Commentary

9/11 and the Struggle for Liberty

This article was first published in the Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2001.

Recently on these pages libertarians and advocates of a strictly limited role for the federal government were taken to task in columns from the left and the right. Both based their arguments on the aftermath of the barbaric events of Sept. 11. Liberal Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a full-throated battle-cry for big government, proclaimed that the “era of a shrinking federal government is over.” Conservative columnist George Will argued that the “events since Sept. 11 have underscored the limits of libertarianism.”

Well (as Will might put it). These are curious responses to what must be one of the biggest failures of big government in American history. Providing for the common defense is right up there in the preamble to the United States Constitution. The federal government, which has taken on many new tasks since that Constitution was written, failed miserably to do the task for which we count on it most. Intelligence agencies were, by most accounts, clueless about a plot carried out by dozens of foreign nationals within our borders. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, charged with keeping criminals, undesirables and — not to put too fine a point on it — terrorists from our shores, also failed to do its job. More than a decade ago, Congress told the INS that it must not only process those entering the country but also document when they leave. It has failed to do that, not least because it maintains an antiquated computer system. The nation would have been better served if the feds had used the millions of dollars they spent in persecuting Bill Gates to purchase some of his software instead.

Nor should the government’s breakdowns on 9-11 overshadow its other failures, such as the minuscule returns and multitrillion-dollar unfunded liability of Social Security. Or the miserable state-run monopoly education system. Or, well, you name it. The list, if not endless, is impressive. Yet Sen. Schumer remains undeterred. “The tectonic plates beneath us,” he exults, “are inexorably moving us to larger federal involvement.” For the past two decades, he complains, “the federal government stopped growing.”

To the contrary: Is it not possible that the federal government has taken on so many responsibilities with a $ 2 trillion budget and who knows how many departments and programs — all of which have to move up the administrative structure of the federal government to be supervised — that the government’s most important function simply has not received the attention it deserves?

Thomas Jefferson pretty much hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Even in an age of Schumerian no-growth, since 1980 federal per-capita revenue (in constant 2001 dollars) has risen from $ 4,655 to $ 7,239. During that period of time the number of pages of federal tax rules has more than doubled to 45,600. The “tectonic plates” have never ceased shifting in the good senator’s direction. But now that al Qaeda is out there, it’s time for a new New Deal? Please.

For his part, George Will seems encouraged that Sept. 11 has given us a “Hamiltonian moment.” Hamilton, in contrast to Jefferson, was, indeed, an advocate of a powerful federal government. He was the original industrial policy advocate. Hamilton would have loved the disastrous economic policies of modern-day Japan. But just how his centralization of power over the economy could help us today is a mystery. For all his concern over an expansive role for the federal government, Jefferson believed in a strong national defense of the homeland, just as libertarians do today, and would have been pleased with the president’s conduct of the war.

Will further suggests that libertarianism “asserts that freedom exists where government compulsion does not.” That, of course, ignores the libertarian recognition that government is created precisely to secure our liberty, and the use of compulsion for that purpose is wholly appropriate. Government should exercise its authority to protect our liberty, which is the framework within which we can all pursue our various ends as free people.

Finally, Will seems to think that the unity Americans exhibit in times of national crisis is somehow inconsistent with a society based on individualism. But it is precisely our respect for those American institutions that protect our right to pursue our own dreams and ambitions that brings us together to defend them. Libertarianism, Will asserts, “vitiates the core conservative virtue, which is prudence,” but neglects to say how. Prudence is a virtue in civil society. Government, however, is hardly the appropriate institution to promote that virtue. The events of Sept. 11 dictate that we refocus government on its proper role of protecting our liberties. That means less government interference in society, not more.

Edward H. Crane is the founder and president of the Cato Institute. The article below was written in response to several op-eds in the Washington Post following the Sept. 11 terrorism.