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Crises and Blind Faith in the State

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LIKE A PHOENIX RISING FROM THE ASHES, Americans’ trust in government is soaring after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The number of people who trust the government to do the right thing has doubled since last year — and is now more than three times higher than in 1994. According to a Washington Post poll released on September 27, 64 percent of Americans now “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Ronald Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times columnist and Washington correspondent, gushed on September 19, “At the moment the first fireball seared the crystalline Manhattan sky last week, the entire impulse to distrust government that has become so central to U.S. politics seemed instantly anachronistic.” The headline of his article — “The Government, Once Scorned, Becomes Savior” — captured the jubilant attitude of some statists.

It is difficult to understand why trust in government would soar after the biggest government intelligence and law-enforcement failure since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The greater the government’s demonstrated incompetence, the greater the apparent need to assume that government is omniscient. At least in the first weeks after the attack, the federal government’s prestige appears higher than at any time since the start of the Vietnam War.

The Post poll also revealed that the disastrous attacks of September 11 greatly increased Americans’ confidence that government will protect them against terrorists. The Post asked respondents: “How much confidence do you have in the ability of the U.S. government to prevent further terrorist attacks against Americans in this country?” From 1995 through 1997, the results consistently showed that only between 35 percent and 37 percent of people had “a great deal” or “a good amount” of confidence that the feds would deter such attacks.

In hindsight, the public was far more prescient than were the Washington policymakers who largely disregarded making serious efforts against domestic attacks from foreign terrorists. In the aftermath of the recent attacks, confidence in government’s ability to deter terrorist attacks has soared — clocking in at 66 percent, almost double the percentage in the most recent previous Washington Post poll on this question in June 1997.

The bigger the catastrophe, the more credulous most people seem to become. The worse government failed to protect people in the past, the more certain most people become that government will successfully protect them in the future.

The era of big government is still here

Prominent liberals are capitalizing on the new intellectual fashion to call for a muzzling of almost all criticism of government. Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt proclaimed, in a September 27 article entitled “Government to the Rescue,” “It’s time to declare a moratorium on government-bashing.” Hunt rejoices: “For the foreseeable future, the federal government is going to invest or spend more, regulate more, and exercise more control over our lives…. There is no real debate over expansion [of government power] in general. Sept. 11 has underscored the centrality of government in our lives.”

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam is also hopeful: “I think there is the potential that September 11 will turn out to be a turning point for civic America…. There could be some good coming from it if it causes us to become … more aware of the obligations we have to other people and more open-minded about the role of government.” A Wall Street Journal front-page article on September 26 vivified the new era of opportunity in Washington: “In just two weeks, the terrorist attacks have turned a two-decade trend toward less government into a headlong rush for more.”

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, in an article headlined “Government’s Comeback,” snipped, “Ideologues on the right saw government as an evil to be rolled back.” He added, “Bush and his congressional allies must … return government closer to the center of American life, not whittle away further at its powers and funding.” He also asserted that, before the terrorists’ attack, “government was rapidly losing its relevance, its reach and its right to make demands on the purses and practices of private citizens.”

Perhaps Hoagland has been too busy doing “big picture” articles to notice that federal revenues have soared over the last decades. Nor have there been any reports of the Federal Register suffering from anorexia. The rumors of big government’s demise are largely a scam in order to make people believe they have been suffering from a shortage — rather than an overdose — of government in recent years.

In a breathtaking leap of logic, Hoagland proclaims, “The terror assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon … should profoundly shake the less-is-more philosophy that was the driving force for the tax-cut politics of Bush and conservative Republicans.” But there is no evidence that Osama bin Laden targeted the United States because of his ire over George Bush’s proposal to reduce the federal estate tax.

Hoagland’s effort is reminiscent of liberal efforts after the assassination of John F. Kennedy to paint all right-wingers everywhere as unindicted co-conspirators in Kennedy’s killing.

It is difficult to understand how the failure of the CIA, the FBI, and the FAA has generated a blank check for all other federal agencies to exert more control over 270 million Americans. Yet this seems to be the political lay of the land — at least at this moment.

