This column is part of an ongoing series of essays examining and applying the timeless principles and truths of the Federalist Papers to the political events of our day.
As this week’s headlines have revealed, the NSA’s domestic data mining program is small potatoes compared to the database to be compiled for Obamacare. And if it concerns you that a mid-level employee of a government contractor could legally access the reams of classified documents Edward Snowden illegally leaked–then wait until hack community organizers have legal access to your financial and medical records, as Obamacare allows.
On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the NSA Act, creating a new federal agency whose charge was to protect American citizens from Soviet communism. Given the size and scope of the Soviet threat and the uncompromising Marxism that drove it, this was a rational response to a real, soon-to-be existential threat to American freedom. Nevertheless, continued vigilance would be required to ensure that the NSA and the rest of the institutional apparatus established to fight the Cold War remained a friend of liberty, as Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, warned in his farewell address.
A less-remembered warning from the same speech perhaps captures more of the threat to American liberty today. What, Eisenhower wondered, would be the consequences of new federal programs giving millions of taxpayer dollars to American universities for government-sponsored research? The corruption of the university, for one: where “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” But more troubling still would be the rise of what he might have called the “academy-bureaucracy” complex: “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” In other words, what we’ve seen in the academy is the empowering of tenured, indignant Thrasymachuses who are paid handsomely to subvert the life of the mind and “the liberties of a great [American] community.”
The result is an American government at war against almost every aspect of the human condition except war itself. Forget the war to end all wars: we live in an age where man’s permanent condition, in every part of life, is a state of war. The War on Drugs. The War on Poverty. The War on Terror. The War on Childhood Obesity. The War on Global Warming. Identify a threat, and they are looming around every corner, and soon there’s a new bureaucracy ready for battle, allowing every last-pick-on-the-playground academic to dream of one day training federal firepower against his favorite social pathology, real or imagined.
The image might be funny if the power weren’t so real. Writing for the Heritage Foundation two years ago, Brian W. Walsh found that the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center trains officers for more than 80 different federal agencies, including the Departments of Education and Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Of course, it doesn’t always take a SWAT team to fight these new wars. Much of the combat is done through regulations calculated to punish enemies and reward friends, the awarding or withholding of federal funds, and the exploding use of waivers, which turn a general rule into an instrument of arbitrary power. Many Americans have learned to fall in line. Better to obey than to challenge unconstitutional abuses of authority. For as Milton Friedman was fond of saying, “Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.”
Ironically, a great part of the original rationale for creating the modern Leviathan state was to prevent conflicts (and often war) that arose out of foreign, domestic, and religious divisions. The goal of political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was to convince men that they were essentially sophisticated clocks, whose principal aim was (and ought to be) to keep on ticking, but whose flawed works required the constant care of a master clocksmith. Such men would welcome an all-powerful state capable of securing the lives of its individual members, who would otherwise be caught in a endless war of all against all, inspired by ambition, competition, and suspicion.
As we’ve seen in the first six Federalist essays, the founders had no difficulty cataloging the flaws of human nature. But they neither accepted Hobbes’ claim that mere survival was humanity’s highest end nor believed that a despotic government was the only (or any) way to create room for men to pursue true happiness.
In Federalist 7, Alexander Hamilton identifies the specific causes that might lead to wars among the states if the Union were to dissolve: disputes over territory, commercial rivalries, differences over how to pay off the Revolutionary War debt, and state laws imposing unfair burdens on the citizens of other states. This was no work of Hamilton’s imagination. All of these causes had created serious tensions during the short period of American independence. Some had been resolved under the Articles of Confederation; others would require a stronger national government for a permanent settlement–another reason to ratify the Constitution. But none of these resolutions, past or future, would stick if the Union broke up, removing the motive for and benefits from mutual accommodation and leaving each state to secure its interests in the best way it could. Peace, in other words, depended on a context that made it reasonable for all parties–a Union where differences could be arbitrated according to just rules, consistently and transparently applied to all.
The specific problems identified by Hamilton do not trouble our politics today. But as we’ve seen, the problems of political peace and war abound, rooted in the same general causes. Yet rather than work to defuse unhealthy ambition, competition, and suspicion, many of our leaders take advantage of and encourage such division (“Trayvon Martin could have been me”).
As the Progressive political vision has been actualized, step by step, over the last century, the federal government has become the intrusive third party in more and more interactions between private citizens. Even with the best of intentions, this would multiply rapidly instances where one or both of those citizens felt mistreated or targeted by the government. But as we noted in writing about Federalist 2, the Progressive vision also explicitly charges government with picking winners and losers based upon their conformity to ruling class pieties. In such a context, there can be no peace–and no escape from the creeping politicization of all of life.
Declaring war on everything leaves the government unable to win the wars it is actually supposed to fight. There are a variety of reasons why the Zimmermann verdict has generated such ugly responses, but one of them is that when government takes a side in every controversy, it is hard to believe that justice, pure and simple, is ever done. Actions like the President took last week to revive the controversy convince a large part of the public that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger.
Once upon a time, Progressive elites were the first to chant “give peace a chance,” ignoring the reality of Soviet imperialism. Today in the international arena they likewise look for peace even where, in truth, there is no peace. When it comes to our homeland, however, they eagerly follow the rule Hamilton ascribed to America’s enemies and rivals: divide et impera (divide and command).
As we will see in Hamilton’s warning in Federalist 8, escalating political tensions among independent states produces increasingly large and increasingly dangerous standing armies. The unending and unlimited campaign is its domestic equivalent–producing even deeper and more intractable divisions.
If we are to avoid that outcome, we need, instead, to recapture the wisdom of Federalist 7 by giving the Founders’ peace a chance: recognizing that justice is not the advantage of the stronger but rather equality before the law–the common good. If, on the other hand, Progressives successfully convince Americans that there are only victors and vanquished then, as Hobbes put it, our life together will indeed be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”