Asked about the national debate unleashed by the Snowden revelations, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared war on libertarians:
“As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought.”
Asked if he was referring to Senator Rand Paul, Christie said he is “one of them," and went on to sneer:
“You can name any one of them that’s engaged in this. These esoteric, intellectual debates – I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have.”
It’s funny how specific word choices lay bare our souls: "Dangerous thought," eh? This is precisely what those NSA "analysts" trolling our emails, our phone conversations, and God knows what else are looking for – dangerous thoughts that might conceivably (or inconceivably) lead to dangerous actions. In short, they look for evidence of thoughtcrime, to use a phrase from George Orwell’s classic dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And, of course, Sen. Paul has committed the one thoughtcrime punishable by political execution: he’s talking about the importance of liberty as the foundation of our society.
It’s just a coincidence – of course! – that this volley from Christie comes in the wake of a series of attacks on the Kentucky Senator from the neoconservative right as well as the Obamaite left – a polemical blizzard directed against libertarianism as such. The closer we move toward a full-fledged authoritarian state, the more "dangerous" libertarianism becomes – at least in the eyes of the neocons and Obama cultists who are united in their hatred of individual freedom.
In Christie’s case, it’s not surprising the Governor thinks the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is "esoteric": New Jersey cops are among the worst violators of our constitutional rights, second only to that bastion of East Coast "liberalism," New York City, where "walking while black" is liable to get you stopped, searched, and quite possibly arrested. The New Jersey Supreme Court – no doubt filled with egghead intellectuals interested only in "esoteric debates" – recently admonished the Governor’s police force for routinely violating the Fourth Amendment.
It’s also not too surprising given what we know about Christie’s presidential ambitions and his high profile supporters and potential donors. As Dave Weigel points out:
"The donor class that wanted Christie, settled for Romney, and wants Christie again needs a candidate who’ll slash at regulation in office and come off patriotic (and pro-Israel) enough to actually get into office. There’s plenty of overlap with the conservative hawks who can feel the movement shifting away from them."
And it is shifting away at a remarkable pace – not only in the population as a whole, but specifically within the GOP. A recent Pew poll has significantly more Republicans than Democrats opposing the surveillance methods exposed by Edward Snowden – and a clear majority saying the government is lying when they claim it’s all about preventing "terrorism." Not only that, but it is insurgent Republicans, like Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who are leading the charge against the Surveillance State. This mortifies members of the "donor class," such as Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, whose main concern is the "security" of Israel (and, in Singer’s case, the crying need for gay marriage).
In making his case at Aspen, Christie averred President Obama hadn’t changed the surveillance programs put in place by George W. Bush "because they worked," yet he was careful to be specific in saying no terrorist attacks claiming "thousands of lives" have occurred – because, after all, the Boston massacre carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers is still fresh in our memory, along with all the other singleton terrorist incidents which have occurred since 9/11 – and since the Panopticon has been in place. Which points to the empirical weak link – or one of them – in Christie’s emotion-laden demagogy: even with all that "intelligence" vacuumed up by the NSA, and an explicit warning from the Russians about Tamerlane Tsarnaev, terrorists succeeded in closing down a major American city for 48 hours after murdering three and wounding hundreds.
Which brings us to a little-discussed but glaringly obvious problem with the rationale for all-pervasive surveillance, given voice by Rep. Mike Rogers (R- Oceania) when he compared the hunt for terrorists to finding a needle in a haystack: "You need the whole haystack," he insists. But this is nonsensical: it might be too much to expect a member of Congress to be familiar with the work of libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek, but the impossibility of sifting through the entire haystack in order to find a few needles should be obvious to a child, albeit a mystery to the average legislator. What Hayekians call the "knowledge problem" – that there is simply too much information out there for economic planners to integrate into their decisions – applies equally to law enforcement. To know everything is to know nothing, in this regard, because it’s impossible to know which particular facts are relevant.
This is where the "dangerous thoughts" come in: since the enormity of what the government has stored in those NSA databases is inherently unmanageable, the only way to navigate it is to separate it out in the broadest categories. A grandma emailing her grandchildren is of no value to our vaunted anti-terrorist "analysts" – but that email you wrote to your brother about the criminality of the Afghan war, and the heroism of Bradley Manning, is possibly of interest. When we are told by Senator Wyden that we’d be "surprised" and even shocked at the degree and nature of the surveillance, and by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald – whose reporting unveiled the NSA documents secured by Snowden – that more revelations are forthcoming, it’s not hard to imagine what the NSA’s surveillance techniques amount to. Greenwald has already given us a preview:
"The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they’ve collected over the last several years. What these programs are, are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things … It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future. It’s an incredibly powerful and invasive tool, exactly of the type Mr. [Edward] Snowden described.”
