For years libertarians have been saying that the encroachment of government on the lives and liberties of Americans is reaching a point of no return, and for this we have been disdained as alarmists, "conspiracy theorists," tin-foil hat-wearers of the worst sort. Tyranny in America? Impossible! cried smug liberals and equally complacent conservatives (and a minuscule minority of fake “libertarians”): this is not only "extremism," they said, but also downright subversive. The danger, they implied, came not from government overreach but from "anti-government extremists" who had to be closely watched by law enforcement.
The Snowden revelations have confirmed that, if anything, the warnings by libertarians and others radically understated the problem and the imminence of the danger to the Constitution. For our warnings were nearly always expressed in the future tense, as a dire possibility should present trends continue. The exposure of the NSA’s vast spying apparatus – constructed, "legalized," and maintained in secret by the US government – has shown that the danger is now. As that magnificent curmudgeon of the Old Right, journalist and author Garet Garrett, put it:
"There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom."
Written in 1938, those words echo down through the years – a warning and a prediction that has, sadly, come to pass. The revolution he spoke of was and is a counter-revolution: how else to describe the overthrow of the constitutional order and the rule of law? But never mind that: those are details for historians to haggle over. Our present task is to reverse the fatal course of that history – and wake our fellow Americans up to the mortal threat they face.
We are like men condemned to death who imagined they had a reprieve, or at least a chance to appeal – and who wake up one morning to feel the noose already tightening around their necks. In a moment we will be swinging from the end of a rope – unless we move quickly to cut the cord and free ourselves.
But how? Where is the knife to cut the rope that binds us to the Surveillance State? In fact, we shall need many such sharp tools to sever the tendons of the Leviathan – and we must know how to use them. What follows is a preliminary instruction manual, in condensed form:
Yes, our liberties are greatly diminished: yes, the federal government has gone behind our backs and the usurpers have blocked our every effort to roll back the Surveillance State at the national level. That, however, is not the end but the beginning of our efforts. We still have leverage at the local level, and libertarians are best positioned, ideologically and in practical political terms, to take the lead in utilizing it.
This campaign should take the form of a two-pronged offensive: a national effort to secure a pardon for Snowden, and action at the local level to rein in – and abolish – the Surveillance State.
When the Obama administration announced the establishment of the White House petition program, the President averred:
"My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."
This was and is pure poppycock, of course: in reality, the White House petition program was just another cheap public relations gimmick by the administration to woo the electorate and pass themselves off as somehow accountable to the American people. It was something David Axelrod thought up in an idle moment, nothing more – but we can use it against what is the most opaque and hypocritical regime in modern American history.
On June 9th, someone from Rochester, New York, with the initials "T.R.," started a White House petition demanding a presidential pardon for Snowden. Within a few days – and with minimal publicity – it garnered tens of thousands of signatures. Within a few weeks it had passed 100,000 signatures, the threshold requiring a presidential response. The total now stands at over 132,000, and the White House has yet to respond. I called the White House press office to ask whether some kind of acknowledgment is forthcoming. I was told to email my query to the White House press officer. I’m sure no one is shocked to learn that, to date, my query has gone unanswered.
Well, then, you say, so what? The White House petition program was always a farce, and we shouldn’t take it seriously. But if you said that you’d be dead wrong: we can turn this administration’s unmitigated arrogance against it, and expose their hypocrisy by insisting on an answer. The majority of Americans say Snowden isn’t a "traitor," he’s a legitimate whistleblower: so this is an issue on which we have the support of the American people. And it is certainly an issue of process that should be of great concern to progressives, including the majority who supported the election of President Obama partly on the basis of his commitment to democracy and "transparency."
The cliché we’ve heard endlessly repeated is that we have to ignore what’s happening to Snowden and focus on "the real issue." Yet the question of Snowden’s personal fate is inextricably bound up with the fate of the Constitution and the future of freedom in America. The key to winning this debate over the rule of law in America is demanding a full pardon for Snowden so he can come back to America and testify as to what our government has been doing in the dark. Aside from that, however, the relentless pursuit of Snowden and his forced exile is a gross injustice that must be protested and rectified.
