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Danger of the state

Commentary | The third column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

I intend to devote the next three columns in this series on "the next conservatism" to the state. The state and the potential threat it poses to things conservatives value, including both our liberties and our traditional culture, have long lain at the heart of conservative thinking. But I think the next conservatism will have to look at the state more broadly than it has in the past, and that is what I intend to do.

Nonetheless, I think the next conservatism will have to start by considering the danger of the state, not because that (justified) fear is new to us, but because we need to shape our thinking to some new realities. The most important of those new realities is the fact that, because of the War on Terrorism, America may be on the verge of becoming a national security state, which in the past used to be called a "garrison state." That means citizens will allow the state to do almost anything it wants so long as it justifies its actions in terms of "national security." In effect, the Constitution and the rule of law itself go out the window, along with our liberties.

Of course, all conservatives accept the fact that the state must defend us from terrorism and other acts of war. That has always been one of the state's duties. But as a conservative, I do not want "permanent war for permanent peace," as George Orwell put it in 1984. I am not convinced that the best way to defend America from terrorism is to invade and occupy other countries, countries with religions and cultures very different from our own. At the very least, the next conservatism should ask whether such a policy generates more terrorists than it eliminates, and whether we would be better served by isolating ourselves from disordered places than by intervening in them. My colleague Bill Lind laid out the case for a grand strategy of isolation from disorder last fall in The American Conservative, in a piece I suspect Senator Robert A. Taft might have agreed with. (Lind, by the way worked for the Senator's son, Sen. Robert Taft, Jr. (R-Ohio) during Taft's tenure in the U.S. Senate.)

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Regardless of what strategy America adopts overseas in the War on Terrorism, the next conservatism should not allow the creation of a national security state here at home. It we trade our liberties for security, we will have made a very bad bargain; we will end up with neither. While the next conservatism should be firmly for measures that really improve our security, like taking control of our borders and ending illegal immigration, it should be equally firm in rejecting departures from our Constitution. Our country has survived many wars without discarding the Constitution, and I have no doubt we can do the same in the War on Terrorism if conservatives insist on it.

What would rejecting the national security state mean in specific terms? A few examples include:

  • We should never again pass wide-ranging legislation that endangers our liberties in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, as we did with the so-called "Patriot Act" after 9/11. It is almost certain that, so long as we are intervening in other countries, we will be attacked by terrorists here at home. Some of those attacks may be much worse than 9/11. When they happen, cool heads should prevail over immediate fears. If we allow ourselves to be carried away by our fears, and by voices that will play on those fears to increase the power of the state, we will lose our freedoms.
  • We must be very careful about allowing government to use advanced new technologies, which permit unprecedented powers of surveillance and intrusion, to maintain our liberties in law while undermining them in fact. Can there be any doubt that we will someday become the targets of the surveillance that we enable?
  • Perhaps most important, we must understand that in national security as in other areas, government too often wins by failing. As conservatives have long recognized, government always wants more power and more resources. Big government always wants to become bigger government. The next conservatism must not allow big government to become bigger by waving the "national security" flag.

Far from lessening the need for conservatives to be wary of the power of the state, the threat of terrorism should make the next conservatism more wary. If we end up with a national security state, where anything is permitted in the name of national security, we will become an administered people rather than a free people. As in Russia in times past, the government will be able to say to any and all of us, "we have no laws, we only have instructions." At that point, the terrorists will have won the greatest possible victory, because they will have destroyed what "America" means.


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