A Government of Laws, Not Men

In the government of this commonwealth… the executive shall never exercise the legislative [or] judicial powers… to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men. – The Constitution of Massachusetts, 1780, drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin

In contrast, consider today’s news:

The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

Americans, this is what arbitrary government looks like. As a simple matter of fact, even George III was never this arbitrary. Even he didn’t make individual colonists’ lives depend merely on an act of his own will.

Indeed, if I wanted a perfect example of what a government of men, not laws, looked like, I could just glance at the newspapers today and see what our government is doing right at this moment.

Do not respond that this power will only be used wisely and sparingly. Doing so just admits my basic point, namely that we now depend purely on the wisdom and restraint of our individual leaders. We depend on their wisdom and restraint – to check their own worst impulses. All power, both for and against, is contained in one individual. No legal processes, and no guarantees, separate us from them. And the stakes are life or death.

Likewise, do not respond that this power will only be used against very bad people. Again, doing so just admits that we now depend on an unreviewable judgment of character, not on a legal system with formal procedures and safeguards. Even in the dark days of the Cold War – even during the Revolution itself – we never ceded so much power to so few.

To those who think our leaders’ prudence is a sufficient check on their own power, consider this. Let’s both grant that Barack Obama is basically a decent, well-meaning guy (apart from the fact that a decent, well-meaning guy would never want a power like this). If he’s a decent guy, then perhaps he’ll use his newly claimed power wisely, insofar as such an atrocious power can be used wisely. But on the other hand, if I were truly evil, and if I wanted to assassinate with impunity all the people I hated… Suddenly now I’d be very interested in running for president.

Glenn Greenwald has a lot more on the issue, including evidence that Barack Obama was apparently against this power… before he was for it.