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An Astounding Remark

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When Attorney General John Ashcroft told the nation, “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists,” he wasn’t blazing any new trails. He was merely doing what despots and would-be despots always do: attempting to intimidate into silence those who dare to question him.

Ashcroft’s statement is one of the most astounding things to be said by a U.S. official in many years. To read it carefully — letting its full message sink in — is to be overtaken by a sense of horror that is otherwise hard to imagine. Every American should be offended to hear the government’s chief law enforcement officer equate public expressions of concern about the threats to liberty from drastic “anti-terrorism” measures with joining al-Qaeda. Does Ashcroft have such a low estimate of the American people’s intelligence?

Perhaps he needs to become acquainted with Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson who said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” That’s true in the best of times. It’s doubly true during war — especially an Orwellian undeclared, open-ended crusade against an enemy as nebulous as “international terrorism.” Ashcroft is a perfect Orwellian character. In 1984, Big Brother told his people that “freedom is slavery.” It follows that slavery is freedom. Ashcroft refuses to concede that the Bush administration is seeking to curtail liberty in the least. Those who see diminished liberty must be hallucinating, seeing “phantoms of lost liberty.”

So when the president unilaterally abolishes due process for noncitizens, we are only imaging an erosion of liberty. And when Congress passes, without even reading, the administration’s alleged anti-terrorism bill, which expands the government’s powers of surveillance, permits secret searches of homes, and weakens judicial oversight of law enforcement, again, we are deluded if we think freedom is evaporating. I write “alleged anti-terrorism bill” because the new law does not restrict the expanded powers to suspected terrorists, but applies them to any criminal activity. This is a classic power grab under the cover of an emergency. September 11 has given policymakers a chance to bring down from the shelf every new police power they have wanted for years. They assume no one will question the need for such broad powers, and if anyone does, they can shut him up by portraying him as an ally of the terrorists. The game is rigged in favor of power.

It is no comfort that the erosion of liberty in the name of fighting terrorism has a bipartisan cast to it. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York has given his blessing to oppressive government with an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Big Government Looks Better Now.” As Schumer puts it, barely concealing his glee, “For the foreseeable future, the federal government will have to grow… The era of a shrinking federal government has come to a close.” Of course, the senator was trying to enlarge it long before September 11.

Schumer insists that only the federal government “has the breadth, strength and resources” to keep us secure. Forgive me for asking, but did we not have a federal government on September 11? Was it not in charge of our security on that date? Then what is the senator talking about? And if it isn’t impolite to ask, just where does the federal government get all those resources? Last time I checked, it didn’t produce anything. It simply took resources from the people who did produce them.

Once we understand that all government possesses is the power of legal plunder our whole perspective changes. Schumer insists that “the notion of letting a thousand different ideas compete and flourish — which works so well to create goods and services — does not work at all in the face of a national security emergency. Unity of action and purpose is required, and only the federal government can provide it.” But he’s got it wrong. Security is a service. Competition and innovation are valuable in the effort to keep ourselves safe. The last thing we need is central planning. That’s what we had on September 11.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.