While it’s true that the entire NSA program requires periodic approval from a secret "court," government spies can target Americans “with no need to go to a court [and] with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst," says Greenwald. "These systems allow analysts to listen to whatever emails they want, whatever – telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents."
On what basis – by what standard – do these spies make the determination to read a particular target’s emails, and listen in on their phone calls? Surely by searching for certain words and phrases deemed suspect. What these "analysts" are analyzing is, in part, the ideological proclivities of those they are surveilling. Furthermore, given the Knowledge Problem, it is no doubt necessary to categorize the entire population: there is simply no other way of sifting out the malign minority from the harmless majority. Given the number of Americans on the no-fly list – and the much bigger Terrorist Watch List – it’s plain to see the pool of suspects is enormous, and getting bigger all the time. How do you get on that list? By having what Gov. Christie calls "dangerous thoughts." How many Americans are on that list – and how many entirely innocent non-citizens? Big Brother isn’t telling – but the American people want to know.
Gov. Christie, on the other hand, doesn’t want us to know anything – and is perfectly content with the government knowing everything. In this he is out of step with the grassroots of his party, and with the American people as a whole.
"I didn’t start this one and I don’t plan on starting things by criticizing other Republicans," says Sen. Paul, "but if they want to make me the target, they will get it back in spades." And the Senator is keeping his promise: in an interview with a particularly nasty Wolf Blitzer, Paul dubbed Christie “the king of bacon,” and accurately identified the source of hostility to libertarian Republicans:
“It’s the tax-and-spend liberal wing of the Republican Party. They’re all for blowing up stuff, they’re all for getting involved in wars, but they’re not too concerned with fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets.”
Standing behind these bomb-happy Republicans are what Weigel calls the donor class, the Republican kingmakers – and the Democratic ones, too – who are united in their contempt for libertarianism, and the anti-authoritarian alliance emerging at the grassroots. Christie’s is only the latest attack on Sen. Paul and libertarianism in general: the donor class’s pet pundits having been working overtime recently, churning out jeremiads against both Paul and libertarians in general – and it’s hard to say whether the smears are coming faster and meaner from the left or the right. Mostly these screeds are simply dishonest, like Michael Lind’s latest, which pretends to debunk the concept of "libertarian populism" without reference either to the NSA brouhaha or the vital issue of war and peace – two linked questions which have catapulted the libertarian movement into the very center of the national discourse.
It was Lind, after all, who wrote a very good piece on "How Neoconservatives Conquered Washington – And Launched A War," which we reprinted on this web site. The foundations of the Surveillance State were laid by the neocons, who were in the saddle during the Bush II era, precisely in anticipation of the "blowback" we would experience after their plan for the conquest of the Middle East was executed. That this was built up into a full-blown "architecture of oppression" – as Snowden describes it – during the reign of Obama has the king’s journalistic courtiers, Lind among them, in a panic. The more liberal ones, such as inhabit the pages of Salon, can’t openly support this, so instead they take on the system’s most effective enemies – libertarians.
The pro-Obama "progressives" over at Salon and the upfront warmongers who inhabit such precincts as the Weekly Standard and the Washington Free Beacon are the left and right wings of a Grand Anti-Libertarian Alliance. The latter recently came out with a phony charge of "racism" against Paul aide Jack Hunter, a person with whom I often disagreed but who is surely no bigot by any rational definition of the term. This was meant as bait for the left to take up the anti-Paul jihad, and they did not disappoint. Their goal: to isolate and marginalize champions of liberty like Sen. Paul and Rep. Amash, and make us choose – come election day – between variants of incipient authoritarianism. There are few certainties in life, but my instincts tell me we don’t have long to wait for the Free Beacon to come out with a screed "proving" Amash (of Palestinian heritage) is a "Friend of Hamas." Indeed, the Israel Firsters have already begun the assault on Sen. Paul: apparently his earlier pilgrimage to the Motherland was insufficiently appeasing.
The Establishment – both "right" and "left" wings of it – is scared to death of libertarians, and with good reason. We are the only organized tendency in American political life ideologically and politically situated to take on the emerging police state that is strangling what’s left of the Founders’ vision. And we are growing by the day, by the hour, which is why their fear is so well-founded. So to the Governor of New Jersey – whose presidential aspirations are likely to wind up in the trashbin of history along with those of his doppelganger, Rudy Giuliani – we libertarians have this to say: Bring it on, Fatso – bring it on!
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.