Last night the Senate failed to advance an extension of the Patriot Act’s Section 215. Rand Paul objected to Mitch McConnell’s efforts at passing any short-term extensions and suddenly it looks like the legal authority for the Patriot Act’s phone metadata collection program may actually expire June 1st.
“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now, and I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”
So said Rand Paul at the outset of his 11 hour pseudo filibuster on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to be moved by the language. If there is a quality I admire most about the Senator from Kentucky it is his maniacal obsession with restoring checks and balances to our government. In order to have any success at reining in executive power the public must first agree with the premise on which the reform rests. If you’ve paid attention to Paul in the Senate you know the thread that runs through his speeches and through his marathon performances on the Senate floor is the separation of powers. Drones and NSA spying were not background concerns per se, but neither were they the true focus of the filibusters. At root is a fundamental objection with the flagrant expansion of executive power under every administration since World War II, but especially since 9/11.
Why are separation of powers so important? To hear Paul tell it, the sanctity of divvied powers was eloquently championed by French philosopher Montesquieu, who warned how tyranny would ensue whenever the executive moved to legislate. Likewise, separating the judicial branch from both executive and legislative was imperative for the security of habeus corpus and other natural liberties. Embedded in small government philosophy is a staunch suspicion of planning and expertise, a wariness born during The Enlightenment and which reflected the conflict between the regal old guards and the new class of individual-minded bourgeoisie. For eons the word of the state was the final word on society; decrees from on high carried down to the masses for them to follow. However, the individual conscience rights that began taking shape in the Middle Ages became more widely disseminated during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. With the expansion of knowledge and individual agency the feudal system gradually gave rise to market economies fueled by spontaneous order. The consequent loss of power and influence for the aristocracy was a product of capitalism providing the vehicle for political participation by ordinary folk. Schumpeter’s insight that “the princess was always able to wear silk stockings, but it took capitalism to put them within reach of the shop girl” put the lie to the Marxist conceit that free enterprise would destroy the middle class. Voluntary exchange under a legal framework that respects the individual and cherishes his right to profit from his own labor is what created the middle class.
As the Western world moved methodically toward social appreciation for the citizen’s sovereignty over the state, the question of democracy became crucial: how to organize a free society of, by and for the people when for so long power and authority were hereditary and monarchical? Fortunately the British and ultimately the Americans did not need cast about in search of a guiding principle. We already got one and it’s called Magna Carta. The great charter signed at Runnymede marks its 800th anniversary this year and yet remains relevant as ever. Habeus corpus, jury trials, property rights and a common law that precedes and preempts man-made law; these natural rights discovered by our English forebears provided the blueprint for the individual based free society. They also declared for the first time in history real restrictions on the power of the state or king, which would prove a launching point for our founders as they set to establishing a government that would pit ambition against ambition as a means of separating and counterbalancing the powers of the state. The best encapsulation of this radical vision for upending centuries of authoritarian rule is inscribed on the monument commemorating Magna Carta: “freedom under law.”
Freedom under law is what the entire debate over NSA and executive power overreach is all about. National security state defenders will often say there’s no evidence of abuse currently and besides, don’t you want to be safe? But that is not the point. The point of a freedom secured by law is that the law is the law, and it is supreme. John Adams said we strove to institute a “government of laws, not men.” When executive authority runs afoul of the law it is supposed to be a big deal. When successive administrations of different parties expand executive power to the degree that natural rights are abused, it is supposed to be a huge deal. But in the name of fighting terror and keeping the country safe the Bush and Obama administrations have treated the 4th amendment like so much garbage.
In attempting to take Rand Paul to task Andrew McCarthy of National Review runs the gamut of talking points before insisting that “the depiction of national-security agents who are trying to protect American lives as seventies-style rogues tearing the Constitution to bits is a smear.” But Paul is not doing that; instead he is arguing that the Patriot Act and its especially problematic provisions open the door for abuse at any time. It may not be now, or in the next administration or the next but the point of freedom under law is that we eliminate this risk altogether by forcing fallible men and women to swear oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. The founders were explicit about making the law supreme and they further divided power to guard against the transient passions and fears that inevitably come to challenge man and his commitment to law. As challenging and daunting as it is, the jihadist threat of modern times is exactly the kind of passionate, fearful moment in time the founders knew would inevitably materialize. If they knew that only two hundred some odd years later American political discourse would include such penetrating insights as Chris Christie’s you can’t enjoy your civil rights from a coffin, they would have folded up shop and abandoned the revolutionary project full stop.
The Patriot Act is what happens when laws are passed out of fear instead of sober deliberation. Freedom under law was always meant to keep that from happening, like the abstract, intangible version of standing athwart history yelling stop. The founders knew too well the propensity of man to govern arbitrarily; thus the principle aim of the new republic was to build a system that takes arbitrary and consolidated power out of the equation and lifts the Constitution up as the final arbiter on what government can do.