Time for a National Conversation on Liberty

libertyAfter every media sensationalized incident of racism, gun violence, or fill in the blank, we are told by our betters that it’s time for a “national conversation” on the subject.  This usually seems less about actually having a conversation and more about giving them a sense of moral superiority.

But if information is power and, as Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts”, we need to think very carefully about the power that we are handing over to government without demanding a national conversation on liberty.

It should be a conversation with Americans making informed decisions about what’s important to them, not secret edicts by politicians and bureaucrats who are quick to create systems that grow out of control and prove impossible to stop once in motion.

Each day seems to bring new stories of abuse.

A Washington Post report detailed how the government has secretly been paying tens of millions of dollars to tech and internet companies to underwrite the ability of the government to use these services to spy on everyone – not just terrorists.

The Wall Street Journal reported that employees and contractors of the NSA have been found to use the agency’s capabilities to spy on their own potential “love interests” and former spouses.  Call if cyber-stalking on steroids.  And just a week ago we found out that the government’s own secret reports document that the NSA had broken privacy rules nearly three-thousand times in the last year alone.

A recent CNET story details how the FBI has developed new custom “port reader” software that it is trying to force all Internet service providers to install in order to give them access to Internet data in real time.  (Who needs the NSA when you can wiretap the whole Internet yourself?)

To add insult to injury, the administration is petitioning the Supreme Court to review a case that could give government the right to search your mobile phone without a warrant.  When you consider that most mobile phones are now linked to the same data and applications of the average computer, the government’s ability to go through it without a warrant is effectively no different than being able to walk into someone’s home or office and go through their computer files at will.

This isn’t what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Fourth Amendment’s language about being “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects”.

As a result of the growing scandal, Obama has done what folks in Washington usually do when they want to defuse a political problem: appoint a committee.  The new panel is comprised of leaders from the intelligence community as well as White House staffers, and will take a look at how the NSA spies on Americans and then let us know if there is anything to be worked up about.  Fox, meet hen-house.

Of course all of these new revelations come several weeks after a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the US House came within twelve votes of passing a resolution to prohibit the NSA’s collection of “bulk data” on Americans unless they were under suspicion of terrorism.

Clearly it’s time for another vote on the subject.

Why is it illegal for the CIA to operate domestically (a wise precaution), but not for the NSA to spy on Americans domestically and share that information with other government agencies?  And who’s to say these programs can’t be focused on something other than potential lovers and be used for blackmail, or to spy out financial secrets and make big bets in the markets?  The list of potential abuses is endless.

There needs to be someone in this process whose job is to protect the privacy and liberty of the very people who are paying the tab.  Some sort of congressionally appointed special counsel who can review all activities, report to Congress and even prosecute abuses.  The current “trust us” arrangement doesn’t cut it.

Whatever reforms and restrictions are put in place need to be imaginative and lay down clear principles that apply no matter what the technology of the day may be.  To set out in certain terms that it is illegal for any agency of our government to spy on us (individually or collectively) or to collect personal information on Americans without their consent or a specific, individualized warrant from a judge – which was the exact intent of the Fourth Amendment.

Anything less is not only an invitation but an admission that this is exactly what will happen.

It’s time that we start having that national conversation.

Celebrating (less) Independence

The land of liberty ain’t what it used to be.

Big GovernmentOn the one hand we have faceless bureaucrats becoming more ingrained in our everyday lives, and on the other hand we have judges overturning the will of the voters, whether expressed in referendums or via elected representatives.

Hardly a cause for a celebration of independence.

And just what are we supposed to be celebrating independence from anyway? Large, distant, unrepresentative government that infringes on our liberties?

Take a moment today and read the list of charges made in the Declaration of Independence against the British monarchy. I won’t spoil it for you, but a person could be excused for thinking it was meant to describe some of the actions of our own federal government.

In fact, the last time we celebrated a real expansion of liberty from intrusive, dictatorial government was when the Declaration was written two-hundred and thirty-seven years ago. Each passing Independence Day since has seen a government grown larger at the expense of the liberties of the people it is supposed to serve.

(Read “Common Sense”, the book that helped start the Revolution)

The primary means our Founding Fathers employed to control government and preserve liberty was separation of powers, taking political power and splitting it into executive, legislative and judicial functions. The novel idea was to set them in opposition to one another so that each one would check the powers of the other two.

It would be nice if we actually lived under such a government.

It’s a measure of who is really in charge of our country when you compare the size of the Congressional Record (the sum of all of the proceedings and legislation enacted by Congress) versus the Federal Register (the sum of all the regulations put in place by faceless, unelected bureaucrats). The Register wins hands down, totaling just shy of eighty-thousand pages in 2012 alone – and almost 1.5 million since it was first published in 1936.

The Roman historian Tacitus once said, “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws”, but he didn’t live long enough to see a modern “progressive” tax code-enabled, social-welfare regulatory state. Today he might say, “The more oppressive the government, the more numerous the laws”.

So, how did it get to this point? Slowly but surely, Congress passes broad stroke legislation with language like “as the Secretary shall determine”, allowing executive branch bureaucrats to fill in the details. That’s how two-thousand page bills like Obamacare spawn over ten-thousand pages in new regulations.

The problem with the regulatory state is that it is an end-run around the separation of powers. It coalesces more power in the executive branch, (which means into the hands of bureaucrats); and more of it in Washington, DC, as opposed to the state and local governments that are closer to the people.

Of course the beauty of the regulatory state for the political class is that nobody is really in charge. And when a scandal presents itself, it’s met with calls by government enablers for “better regulations”, or more people or money to better enforce them; never with why they should exist to begin with.

The simple fact is the more regulators that the government has (and Obamacare adds an additional sixteen-thousand), the more power it has over the individual, and the more opportunities it has to exert bias, (as the recent IRS scandal demonstrates).

If our representative branch has abdicated much of its authority, the judiciary is steadily eroding what’s left.

Just this past week the Supreme Court claimed that Congress was bigoted to try to defend the definition of society’s most fundamental institution as it has been understood for several thousand years. This was on top of their condoning a lower court decision which threw out a referendum passed on the same subject by voters in California.

Further, Christian Americans are now being hauled into court on “civil rights violations” for refusing to provide services for gay weddings, Christian charities are forced to close in states that won’t allow them to practice faith based adoption services, and others face millions in fines for not providing abortion-related services in company health-care plans.

And this is the land of liberty?

Instead of celebrating independence on July 4th, maybe we should treat the occasion more like Memorial Day, honoring what our Founding Founders achieved, and remembering what we’ve lost.

I think it’s safe to say that they wouldn’t be doing too much celebrating.