How to Safeguard Liberty Through Discourse

What I told a group of college libertarians

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.

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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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