The other prong of the civil libertarian offensive must use what leverage we have at the local level to force state and local officials to take a pledge of non-cooperation, denying the use of state and local facilities to the NSA and its affiliates. This includes ordering state and local law enforcement to keep at arm’s length from the federal government’s unconstitutional (and, therefore, illegal) surveillance of Americans. Oh yes, they’ll call us "neo-Confederates" – their favorite smear word of the moment – for raising the banner of states’ rights and local control, but no one will buy that ridiculous line of argument but the neoconservative pundits and their "progressive" enablers over at MSNBC. Such a strategy will rescue the essential principle of federalism, which is being lost under Washington’s sustained assault, and provide a rallying cry for conservatives who oppose the Surveillance State.
What is essential to the success of our efforts is the creation of a left-right coalition, replicating on a national grassroots level what we might call the Amash coalition, which nearly defunded the Surveillance State, striking at its soft underbelly in the House. There 98 Republicans and a majority of the House Democrats defied the leadership of both parties, as well as the White House, in nearly passing Rep. Justin Amash’s heroic bill to pull the NSA’s funding for surveillance of Americans.
Libertarians can make a big difference in this effort by learning the lessons of past protest movements. For example, in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, a major catalyst for many of the mass protests that brought down two presidents (LBJ and Nixon) and made it impossible for our rulers to continue their war in Vietnam was a small left-wing group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Well-organized and imbued with a strategic clarity that eluded most other leftist groups at the time, the SWPers were instrumental in forming a massive broad-based single-issue coalition that succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its organizers. While the forms of struggle will inevitably be different – massive street protests seem to be a thing of the past – the point is that the SWP punched way above its weight in the 1960s, and managed to have a significant effect on the course of American politics – and, in the end, on our foreign policy.
Campus libertarians have a special role to play in this effort – and with Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), the youth group founded by Ron Paul and his supporters, now the biggest ideological group on the nation’s campuses, libertarians are in a unique position to pull this off.
Back in the 60s, when the ROTC came on campus to recruit fresh meat for the Vietnamese meat-grinder, they were sometimes literally driven off by mobs of outraged students. While I wouldn’t necessarily endorse such tactics today, libertarians on campus should investigate the many links between academia and the Surveillance State – and take action to sever them.
The NSA recruits on campus, and academics regularly interface with government officials whose job it is to spy on us 24/7. This must end: universities must break their ties with the Surveillance State and boycott the NSA and its auxiliaries. University employees must be forbidden to cooperate in any way with federal agencies engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of innocent Americans. Students can bring up the matter in student government bodies, and their elders can take up the issue in the faculty lounges, in a united effort to wall off academia from government spies. Libertarian students and academics should lead the way in popularizing the idea of a boycott – a shunning, if you will, in the Amish style.
This is what happened in the Soviet Union in the days leading up to its dissolution: people simply stopped obeying, and in such numbers that repression – outright physical coercion – was impossible. The people of the Soviet bloc simply turned their backs on their rulers, refusing to cooperate with their own oppression. The people won because the authorities, by that time, had lost all legitimacy.
This is the crux of the matter: the battle to defeat the NSA and its supporters in Washington is all about delegitimizing the Surveillance State. If local governments at all levels refuse to cooperate with this administration’s unilateral abolition of the Fourth Amendment, then what we have is a revolution – a peaceful one, hopefully, as Washington realizes the jig is up.
It’s going to be a long, hard battle: there is no magic strategy or tactic that will bring the Surveillance State to its knees. And the above is only the beginning of the discussion: surely the question of how to go about winning back our freedom and rescuing the Constitution will be vigorously debated. Yet the clock is ticking, and the longer we let our rulers get away with spying on us the harder it will be to dislodge and dismantle the Panopticon.
In short: this is one battle we libertarians cannot afford to lose – because if we do lose, the Constitution is a dead letter and we can kiss our freedoms goodbye. From the Surveillance State it is but a short distance to a full-fledged police state, the outlines of which are growing up all around us even as I write these words.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.