By Robert Higgs
Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, wrote recently:
An authoritarian nation is defined not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to use them. If a president can take away your freedom or your life on his own authority, all rights become little more than a discretionary grant subject to executive will. . . . Since 9/11, we have created the very government the framers feared: a government with sweeping and largely unchecked powers resting on the hope that they will be used wisely.
Turley does not say much in this article about the other rail of the Police State Railway that Americans are riding to hell: the drug war, with its massive arrests, prosecution, and imprisonment of people charged only with victimless crimes and its militarization of the state and local police all over the country. (On the militarization of the police, see especially this research paper, a revised version of which will appear in the spring issue of The Independent Review.) This massive bloating of police power and legalized oppression and the corresponding suppression of individual rights have brought down to the lowest level the threats to life, liberty, and happiness that the war on terrorism has created in what most people view as a more remote and less threatening venue—”out there” somewhere, in drone-istan.
Each day, the U.S. police state grows larger, more powerful, more pervasive, and more menacing. When will the majority awaken to the realization that this threat has nothing to do with party politics, that it makes no difference whether a Republican or a Democrat occupies the presidency while our freedoms are demolished?
This country was never a paradise of liberty; it always countenanced the oppression of plenty of people, especially Indians, blacks, and socially marginalized people who did not behave as the “respectable” white elites wanted them to behave. Yet, for the majority of Americans, freedom was a reality in most spheres of life, if only because the governments of the day were too weak to crush the people’s freedoms more thoroughly.
For many decades, however, these freedoms have been smashed one after another under the pretense of protecting people from foreign enemies, criminals, and terrorists. Thus have Americans marched with little more than a whimper toward a destination that combines elements of the dystopias imagined by novelists such as Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury with ever more high-tech innovations used to monitor our every move, whether it be financial or personal.
The question is: how much farther must we travel down this road before people will be compelled to admit that “the land of the free” is more a reassuring myth than a description of the land in which we actually live—to recognize that the freedoms to go shopping and browse the Web are not enough to make a society genuinely free?
About the author: Robert Higgs
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.