Dawn of the Daddy State

If terrorism has made a global trend toward greater state power inevitable, then it's important to get authoritarianism right. Here's how

Last fall, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded agency chartered to spread liberty around the world, President George W. Bush delivered a speech holding out some "essential principles" as "common to every successful society in every culture." The first of these, the President declared, is that "successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military so that governments respond to the will of the people and not the will of the elite." That was what America had learned in its 200-year "journey" on the road to perfecting its democracy, Bush observed, by way of encouraging less mature works in progress—namely, post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq—to follow this tried and true path.

The rhetoric may seem unexceptionable. But in the context of our age—an age in which certain dark forces, most prominently terrorism, confront the state with the elemental task of maintaining security and civic order—the principles Bush named are not just irrelevant but almost precisely the opposite of the ones we should be dedicating ourselves to. Leaving aside the question of military power, the necessary response to terrorism is not to limit the power of the state but, rather, to bolster it, so as to preserve the basic order without which the defenseless citizen has no prospect of enjoying the splendors of liberty. In the wake of Madrid, in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of suicide bombings in Moscow subway stations and Jerusalem cafés, the state is impelled to become even more intrusive and muscular than it already is. How well today's leaders meet this obligation to construct more-vigilant states is very likely to stand as one of history's most important criteria for assessing their stewardship.

An authoritarian push is often seen as coming from above, forced on an unsuspecting public by would-be autocrats. But today's global trend toward what might be called the Daddy State is propelled by the anxious demands of majority blocs of citizens. The Russians recently re-elected Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, with 71 percent of the vote, handing him a mandate to continue his crackdown on Chechen terrorists. The Israelis are demanding the Fence—envisioned as a sniper-patrolled, electrified national barrier aimed at keeping out Palestinian suicide bombers. Not only do Americans broadly support Bush's Patriot Act, but women—who worry more than men do that they or someone close to them will fall victim to terrorism—tend to view the measure as not tough enough, according to a recent Gallup poll. Europeans are demanding closer policing of their rapidly growing Muslim minority, which now stands at 15 million in the EU.

In short, we are at the dawn of a popularly sanctioned movement toward greater authoritarianism in the domain of what is now fashionably called "homeland security." As Thomas Hobbes explained in his mid-seventeenth-century treatise Leviathan (a work that can be read as a primer on homeland security), there is no real contradiction in the idea of authoritarianism as a choice. In a proverbial state of nature, man willingly gives up some portion of his liberty to a sovereign as the only conceivable protector of his life and property. During times of relative quiet and prosperity it is easy to forget that this sort of bargain exists—but in times of danger, woe to the sovereign that neglects its duty to protect.

To say that we are at the beginning of an authoritarian age is not, of course, to end the conversation but to begin it. The challenge is to get authoritarianism right, and it's important to identify what could go wrong as we try to meet the demands of this new era. One obvious danger, fascism, already lurks at the door of Russia, a humiliated country whose color has shifted from red to brown since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Putin is proving to be a manipulative paternalist, exploiting fears of Chechen terrorists and thuggish business oligarchs to nourish nationalist sentiment and his own cult of personality in the Kremlin.

Nor is Putin respecting the prudent boundaries of a Daddy State. There is no popular demand for an increase in state power over the market or the media—yet the Putin regime is exerting greater control in those areas, too. (All major television stations are now state-controlled.) With democratic institutions so weakly grounded in Russia, there is likely to be no check on Putin's impulses without pressure from Western governments.

America illustrates the hazards of the opposite problem: too many constraints on the Daddy State. In particular, Congress—the body positioned between the executive and the people—is proving a serious hindrance. For example, just after 9/11 alarmed legislators sensibly created a Transportation Security Agency, with broad powers to improve airport security. But since then Congress has hamstrung the agency's effort to develop a computerized profiling system that would help identify potentially dangerous passengers—in part because of pressure from airlines worried that travelers inconvenienced by "false positives" would blame them for missed flights. Such is the classic defect of legislatures, which reliably respond to the will of the majority in emergencies but afterward tend to succumb to the predations of well-entrenched lobbies.

Homeland security in the United States probably isn't going to improve unless those responsible for formulating and administering protection policies are insulated from the legislature. That was the painful lesson taught by a wave of bombings in France and other European countries in the 1980s; after the bombings France improved its counterterrorism capabilities by endowing an elite group of Paris-based magistrates with investigative powers that far outstrip those given to John Ashcroft's Justice Department in the Patriot Act. The former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke recommends establishing an elite unit modeled on MI5, the internal British Security Service, and subject to oversight by a blue-ribbon board of prominent citizens. The United States has its own model of sorts in the Federal Reserve, which is protected from congressional encroachment and is one of the nation's most effective government institutions.

For both Europe and Israel the Daddy State poses a tricky cultural challenge: to extend the bargain envisioned by Hobbes—a partial sacrifice of personal liberty in return for the state's protection —to isolated and distrusted Muslim minorities that have historically been overlooked or discriminated against. Continuing to neglect this imperative for greater civic inclusion is especially dangerous now that Muslim communities are more closely scrutinized for terrorist ties (as they must be). Shorn of the occupied territories by fortified barriers, Israel proper would still have an Arab minority of some 20 percent. Moshe Arens, Israel's hard-line former Defense Minister, has an intriguing suggestion: subject Israeli Arabs to the requirement of military service, from which all except Druze Arabs are currently exempt. If any institution in Israeli society can instill in the Arab minority a sense of belonging, it is the military, which is not only Israel's chief cultural melting pot but also a prime source of contacts for those seeking to build careers in business and other areas.

The French government is trying to promote cultural integration—and to prove itself a caring paternalist—by banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools, on the principle that many girls are being forced to do so by religious radicals. But such policies risk being seen as discriminatory. Compulsory civic education would offer a better avenue for acculturating Muslims living in ghettos on the outskirts of metropolises such as Paris, London, and Madrid. Britain has made a good start by insisting that immigrants attend citizenship classes and pass an English-language test as a condition of receiving a passport—a tough-love sort of idea that is a limited, reasonable invasion of personal autonomy.

Although "Leviathan" denotes a scary sea monster, Hobbes himself was in fact one of the modernizing West's great early humanists. His central aim was to find a formula for ending the civil wars, inflamed by religious passions, that were consuming the England of his time. Today's Islamic jihadis now threaten something like a global civil war, as opposed to a conventional war between states; their transnational armies occupy stealth bases on every continent except Antarctica. Were he alive today, Hobbes might argue not for a planet of Daddy States but for a Daddy Planet—a single Leviathan, or World Sovereign, to which all of us would be made to submit, for our own security. At the very least a modern Hobbesian would be likely to favor the establishment of an EU-wide antiterrorism czar—a step that jealous guardians of national sovereignty have been resisting.

Life in a Daddy State global order promises to be a somewhat mixed affair. Life will be best for majority groups in well-fortified but not overly heavy-handed Daddy States. As ever, life will be rough for anyone under the boot-heel of an unconstrained autocrat. But perhaps the most terrible fate awaits those trapped in the primeval chaos, without any sort of state protection. That condition of extreme vulnerability is borne by, for instance, Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And should state-building fail in Afghanistan and Iraq, their peoples, too, will inhabit this sort of limbo, in which, as Hobbes memorably wrote, "there is no place for Industry ... no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."