The convincing victory of Emmanuel Macron in the recent French presidential election and his majority in France’s parliament (the National Assembly) gives another political neophyte vast power in an influential Western country. Although Macron started his own political party that defeated France’s traditional major parties – Republican on the right and Socialist on the left – his administration leans to the right. His prime minister is from the right and his domestic program mostly includes ways to free up France’s economy by laudably loosening France’s overly restrictive labor laws. Yet why is it that many right-wing parties the world over are for small government on domestic issues but are often for heavy-handed government in security issues?
For example, Macron has proposed a bill that would make permanent the temporary state of emergency declared by his predecessor after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. If enacted this bill would permanently enshrine a severe curtailment of French civil liberties to remedy the statistically uncommon and very manageable problem of terrorism. Despite all the media hype surrounding the Paris attacks, terrorism is a very infrequent and not-all-that-lethal phenomenon in most countries that are not involved in war or civil war.
In France, Macron’s bill would permit the police to perpetrate warrantless searches without a judicial check on executive power and would allow the police to put people under house arrest, make them wear electronic bracelets, and divulge the passwords of their cellphones and computers, according to the New York Times. France’s Constitutional Council already has rejected a provision of the state of emergency that would have allowed police to prevent people from entering areas where they might impede police action, for example by conducting demonstrations.
As the Times properly concluded, in the past, such draconian restrictions of constitutional rights have done little to successfully combat terrorism that existing law couldn’t already achieve. And given the relative rarity of terrorism, and the usually limited (but sensational) casualties caused by it, one can say that the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.
Yet leaders in democracies usually can’t resist the temptation to appear tough on terrorism in front of domestic populations that are probably genetically predisposed to avoiding danger, no matter how remote the probability of it killing them. President Trump, with his attempted bans on refuges and on people from certain Muslim countries and his exploitation of foreign terrorist attacks to sell such ineffective and nonsensical policies, is a sterling case in point. (With Trump, we haven’t even gotten a small government domestic agenda – but the use of government power to clamp down on immigration and impede international trade, while advocating increased infrastructure spending and a chickening out on much-needed reforms of Medicare and Social Security – to compensate for his attempts to enlarge government in the security arena (a 10 percent increase in defense spending during peacetime).) Also typical was George W. Bush, who took advantage of the tragic 9/11 attacks (a statistical outlier in the number of people killed in a single terrorist incident by a small group) to justify an unrelated agenda of invading Iraq, a Muslim country that had nothing to do with the attacks, and inflating government power in the executive much past what the Constitution ever envisioned for the president. That invasion and Bush’s attacks, via drones, on other Islamic countries unrelated to 9/11 actually were counterproductive in confronting terrorism.
In the face of sporadic terror attacks, we need more courageously reassuring executives on the right who resist the temptation to demagogue the terrorism issue by excessively hyping the threat for political gain, and instead give us small government in security, as well as domestically.
Don’t look for President Trump to do this any time soon. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who is in the process of ruining a sterling military reputation as Trump’s National Security Advisor, indirectly poked at former President Barack Obama by saying "America will not lead from behind" and defended Trump’s release of highly classified information to the Russians. Obama made a great many mistakes as president, but at least he avoided Trump’s needless and feckless cruise missile strike in the non-strategic land of Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons as a means of terror – which usually kill fewer people in war than conventional bombs and bullets.
Thus, Macron and Trump are likely to join the very-populated stable of right-wing leaders, such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who failed to recognize that war is the leading cause of big government – in both the security and domestic sectors – in world history.