How to Safeguard Liberty Through Discourse

What I told a group of college libertarians
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Over the weekend, I spoke for about 40 minutes to a room of college students affiliated with the group Students for Liberty. The audience had me pegged as an independent who is friendly to spreading liberty but not an orthodox libertarian. So I appreciated the invitation and the willingness of everyone there to hear me out. The event was held at Pepperdine College in Malibu. Here's an excerpt from the middle of my speech (as prepared for delivery, which is pretty close to how I delivered it):

***

War has always coincided with abuses of civil liberties. The Alien and Sedition Act. The suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War. The World War I abuses of Woodrow Wilson. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The Cold War-era excesses documented by the Church Committee. And as horrific as all those abuses were, the general pattern was that the war ended and legislators took action to rein in abuses. The norms of liberal democracy were reasserted. 

For a brief moment in 2008, I thought that was happening in the War on Terrorism.

George W. Bush had signed the Patriot Act. He illegally spied on Americans. He set up an official program of torture. He held innocent people in indefinite detention without any plans to file charges or present evidence against them. He advanced positions on executive power that made a mockery of Madisonian checks and balances. 

And Barack Obama spoke up against all that. He took civil libertarian positions and made transparency pledges that went beyond anything he had to say to win over his liberal base. Having run on a platform that was better than anything a civil libertarian could reasonably expect, given the state of public opinion, he won. He took office with a clear mandate to reform the War on Terrorism, and thank goodness.

It had already lasted longer than World War II.

And then, Obama governed as a War on Terror hawk. To his credit, he didn't restart an official torture program. But he refused to investigate or prosecute people who tortured, even though U.S. law compels him to do so. He persecuted whistleblowers. He oversaw a program of spying on virtually every American, something unprecedented in our history. He asserted the power to secretly put even U.S. citizens on a kill list without due process or oversight by the judiciary. For years, he refused to acknowledge a drone program that has killed bad guys, but also hundreds of innocents. Even now, when the U.S. kills innocents with drones, we don't acknowledge our responsibility, apologize for our mistake, and compensate the bereaved family. We flee the scene like a hit-and-run driver, leaving the family to pay for the burial of the victim and repairs to their house that they can't afford. 

Obama violated the War Powers Resolution in Libya, and said that he has the power to order strikes on Syria without congressional approval, despite clear constitutional language that gives Congress the power to declare war. And on the home front, he has continued to prosecute a war on drugs that can never be won; that has eroded our Fourth Amendment protections; that involves men dressed in paramilitary uniforms kicking down the doors of private homes, throwing flash grenades through windows into living rooms, shooting family pets. And men and women are locked in cages for years on end for committing victimless crimes. 

Most people would agree that a permanent state of war is unhealthy for a democracy. Yet how does a war on terrorism ever end? How does a war on drugs ever end?

These are perma-wars. 

On issues that relate to them, the Democratic and Republican parties are both awful. Sometimes I talk to Republicans who've read their Hayek and worry about the Road to Serfdom—they worry that if the federal government gets any bigger, if tax rates on the rich go up any more, if Obamacare stays law, that we're putting ourselves on a slippery slope to tyranny. I'll read you a quote from something Representative Paul Ryan and Arthur Brooks, the head of AEI, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Every day, more see that the road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.

You know what? I'm all for entrepreneurship. I'm all for economic freedom. Hurray for the Institute for Justice. Seriously. I love those guys. But sometimes I want to grab people like Ryan and Brooks by the shoulders and tell them, really? The road to serfdom in America doesn't involve a knock in the night? There are lots of drug raids based on bad tips from informants, or where cops get the address wrong. And they happen in the dead of night, but the police don't even bother to knock. What is it, exactly, that comes at the end of the slippery slope Brooks and Ryan are worried about? If not no-knock raids, how about a president who asserts the right to literally kill Americans, in secret, without due process?

Is that jack-booted thuggery?

It has already happened, and not just to terrorists. Yeah, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen Obama ordered killed, was a bad guy. But his 16-year-old son, who also died in a drone strike, wasn't. Why was he killed? John Brennan, the head of the CIA, is rumored to have thought it was deliberate. But the official explanation is that there's no official explanation.

It's secret. 

Pick a civil-liberties abuse in the War on Terrorism. Odds are, Ryan doesn't object to it. Neither does National Review, or AEI, or the Republican Party, a few Tea Partiers like Rand Paul and Justin Amash excepted. 

