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Slippery Arguments
Why freedom ain't everything.


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Jonah Goldberg

“I’ll give you women and blacks. But you can’t be serious about white men.”

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This was just one of the scores of dissenting e-mails I received over Thanksgiving weekend in response to last Wednesday’s column. I wrote, “From the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed to the moment you eat your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day 2001, Americans have become more, not less free. Maybe not on a month-to-month basis but the trendline is undeniable.”

I knew this would be a controversial proposition among some loyal readers, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the assault. And since it looks like we’re going to be having a great big fun fight over slippery slopes and civil liberties over the next few weeks, I thought I’d take another whack at the topic.

Climbing the Slippery Slope
First off, let’s be clear about something. When it comes to civil liberties, slippery-slope arguments are largely incompatible with The Prevailing historical arguments. Because I am a dork I often listen to NPR on my walkman while I “walk” Cosmo. If it helps, think of it as eavesdropping on enemy radio broadcasts.

Anyway, it seems that nary a program can conclude without someone comparing some measure by the Bush administration — military tribunals, roving wiretaps, etc. — to other alleged civil-liberties transgressions of yore and arguing that these measures constitute a major step down a slippery slope. They’ll yammer on about, say, the Palmer Raids or the Alien and Sedition Acts or about America’s terrible record on wartime civil liberties generally and then seamlessly elide into an argument about the camel’s nose poking under the tent, being on the thin edge of some wedge, giving an inch and losing a mile or some other greased-incline cliché (sorry, but I grow weary of typing “slippery slope”).

There’s a hitch though. You can’t argue, for example, that the internment of the Japanese put us on a slippery slope; or at least you can’t argue it was very slippery or particularly steep. For the last five decades the tide of the law and the culture has been pulling us in the opposite direction. Indeed, even though the argument for interning Arab Americans (or Arab aliens) is probably not much better or much worse than the arguments for rounding up the Japanese were, it is inconceivable that America would do anything of the sort today.

For all of the screeching about the thousand or so people being held in custody since September 11, there’s no way you can compare it to the internment of the Japanese. If we were interning Arab or Muslim Americans there’d be millions of people in camps. Instead, “only” .0001% of that population is being held by the feds — and that’s because they’ve all committed a crime of some kind, or, in one or two instances, are material witnesses to a crime.

Feel free to denounce the internment of the Japanese — I do. But, you cannot argue that it set a precedent for other such transgressions. If it set any precedent at all it set trends in the opposite direction. In 1988, the United States Congress formally apologized for the internment and appropriated money to compensate the 60,000 survivors.

The same thing holds true for pretty much every such civil-liberties “outrage” in American history. Habeas corpus was reinstated after the Civil War and, over the next century and a half, became an even stricter legal standard. After all of the revelations of the 1960s and 1970s vis-à-vis wiretaps, secret files, etc., Congress made it more, not less, difficult to abuse the civil rights of citizens. “If Bush has not gone even further in cracking down on terrorism,” writes Charles Lane in the Washington Post, “it is because he is constrained by a legal and political culture far more favorable toward civil liberties than anything Lincoln, Wilson or FDR could have imagined.”

This exposes the main problem with slippery-slope arguments. Much like conspiracy theories, they reflect more imagination and less hard thinking than usually required. When we go “too far” one way, we are more likely to swing back the other way than to keep sliding in the wrong direction. It’s called the law of unintended consequences.

FDR may have been right or wrong when he used military tribunal for icing a few Nazi spies, but that’s a stand-alone argument; it didn’t launch any long-term authoritarian trend. And, barring some argument I’ve yet to hear from William Safire, Wes Pruden, the Cato Institute, or any of the other anti-tribunal crowd, there’s little evidence that using a tribunal on Osama Bin Laden would be any different.

So, if you’re going to denounce the administration’s proposed military tribunals, that’s perfectly legitimate. But please bring something more to the table than a slippery-slope argument — because we’ve been sliding uphill for more than two centuries.

Freedom v. Liberty
But let’s get back to the more interesting topic: Are we actually more free? And, is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Many readers — with widely varying degrees of civility — pointed to all sorts of things that make us less free. We pay almost half and, in some cases, more than half, of our income to one government or another. The Feds meddle in all sorts of things that aren’t their business. “Tell the Boy Scouts we’re more free,” wrote a couple of folks.

These are good points. And I agree with them, for the most part. But even if you add up all of the petty, arbitrary, stupid, and sometimes Herculean intrusions of the federal government into our daily lives, they hardly outweigh the gains in personal and material freedom over the last two centuries. In my own defense, I was very clear in Wednesday’s column to point out that technological and material advances must be added to the scales, along with civil liberties when measuring the progress of freedom. And, taking this into account, it is nigh upon impossible to argue that even white males were more free in the United States 200 years ago than they are today. Oh sure, maybe if you pointed to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or a comparative handful of rich white guys, you could say they were more free than the average white guy today. But they weren’t more free than, say, Bill Gates is today.

Technology is essential to securing the relief of man’s estate, as Francis Bacon put it. It makes us healthier; it makes us feel better. It makes us more mobile. It frees us from the backbreaking demands of the land and of simple survival. Whatever you think of the birth-control pill or women’s liberation, you cannot dispute that the birth-control pill did more to “liberate” women from traditional obligations than any essay by Gloria Steinem.

Technology allows us to pursue our personal interests in ways that would be impossible without it, from being able to read the Bible at night to being able to watch funky porn over the internet. The rights to travel, to read, to do as you wish are meaningless on a personal level if you do not have the means or the health to exercise them.

And the United States has done more to disseminate the benefits of technology to its own citizens and the citizens of other nations than any other country in the history of man. This is no trivial thing and it is no accident. Indeed, the only time the word “right” appears in the original U.S. Constitution — not counting the Bill of Rights — is in the clause empowering Congress “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries…”

The more interesting — and more pertinent — question is not whether we are more or less free, but whether we are too free. Think about it: Most of the intrusions by the federal government aren’t on individual liberty so much as on group liberty. Today we no longer recognize the freedom of institutions to limit the freedom of individuals. The Boy Scouts, for example, are less free because gays have become more free.

It’s these trade-offs which disturb me a lot more than the trade-offs between security and individual liberty. When we temporarily sacrifice a thimbleful of individual freedom at the airports or via military tribunals, it is in order to purchase the continued freedom of the whole society. That’s a no-brainer to me.

But the inability of communities and institutions to compensate for the explosion of personal freedom is more worrisome. Irving Kristol once pointed out that, thanks to liberalism, we don’t care about a 19-year-old girl becoming a stripper — so long as she makes the minimum wage. Personally, I wish we could live in a society which allowed local institutions and communities to limit that kind of freedom a bit more. After all, if you don’t want to live in a town that has a problem with strippers — you can always move. That’s the great thing about technology.



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