“Absolute monarchs are but men… I desire to know what kind of government that is, and how much better it is than the state of nature, where one man, commanding a multitude, has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases, without the least liberty to any one to question or control those who execute his pleasure and in whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake or passion, must be submitted to.” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, emphasis added).
By now, most readers are probably familiar with the evolving scandal involving the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and the release of Verizon phone records. Today, President Obama tried to reassure the nation that the program is seriously no big deal, guys, and we are all being just way too crazy about all of this.
“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch, but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process, and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.” (source)
So, in other words, if I don’t trust the government not to trounce on my liberties when given the opportunity, I’m going to have some problems?
In addition to reassuring Americans that it’s really okay if the government is seizing your phone records, because they have the best of intentions, Obama also managed to deliver some funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad doublespeak, reassuring Americans that the programs aren’t “secret,” they’re “classified.” He continued, asserting that Americans don’t need to know the daily workings of homeland security anyway.
Whew! Where do I even begin?
First of all, I am pleased to see that many mainstream liberals are calling the President out for his ridiculously unsatisfying reasoning. Sadly, not everyone feels the same way. Amidst the chorus of intellectual gymnastics that many are going through to justify this, the familiar chorus of “who cares about privacy if you’ve got nothing to hide?” has become sadly common.
Privacy is at the heart of American liberty. We are, at our core, individualists. Although our constitution doesn’t specifically grant us a right to privacy, the underlying message of much of the language of our founding documents is that there are areas into which the government does not intrude, unless absolutely necessary. The fourth amendment in particular discusses the concept of ownership – and how the government shouldn’t intrude on people’s personal effects without warrants “particularly describing the place to be searched.” The fact that we have to defend the idea of personal privacy in the face of “who cares about privacy?” is really, frankly, quite sad. We shouldn’t even have to be defending against this asinine response.Now, I am one of those slightly more “statist” libertarians who believes that there is some validity to keeping sensitive information secret. I don’t think we need to know the daily workings of homeland security, the police, or the military as long as said activities aren’t actively infringing on our rights. That seems to be the point that the President and his apologists are missing here.
Of course, none of this is as ludicrous as the idea that the validity of power is based on whether someone has good intentions. I feel that John Locke’s quote that opens this article can also be applied even when the leader is not quite a monarch. The very reason that this system of government was created was for it to be “a government of laws, not of men.” We have The Rule of Law precisely so we don’t have to rely on the virtue of imperfect men and women. Regardless of whether the whims of the individual leader are based on “reason, mistake or passion,” or “balancing security and privacy,” I would rather rely on the Constitution. It is disappointing that this is anything less than obvious.