Or take New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg. You can get a typical right-leaning populist outraged that he wants to ban people from buying soda of a certain size. And yeah, it's ridiculous. It's outrageous. Want to fight it? I'm with you. But compared to stop-and-frisk, where police with guns literally take citizens, 95 percent of whom are doing nothing wrong, and throw them against a wall and search them? Compared to the NYPD agents who went undercover into Muslim student groups, not because there was evidence of radicalism, but just because of their religion? At conservative and libertarian organizations, it is very easy to raise money to safeguard economic freedom. And that's an important cause. 

But I grow frustrated with the faction on the right that treats very marginal changes in economic liberty as if tyranny itself will soon follow, but mostly ignores things like massive spying on everyone. Or flying robots we operate but don't acknowledge when they kill children. Or government officials who strapped humans to a board, forced water into their lungs, and tried to terrify them into believing that any minute they were going to drown. And again, I don't mean to suggest that war on terrorism abuses are the only urgent issue in America. Look into our juvenile-justice system, and the staggering number of kids who, while wards of the state, are sexually abused by guards. The point I want to drive home is that liberty isn't just something that could be transgressed against at the end of some road to serfdom if we're not careful. State-sponsored thuggery is happening now. It is prudent to worry about slippery slopes. But it shouldn't blind us to abuses happening every day. Remedies are needed right now.

I assume there's a big range of beliefs in this room, but that we're all broadly committed to a society that safeguards liberty. So what can be done? Obviously, I think journalism has a role to play in a flourishing society. But I've talked enough about my own field. If any of you plan to pursue a career in it, feel free to email me. But most of you will do other things with your lives. Some of you will work within the libertarian movement, where there are a lot of organizations doing great work.

I'd like to address the rest of you. 

Whether you go on to be lawyers or professional snowboarders or morticians or food-truck owners, I hope you'll remain active participants in public discourse—that you'll keep learning from other people, and use persuasion in hopes that other people can learn from you. Because most people don't read Friedrich Hayek, or Reason magazine, or my articles at The Atlantic, or the legal briefs filed by the Institute for Justice, or Cato white papers. The ideas they encounter about liberty and most other subjects are shaped by friends, family, acquaintances, and co-workers. They're encountered as particulars, not in the abstract, where so much libertarian rhetoric resides. How does one persuade these people?

I certainly don't have all the answers, but I have some advice. 

Number one, behave as if your goal is actually persuasion. So many times, people engaged in political speech, broadly construed, aren't really trying to change anyone's mind. They're more interested in a rant that makes them feel self-righteous, or getting in digs that feel satisfying to deliver. Don't confuse scoring debating points with persuading people. Listen to them. Understand them. Respect their insights. And explain why you differ in a way that permits them to agree without seeming to have lost, or looking foolish. 

Number two, look for allies, not heretics. Someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is an ally, not an enemy to denounce for not being a true libertarian. Someone who agrees with you 1 percent of the time, on just a single issue, is someone you can work with in good faith on that issue. And if you do, odds are they'll listen more closely to your other ideas.

Number three is the most important. A friend taught me this.

He's an orthodox Catholic. I am not. I went to 14 years of Catholic school and decided that it wasn't for me. As you can imagine, I've heard all the arguments for Catholicism. So when my friend, Nick, argues with me about Catholic doctrine, he is very unlikely to persuade me of anything. But Nick happens to be one of the best people I know. Even though I don't have faith in the same things that he does, I see how his faith makes him a better person. I see how he makes the world a better place, and how his belief system drives him to do it. And whenever I think about Nick, I think to myself, you know, I disagree with the Catholic faith on a lot of particulars, but there must be nuggets of truth within it if it inspires people like Nick to be this good. It makes me so much more open to the notion that I can learn something from the Catholic faith—just as the molestation scandal took a lot of people and closed them off to the idea that Catholics had anything to teach them.

How open will people be to libertarian ideas? That depends, in large part, on the libertarians they encounter. This is, of course, the hardest advice to follow. I'm telling you to be good. To show, by personal example, how your ideas can better the world in concrete ways. Well, not everyone can pull that off like my friend Nick. But to the degree that you can, there's nothing more powerful. You'll reach people that no liberty-minded politician or activist or journalist could possibly reach. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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