freedom
offered by Winik – at least as far as I can spy one – such matters
hardly intrude at all.
still have our intact "democracy," after all.
historian Ulrich B. Phillips wrote in 1913 that the US Constitution
"provided the machinery for a government of the people, by
the political majority, in behalf of the interests which control
that majority" (my emphasis). We may lose our power to
make our own decisions about a growing array of issues – economic,
social, educational – but, by God, we still have the right to vote
for two utterly corrupt and venal sets of professional politicos
from time to time. It follows that we are "free."
Managers Reaching for Total Power
I mentioned Professor Higgs just now. That somehow brings us to
perhaps the most amazing omission from Winik’s list of emergencies
at the end of which our freedom was restored to us only slightly
tarnished and wrinkled. That omission involves forty-some years
of semi-mobilization for war and steady bureaucratic encroachment
known as the Cold War.
we had an emergency-in-permanence, behind cover of which sundry
post-constitutional bureaucracies and agencies could do whatever
it was they did. They’ll let us know in a few decades, under our
own approximations to the British Official Secrets Act. It was a
Teddy Bears’ picnic for state-builders, a sort of Trotskyite permanent
revolution for the state managers. Far more is involved than a few
poisoned sheep in Nevada and neighboring states and exploding cigars
for Fidel. (This is one reason why the question of whether or not
one prominent Neo-Con was or wasn’t a Stalinist hardly seems
might think that an "emergency" lasting almost half a
century had lasting consequences for American freedom. Apparently
not, as far as Winik can tell. He doesn’t worry much, it seems.
it seems that great damage was done – economic, political, institutional,
World War II, we did not "get our liberties back."
The Cold War saw to that. Edward S. Corwin, Professor of Law, observed
that what we got was: "(1) the attribution to Congress of a
legislative power of an indefinite scope; (2) the attribution of
the President of the power and duty to stimulate constantly the
positive exercise of this indefinite power for enlarged social objectives;
(3) the right of Congress to delegate its powers ad libitum
to the President for the achievement of such enlarged social objectives;
(4) the attribution to the President of a broad prerogative in the
meeting of ‘emergencies’ defined by himself and in the creation
of executive agencies to assist him; (5) a progressively expanding
replacement of the judicial process by the administrative process
in the enforcement of the law – sometimes even of constitutional
who quotes these words of Corwin’s, adds: "Under these conditions
the only impediment to the relentless growth of the central government
consisted of partisan and interest-group opposition to particular
proposals. Time would reveal that such obstructionism, ever-shifting
with the winds of partisan politics and immediate interest-group
objectives, could no more than slow the onrushing Leviathan"
(Robert Higgs, "War and Leviathan: Conscription as the Keystone,"
in John V. Denson, ed., The
Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, 2nd
ed. [New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999], pp. 386-387).
was, however, one group with a longer-run vision. Unfortunately,
it was the rising class of state apparatchiks whom Richard
J. Barnet pegged as National Security Managers. (On this topic,
see Leonard P. Liggio, "American Foreign Policy and National-Security
Management," in Ronald Radosh [how times have changed] and
Murray N. Rothbard, A New History of Leviathan [New York:
E. P. Dutton, 1972], pp. 224-259.) In the staged, piece-meal takeover
of American life by these gentry, Winik can see only the nicest
Bushian "restraint." By his lights, individuals should
quit bitching about how little practical freedom they have, as against
what their ancestors had, and sign up for total Sicherheit
for the duration. But a fellow who can ignore the whole Cold War
may not be a very good forecaster when it comes to the timely recovery
of our beleaguered freedoms.
grant that I have said little about the present emergency. If it
were possible to find and punish the perpetrators of September 11,
if any remain, no one would complain. But if that crime becomes
an excuse or occasion for the permanent US regime to expand its
imperial reach or try out its doctrine of two and half wars at the
same time, then we shall have on our hands an emergency of a very
the military-political classes reaching for total control, cheered
on by kindly Neo-Con academics, it is time to reject once and for
all the notion that the US Empire embodies anything besides the
cause of empire. It is probably also time never again to
vote for any Republican politician, except perhaps in local elections
where he or she could do little harm, but that is by the way. Ditto
for the Democrats.
for the idea that "security comes before liberty," our
ancestors signed on for a different plan. It is too bad we’ve
been swindled out of it.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com
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