The Power of Twelve

Rep. Amash

If you weren’t paying attention today, you might have missed a tremendous moment for liberty that happened yesterday evening.

The House of Representatives debated an amendment introduced by Rep. Justin Amash to a defense appropriations bill. The amendment would have significantly limited the authority of the NSA to collect data on American citizens who are not under investigation already.

Seems pretty reasonable, no?

The House didn’t think so, and instead chose to vote with what the White House, not the majority of Americans, wanted. In a final vote of 217-205, and reportedly after some intense lobbying from the White House, the House decided that it wasn’t reasonable to limit data collection to people who were under any reasonable suspicion of being involved in terrorism.

“This person looks like they might be guilty sometime in the future. Let’s record all their stuff to be sure.” – Lindsey Graham [citation probably not needed]

We’ve learned some important things today. The government’s encroachment on our individual liberties is reaching a dangerous tipping point. We’ve known for years that things like the PATRIOT ACT allowed for, shall we say, more creative interpretations of certain civil liberties such as the right to have warrants “specifically describe” the places to be searched. For years, the retort to this concern has been “if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry?” As we can see now, the government doesn’t care if you’re doing anything wrong or not, they will collect massive amounts of information on you anyway; just in case you do sometime in the future, I suppose.

There’s no such thing as presumption of innocence when it comes to the catch-all justification of “national security,” even though the fact that there should be was once self-evident. I don’t think everyone in the government, the NSA, or the intelligence community is malicious. They’re people. I’m sure some of them are prudent. But our government was created to be a government of laws, not of men. The protection of our data, our privacy, and our rights, should not rely on the good intent of people given immeasurable power. That is not how our government was intended to work.

But, liberty lovers, this is not the time to be discouraged!

A few years ago, the American public largely didn’t care about the NSA, the PATRIOT ACT, or civil liberties concerns. For years and years, Ron Paul introduced legislation that died in committee with few or no cosponsors. The lone voice crying in the wilderness has retired from politics, but his profound influence has helped the people who followed him have quite a few allies. Let’s return to the vote itself.

205 voted in favor. 217 voted against. That’s a difference of twelve votes. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. Twelve is nothing. The congressmen who voted against it can lose elections. Now it’s our responsibility not to let this issue go by the wayside. Don’t let people tell you they’re tired of hearing about it and change the subject to some fleeting thing like mayoral candidates who have problems with monogamy and discretion.  These are our liberties.  We can still get them back. We’re already winning. Let’s get those twelve votes – or those two-hundred seventeen – out of office. We have just one year until we get our first chance. Let’s not let them forget that they betrayed liberty and the will of their constituents.

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Fear, Fatalism, and Faith

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” – John 14:27 (KJV)

Last year, I attended a graduation ceremony for some of my friends at the local university. I was excited that the commencement speaker was none other than the fabulous PJ O’Rourke. His message was a simple one. Our generation – the graduating one – has it pretty good. We didn’t grow up practicing hiding under our desks in school to prepare for nuclear war with the communists like many of our parents or grandparents did. We didn’t grow up without voting rights for women or political protection for minorities like our grandparents or great-grandparents did. It wasn’t as simple as a platitude of “count your blessings,” but rather a reminder that every generation faces big threats. Every generation has fears. Every generation has monsters. We endure because of what made us great in the first place: liberty, tolerance, and determination.

School children drill during the Cold War era.

I am often reminded of O’Rourke’s remarks when I talk to my fellow libertarians. To many libertarians, the above may sound like blasphemy. “The world is ending!” we protest, “the government is encroaching! Our liberties are going down the drain!” This week, as we watched things from deadly tornadoes ripping through our heartland to a British soldier being killed in cold blood on the streets of London, the debate has returned to the surface. What are the merits of remaining optimistic in such a time as this? Is there any room for hope in a world where it seems as though every day we lose liberties quicker?

With this in mind, I decided to come up with a list of some things that libertarians, especially Christians, should remember. This article is from an explicitly Christian perspective, but hopefully there is room to apply its message to non-theistic libertarians.

1. God doesn’t want us to live in fear.

This is the first and most important thing to remember. The verse that opens this article is just one of many Biblical reminders that Christians, despite dire circumstances, should not live in fear. Let’s look at some of what else the Bible has to say about fear and the Christian life (all verses KJV).

“Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” – Deuteronomy 31:6

“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” – Joshua 1:9

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – Psalm 23: 4

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” – John 14:27

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18

The context and stories to which these verses refer are even more powerful reminders not to let fear overtake us. We aren’t traversing through the desert for 40 years, we aren’t running from an angry king, and we aren’t adherents to a newly-formed religion living in the height of the pagan Roman Empire. We do really have it fairly good! We need to be constantly vigilant, yes. But even in much more dire circumstances, Christians are reminded not to let fear overtake us.

2. Fear is not a good political motivator.

From a political perspective, giving into fear doesn’t produce good results. Fear makes representatives vote the massive PATRIOT ACT into law mere days after 9/11. Fear makes people support such foolish decisions. Fear makes you irrational. Fear is not thinking, it is reacting. The liberty movement cannot survive if our motivator is reaction. We must have rationalism behind positive goals. Our goals must go beyond reacting to things that scare us.

President Bush signs the USA PATRIOT ACT into law mere weeks after 9/11 in 2001.

3. Fatalism is pointless.

Now, at this point, some people are surely arguing that it’s not just about fear, but about being “realistic” about the future of our nation (and perhaps the world). Of course, at the radical end of this are the people who think the leaders of the free world are conspiring to bring about an “end game” of world tyranny. However, you don’t have to trek that far into the fringes to find people who are very fatalistic about the future. Christian libertarians also have a tendency to connect our political views with apocalyptic eschatology.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

It’s easy to look at the current state of civil liberties and economic freedom and be pessimistic. Even if the world is coming to an end imminently, does that mean that we shouldn’t try to make it as good as possible while we’re still here? If we are completely pessimistic about the future, what’s the point of doing anything? I firmly believe that political action can, and does, create real change, and that we are not doomed. But even if you think just the opposite, it’s still not unrealistic optimism to focus on the good. It’s not unrealistic optimism to focus on the structures, ideas, and foundation that our founders gave us. It’s not unrealistic optimism to focus on what we can do, as opposed to what we can’t.

4. There’s nothing wrong with being happy!

Finally, I think that it’s important to remember that we as Christians are not called to be dreary killjoys. This is also important to remember when we approach politics as Christian libertarians. I’m sure everyone has one or two friends who react negatively to any instances of levity, with admonishments that there are more important things to worry about.

“The founding fathers wouldn’t just post pictures of cats if they had Facebook!”

Maybe not. But I imagine our founding fathers – and our Biblical role models – wouldn’t go around trying to squash other people enjoying humor and joy and life! The Bible tells us that Jesus wants us to live  “life more abundantly“! Bad things don’t negate our enjoyment of the good things in life, and being humorless, glum, and fatalistic doesn’t win anyone over. If we truly want to try to make a difference for liberty, we need to think about our methods, and try to focus more on the positive things we can do. Sure, some people are going to continue to sulk about how the world is ending and everything’s horrible. I’d rather be with the people who try to change what we can.

Winning Is Not Compromising

“This war on drugs is totally out of control. If you want to regulate cigarettes and alcohol and drugs, it should be at the state level. That’s where I stand on it. The federal government has no prerogatives on this.” – Ron Paul (source).

If there’s anything Rand Paul can do well, it’s fire up debate among libertarians. As of recently, hilariously satirized by Steve Heidenreich on this site, libertarians are up in (theoretical, non-aggressive) arms in response to comments Paul made to a group of pastors in Iowa that some read as him “loving the drug war.”

“To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people. “Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot. I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative”

Let’s crucify him today!

For God’s sake, let’s definitely not examine his comments with any degree of critical thought to see how well they line up with libertarian philosophy. Because if we step back from our hysterical Rand Paul hate, it is clear that, while not as strictly libertarian as some, Rand Paul’s views are very much in line with what they’ve always been – and with a small government philosophy.

Rand Paul has been very vocal in his support for ending federal drug laws. In April, Paul gave a scathing statement on mandatory minimum laws, one of the biggest travesties of injustice to come from the drug war. Telling the story of two men (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) who recreationally used drugs as young men, Paul argued that mandatory minimums, and imprisonment for marijuana use, can deprive the world of future leaders and ruin people’s lives unjustly. “In this story, both young men were extraordinarily lucky. Both young men were not caught using illegal drugs, and they weren’t imprisoned. Instead, they went on to become presidents of the United States. Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky.”

Wow, what a great voice for liberty he’d be if he’d only make a video of himself using illegal drugs!

