“Free people, remember this maxim: We may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Yesterday, I wrote a post about how I’ve become so burdened by the abuse of civil liberties by the Executive branch, that I have decided that this is a big enough of a deal–and the time is crucial enough–to warrant this being the one issue I use to determine who I’m voting for this Presidential election.
I knew I was brief yesterday, but wow. That post ended up causing a lot of emails, texts, comments and Facebook posts from people really cautious about what I had said, and had a lot of clarifying questions for me. Some issues will become clearer as I continue to write about this, but I wanted to address some crucial things up front.
First, some definition
As Wikipedia puts it: “Civil liberties are simply defined as individual legal and constitutional protections from entities more powerful than an individual, for example, parts of the government, other individuals, or corporations.” To put it another way, our “civil liberties” are what is clearly laid out in the Bill of Rights.
“Civil liberty abuses” are not necessarily the same things as “government over-reach”. I think the War on Drugs, compulsory education, and perhaps even the new health care law might qualify as “government over-reach”, but these are not “civil liberty” issues in my book.
Some people thought I was referring to the contraceptive mandate controversy brewing between the government and Catholic institutions. One could argue that this is a “civil liberties” issue because of “freedom of religion” (and I personally would consider some more conscience exemptions to the law), but at the very least this is not a civil liberties issue like the ones I was referring to yesterday.
I was mainly talking about breaches in privacy, due process, freedom of press, and legal manipulations of state secrets, propaganda, and wartime powers that further threaten our constitutional rights–things far more serious than contraceptives and health insurance.
What I am and am not talking about
I’m not whining that the government is reading my emails, texts, and Facebook posts (which they are). My social media profiles are completely public. “Privacy” is not something I personally worry about too much. I’m also a white Christian male, so I have little danger of being “profiled”, detained, or illegally surveilled or searched. I’m not scared that I personally will be the subject of many (if any) of the civil rights abuses currently going on.
My issue is not primarily that increasing amounts of power (and therefore “liberty”) are being taken from our hands, but where this power is going. My anger is that this power is being consolidated in one over-arching authority that is removed enough from us that we cannot have a say in how it exercises this power.
Because let me clear: this “over-arching” authority I’m talking about is not the President himself; it’s the Executive branch itself. You can elect whomever you want into that office, but these powers (having been taken from us) will still remain. This power shift is beyond our democratic, electoral control.
My problem is not that I have fewer liberties. We give up rights and freedoms every day. Children give up their freedom to their parents. I give up some of my freedom to my job and the Church community. Spouses give up some of their freedoms for the sake of their loved-one. Some people, out of fear of danger, give up their own personal sense of freedom to leave their house or engage in relationships.
But in the end, it is still their right to freely give up their own rights for what they deem as most important. It is right and natural to offer our freedoms as personal “currency” to move closer towards what we desire. But we offer these freedoms up to whom we want; they are not to be taken from us by an entity in which we have no say as to how these freedoms are used, by whom, for what reasons, why, and to what end.
These freedoms can be freely given, but they should not be taken. But this is precisely what is going on in the Executive branch today.
Lastly, two admissions:
First, I admit these sort of civil liberty and power abuses have happened in the past with prior administrations and Presidents and eventually the system corrected itself (perhaps most famously by Lincoln during the Civil War).
Second, I admit that sometimes it took more historical distance and time to correct itself than we have had the luxury of having yet. And so, maybe the long-term result of the Tea Party, the Occupiers, and the nation’s flirtation with Libertarianism (and Ron Paul) will result in this correction, and I’m getting worked up way too soon.
But, I offer three responses:
First, I would argue that the movements forward in this consolidation/abuse of power in the Executive branch are unprecedented in both the sheer amount of power taken by the Executive and the speed at which this power has been acquired.
Second, there are structures and incentives in place today–that were not around in times before–that fight all the harder against this tide being “naturally” turned: lobbyists, private-sector contracts giving major financial incentives to fight reform, Congressional leaders abdicating clear Constitutional responsibilities in return for the perks of “status”, and a slew of Supreme Court appointments over the past decade that have resulted in a Judiciary completely in line with the goals of the Executive.
And thirdly, no “natural” correction of these abuses has ever occurred in American history apart from people crying out against them in (sometimes) over-reactionary (and perhaps even hyperbolic) ways.
Tomorrow, I will be putting up an Ash Wednesday post, but Thursday I will post the third post in this series, which will mainly be comprised of a catalog of recent civil liberty abuses done by the President and his administration. There will be links and citations with every claim.