The Proud Duck
Friday, May 30, 2003
Okay, so I'm a little sporadic with this blogging thing. I'm in the process of switching jobs and coping with a fifteen-month-old whose molars are coming in and is not at all pleased about that.
I promise to make amends. As a token of this commitment, my loyal readership (which appears to consist of my sister and myself) is hereby thrown the following bone, derived from the random static of my political ponderings:
An article of faith on the Bush-hating left (ne pas penser du double-entendre, sil vous plait) is that the various means, included in the USA Patriot Act (I do hate that name) of updating the government's surveillance powers to cope with terrorists' use of sophisticated communications (computer networks, cell phones, etc.) are somehow unprecedented incursions into historic liberties.
Their fallacy is in believing that whenever a law is enacted, or whenever government's power is expanded, there is a corresponding loss of individual liberty. (Technically speaking, they actually mean that liberty is lost only whenever a law they don't like is enacted -- see below.) But that fails to take account of what, for lack of a better term, I'll call "leverage."
Leverage is the greater power that technology grants to individuals. A person in a car can go farther, faster, than a pedestrian, and therefore has more freedom to choose where he'll go in a given time. The institution of driver's licenses after the invention of the automobile was an expansion of governmental regulatory power, but whatever diminution this regulation placed on individual liberty was outweighed by the greater liberty granted by the leverage of automobile technology.
Liberals have historically acknowledged this point. Some argue for increased gun controls, claiming that while a permissive attitude towards firearms ownership may have made sense in the age of single-shot muzzle-loaders, the greater damage a gunman can do with an automatic rifle warrants greater government control. The expansion of the economic power of individuals made possible by industrialization and the development of great corporations following the Civil War convinced formerly libertarian liberals that corresponding expansion of government's reach was justified. Regardless of what one thinks of these examples, the fundamental logic is the same: when innovations give individuals greater leverage, it is possible to impose restrictions while still preserving a net gain of liberty of action.
When terrorists can use modern communications technology to leverage their potential for destruction, is it intelligent or reasonable to insist that authorities continue to be subject to restrictions that predate these innovations and do not take account of the terrorists' increased leverage?