What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
At last night’s debate amongst Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Orrin Hatch (and to which he is seeking re-election for a seventh term), a question was asked of the three candidates present regarding the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.
, Senator Hatch dismissed any concern that the powers purportedly granted to the President under that bill were unconstitutional and worrisome. “Habeas corpus hasn’t been done away with,” he said. “And I have to say, some of the worries that some of the far right conservatives have are misplaced. I assure you, nobody’s going to be mistreated under the NDAA.” Just seconds later he restated his point once more to emphasize his position: “I can assure you that habeas corpus is not done away with—that’s a constitutional principle we have abided by.”
This position is not an uncommon one; many of the NDAA’s supporters have offered a justification for their vote that amounts to little more than “trust me!” Mitt Romney, who has endorsed Senator Hatch for re-election, essentially said that very thing when asked in a recent debate about whether he would have signed the bill into law as President. After noting that he would have signed it, Romney emphasized the importance of having this type of tool available—the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of being or supporting a terrorist in any capacity. To apparently ameliorate the concerns of the critics, Romney offered this response:
And I recognize, I recognize that in a setting where they are enemy combatants and on our own soil, that could possibly be abused. There are a lot of things I think this president does wrong, lots of them, but I don’t think he is going to abuse this power and I that if I were president I would not abuse this power. And I can also tell you that in my view you have to choose people who you believe have sufficient character not to abuse the power of the presidency and to make sure that we do not violate our constitutional principles.
Both Hatch and Romney are saying that the concerns regarding the power to indefinitely detain are misguided, because we should trust our leaders not to abuse those powers. Romney, often critical of Obama, says that he doesn’t think Obama would abuse the power. And we’re also supposed to be reassured that a President Romney would not abuse them either. Of course, this issue is not specific only to the NDAA; Senator Hatch similarly dismissed constitutional concerns regarding the PATRIOT Act, for example, by simply decreeing that it “has not eroded any of the rights we hold dear as Americans”—a patently absurd allegation that has no basis in fact.
The idea that Americans should simply trust elected officials (and faceless bureaucrats) with significant political power is not only stupid—it’s downright un-American.
The people of this country, if ever they lose their liberties, will do it by sacrificing some great principle of government to temporary passion. There are certain great principles, which if they are not held inviolable, at all seasons, our liberty is gone. If we give them up, it is perfectly immaterial what is the character of our sovereign; whether he be King or President, elective or hereditary — it is perfectly immaterial what is his character — we shall be slaves — it is not an elective government which will preserve us.
Thomas Jefferson also spoke to this idea of trusting politicians to do the right thing. Drafting the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Jefferson declared that that state was determined “to submit to undelegated and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or body of men on earth.” Taking on the “trust” issue directly, Jefferson wrote:
It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power… our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go.
In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
Numerous other quotes could be summoned in support of this idea, but these suffice to demonstrate the absolute repugnance at the very thought of trusting politicians with powers not delegated in the Constitution. Confidence in politicians makes men slaves, as Representative Randolph noted; the deferral of any “necessary” power to the government is a misguided idea that should be restrained by the “chains of the Constitution.”
One should never give his friend a power that he wouldn’t want his enemy to have. By granting illegitimate and tyrannical authority to a politician that one trusts—even if that person is worthy of that trust—a precedent is set that opens up that power for use (and expansion) by any future politician. Even if a President Romney were to have the “character” not to indefinitely detain American citizens (something that violates numerous constitutional clauses), who is to say how that power would be used by his successor?
Daniel Webster, another liberty-minded patriot from the founding era, echoed the sentiment of his contemporaries which completely contradicts the servile statements made by men like Hatch and Romney. He said:
Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretenses of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded. There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully—but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well—but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters—but they mean to be masters.
Americans must ask themselves whether or not they want “masters” at all. More importantly, they must consider whether they are currently slaves in a system where rather than having a government chained down by the Constitution, they have themselves become chained down by an unrestrained government. Determining how best to break free from those shackles first requires noticing that they even exist; “None are more hopelessly enslaved,” said Goethe, “than those who falsely believe they are free.”
Hatch, Romney, and too many other politicians who ask for our confidence in them, and the system they want to be a part of, ask for trust and power rather than jealousy and restraint. Fool Americans once and turn us into chained-down slaves, shame on you. Fool Americans twice and as our “masters” ask for our ongoing trust…
Shame on us.