Perhaps Americans could see the question more clearly if “trust in government” was not being treated as an abstraction.

Should Americans have more faith in the Federal Aviation Administration, which ignored a decade’s warnings from the Transportation Department inspector general and the General Accounting Office that airports’ security systems were a joke, incapable of stopping passengers from smuggling even bombs on-board? The FAA’s most memorable action in recent decades on airline safety consisted of its prohibiting pilots from carrying pistols to defend themselves and their plane from hijackers.

The FAA sets the standards for airport and travel safety. Yet despite the truck-sized gaps in FAA protection, the Los Angeles Times’s Brownstein invoked the air-safety debacle to sanctify all other current and future federal regulations: “It will be worth remembering last week’s breakdowns in airport security the next time some politician condemns federal environmental, workplace, or food safety regulations and insists industry should be trusted more to police itself.”

Should Americans have more trust now in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which failed to track down two of Osama bin Laden’s associates, even though the Central Intelligence Agency had warned the FBI they had entered the United States? (The two terrorists helped commandeer the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.) Since 1982, the FBI has been the lead federal agency in combating domestic terrorism. The FBI counterterrorism budget exceeds $300 million, with almost 1,400 agents devoted to this task in 1999. While the FBI agents have deftly prevented some terrorist actions, the agency has largely squandered its huge increase in resources and manpower. (The Washington Post labeled former FBI Director Louis Freeh the “Genghis Khan of turf grabbers.”) The FBI has been more prone to target domestic suspects than far more dangerous foreign groups with operatives in the United States.

Domestic assaults on civil liberties

The Justice Department has submitted a legislative “remedy package” to Congress which will seek to stop future terrorist attacks. Yet even Attorney General John Ashcroft admitted that the September 11 attacks might not have been prevented even if the Justice Department got all the power it seeks from Congress.

A few of the specific expanded powers with which the Justice Department seeks to fight terrorists are commonsense fine tunings of existing laws which can be granted with little threat to public safety. Others — such as the expansive definition of “terrorist” and the restrictions on the use of encryption — must be vigorously resisted by friends of freedom.

The success of the murderous attacks of September 11 was due far more to a shortage of competence than to a shortage of power. Yet there is a concerted effort to use the attacks to raze almost all restraints on expanding government power. The federal government needs sufficient power to protect Americans against terrorist attacks and to harshly punish the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. However, such powers have nothing to do with placing a golden crown on the head of every would-be bureaucratic dictator, from the lowest village zoning enforcer to the most deluded federal-agency chieftain.

At a time when Americans are being urged to put their faith in government, we must not forget the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. John Adams wrote in 1772, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799, “Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power…. In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” James Madison bluntly warned, “The nation which reposes on the pillow of political confidence will sooner or later end its political existence in a deadly lethargy.”

Americans must not let the defense against terrorists subvert the bulwarks of freedom. In the long term, political progress depends on distrust of politicians. The more credulous people are, the more attractive political life becomes to charlatans and demagogues. To blindly trust government is to automatically vest it with excessive power. To distrust government is simply to trust humanity, to trust in the ability of average people to peacefully, productively coexist without some official policing their every move. The state is merely another human institution, less creative than Microsoft, less reliable than Federal Express, less responsible than the average farmer husbanding his land, and less prudent than the average citizen spending his own paycheck.

The blind glorification of government currently prevailing puts almost all liberties at grave risk. Most of the media and most of the politicians are stampeding behind the notion that the greatest danger is any limit on federal power. At least for the time being, people have lost any interest in government’s batting average — either for actually protecting citizens or for abusing power. The best hope for the survival and defense of liberty is that enough Americans will recall the type of history lessons that public schools never teach.

At this time of national crisis, we must forget neither our political heritage nor the inherent limits of any governmental machinery. Government has a vital role in defending Americans from deadly foreign threats. But nothing happened on September 11 or since that changed the fundamental nature of American government.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.