Commentary

Upholding Liberty in America

By Edward H. Crane and William A. Niskanen
This article was published in the Financial Times, June 24, 2003.

In the aftershock of September 11, 2001, there is a heightened awareness among most Americans of how precious their freedom is. They also realise the need for better government intelligence work to fight terrorism. But they should not let the government usurp basic liberties.

This is a danger as more and more anti-terrorist laws and rules straightjacket the nation. There is a congruent danger: the rise of neoconservatism on the right. The movement is using the threat of terrorism to expand government at home and abroad. America must safeguard its freedoms in the fight against terrorism, but protect itself from pernicious policies that erode freedom in the name of liberty.

Since September 11, Congress and the Justice Department have implemented laws and rules to protect America. But some of these new steps threaten civil liberties. One example is the Patriot Act. This 131-page law, which few legislators read, abandons procedural norms and expands the power of the executive branch, which is already too powerful.

Under no circumstances should an American be held captive in the US indefinitely, with no charges filed and no legal representation afforded. Yet this has happened under the Patriot law. And now there is talk of a Patriot II. James Buchanan, the Nobel laureate, argues that governments will acquire more power when the opportunity arises. History shows this to be true, and the Patriot law reflects it. Today, with the war on terrorism, the opportunities for the state to expand are ubiquitous. Both liberals and conservatives are casting a blind eye toward unnecessary usurpations of power, if not openly calling for them.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, has mooted the idea of “torture warrants”, by which courts could authorise the use of torture to elicit information. The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism. Always a movement of bright intellectual leaders, neoconservatism has mostly been a movement with a head but no body. One rarely runs into a neocon on the street.

Underlying neoconservatism is a desire to reshape America and the world through the efforts of a robust federal government. For years, the Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine, has promoted the need for initiatives to reinforce America’s international power. Merely living in a free society appears to be insufficient for neoconservatives.

During George W. Bush’s campaign for president, the neoconservative influence was felt in domestic policy ideas such as faith-based initiatives that would involve the federal government in private local charities, often with a religious orientation. It was also seen in the call for a greater federal role in local education. These are both inconsistent with the concept of limited government and federalism.

But neocons tend to be dismissive of the idea that the federal government should be limited to the protection of an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As William Kristol, the editor of the Standard, has put it: “Are we willing to say that the country is worse off because of FDR or JFK or LBJ? I’m not willing to say that.” So much for limited government.

During his campaign, Mr. Bush said many sensible things about foreign policy, including the need for the US to have “humility” in its relations with other nations. But since September 11, neoconservative influence on US foreign policy has reached new heights. We have grave concerns over the doctrine of preventive war and the seeming abdication of the responsibilities of Congress with respect to committing lives and treasure to armed conflict.

Some in the neoconservative movement have openly called for an American empire around the globe. Max Boot, the writer, recently praised what he termed America’s “imperialism” and said it should impose its views “at gunpoint”. James Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has called for a decades-long campaign to re-order the entire Middle East along neoconservative lines. Such thinking is profoundly un-American.

All is not gloom. What is needed now is for limited government conservatives of the variety exemplified by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater to join forces with libertarians and enlightened liberals who respect civil liberties. They should speak out in support of America’s heritage of liberty.

Globalisation has been primarily an American undertaking and it has been good for the world’s poor. The country’s science, technology, and entrepreneurship are healing the sick, cleaning the environment, and making the world a better and more enjoyable place in which to live. America is a great nation with little to apologise for. It has an enemy to defeat. The challenge is not to defeat itself.

Ed Crane is president of the Cato Institute and William Niskanen is its chairman.