Is it possible to not “love the drug war” and also not support legalization of all drugs on all levels of government? Of course it is. The term itself (Drug War) refers to federal prohibition, mandatory minimums, omnibus crime bills, and other such federal expansion over the area of crime laws traditionally left to the states, into which the federal leviathan began encroaching the 1970s and 1980s. Ron Paul, like Rand Paul, has always supported leaving such issues to the states. Both Pauls believe that states should be free to legalize drugs if they want. Ron Paul, like Rand Paul, is no supporter of drug use.

That’s not to say that Rand and Ron Paul are the same. There are differences among libertarians just as there are differences between any group of people. People – even fathers and sons – disagree, and we shouldn’t hold them to unrealistic standards of agreeing with us on everything if we are to consider them “intellectually pure” enough. If we do, libertarianism will continue to be persuasive only to those who already agree, and who, by and large, do not vote anyway. Winning is not compromising liberty. Self-insular irrelevancy should not be our goal.

This attitude totally wins over thousands of new libertarians every day.

If you disagree with this picture, you’re a statist.

Finally, it is very disappointing to see libertarians blindly accepting what the media says about Rand Paul just because they don’t like him. Libertarians should know better than anyone not to take what the media says at face value, but we blindly accept that Rand Paul “loves the drug war” now – a position completely different than everything he’s stood for in the past – based on the inference of a reporter who provides no quotes from Paul to back this up. The only quote in the article shows that he feels state governments should have the prerogative to ban drugs, just like his father. This is neither surprising nor new.

If libertarians are to ever shake the stereotype that we are basement-dwelling, pot-smoking, jobless college kids, we have to think carefully about our knee-jerk reactions to people who happen to hold more personally conservative views than some of us do. Critical disagreement is fine. Rejecting anyone who holds more politically prudent views than other libertarians is unwise. Blind acceptance of anything the media says, as long as it’s about someone we don’t like, is intellectual dishonesty.

Gradualism: Good or Bad?

Libertarians often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue of achieving their end goals. With almost every issue that arises in the liberty community, you are sure to come across those who support slow and gradual change as well as those who push for the immediate end of the state. Who is right?

 An effective way of judging the success of ‘Gradualism’ is to look at when it is used to further agendas other than those held by libertarians. For example, one can look at the success of the left over the last century or so and see what ‘Gradualism’ has achieved them: Marxism permeates nearly every aspect of society, especially those aspects which libertarians have seen deteriorate (gun rights, private property rights, etc.) The ideas of state-socialism and the like have been taught in high schools as well as colleges and universities for multiple generations; as a result, people across the country (and the world) hold statist policies in high-esteem.

 Also, given the current political framework, it is important to take note of how laws and court precedent  have gradually changed over time, and almost never abruptly. When working within a static system, gradualism is usually the only recourse possible.

 Yet, there are many examples in which sudden (and sometimes even violent) changes in the social and political structures of a society have been successful. The most familiar example of such change is the American Revolution in which the colonies of what is now the United States freed themselves from the rule of Great Britain. Although the seeds of secession were sown many years prior to the Revolution, only was freedom achieved when the colonists were finally willing to use swift action against their oppressors to achieve their goals.

 Gradualism only works when it is warranted and when it can be assured that the main goal can be reached after a compromise or ‘gradual’ step. For example, in the recent debates about ‘marriage equality,’ libertarians found themselves split on whether they should advocate equal marriage licensing or abolishing marriage licensing all-together. Libertarians generally agreed that the end goal was ending licensing, but many disagreed on how that goal should be achieved. The proper course of action should have been to end marriage licensing, rather than ensure equal marriage licensing. Why? Well, if equal marriage licensing is instituted, it is likely that it will stay that way, with marriage licensing never being abolished. Those not as sympathetic to liberty as libertarians will be much less willing to work on ending licensing if their end goal is already achieved. For libertarians, the short-term compromise would not serve the purpose of extending the path to the final goal.

 However, there are instances in which ‘gradualism’ could be quite effective. One of the most beneficial forms of gradualism in which libertarians are currently succeeding in is the cultivation of libertarian ideals. From quasi-libertarian institutions such as the Republican Liberty Caucus and Cato to more ingrained think tanks such as the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, libertarians are enjoying great achievements and success, with libertarian ideals and values on the rise.

 Libertarians should employ gradualism only when it serves as a stepping stone to an assured goal; otherwise, they may fall into the trap of rigidity, in which compromises may prove to be binding. Moving in the same direction, whether it be quickly or slowly, is almost always a good thing, so long as the end goal is always in sight.