Are we losing our liberties?

Policy made plain.
June 12 2003 4:04 PM

The Price of Freedom

If the Patriot Act took our liberties away, would we notice?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

We Americans are a freedom-loving people. Or so we like to think. Other peoples are freedom-loving too, we recognize. But, looking around the world, we suspect Europeans like the Germans and the French of being a bit too eager to salute. Asians are conformists, we feel. Africans go from one military coup to the next, and Latin Americans aren't long past a similar habit. In America, though, we have a special knack for freedom. After all, we invented it.

From the Declaration of Independence to rap music, America really is the model and inspiration for freedom around the world. But precisely because our freedoms are so deeply rooted and apparently secure, our commitment to them is untested. After 230 years, we don't need to love freedom in order to have it.

Advertisement

Do the Department of Homeland Security and other outgrowths of 9/11 add up to a threat to my freedom? It's clear that our government has disgracefully betrayed American values in its treatment of many non-citizens in this country, almost all of them innocent of anything but routine immigration violations. These violations, by the way, suggest a greater love of freedom than most American citizens have ever had to demonstrate. But, frankly, that's other people. That's not me. How much I care about the freedom of other people is a slightly different question than how much I love and what I'll do to guard my own.

Perhaps you have thoroughly studied the Homeland Security situation and have reached an informed opinion one way or another: that our freedom is imperiled, or that the impositions are minimal and the complaints are hooey. If so, in either case, you are a better citizen than I have been until the past few days (when a looming deadline, more than a love of freedom, impelled me to become better-informed). I suspect that most Americans have not done their homework on this issue. What does that say about our alleged love of freedom? On the one hand, you might say that anyone who hasn't even bothered to find out if his freedom is missing, like a pet cat, cannot love it very much. On the other hand, you might say that if you cannot even detect your loss of freedom without making a homework assignment out of it, the deprivation cannot be too severe.

The American Civil Liberties Union is alarmed, but the ACLU's function, which I admire and support, is to be alarmed before I am, like the canary down the mineshaft. My own conclusion after a bit of homework is that the threat to the civil liberties of most Americans is still mainly a matter of incipience. Will the wall between abusing foreigners and abusing American citizens hold? (There has already been a tiny bit of seepage.) Did the absurdly named Patriot Act authorize terrible invasions of privacy that the government hasn't gotten around to yet? Does the ease of passing the Patriot Act just whet the appetite of Attorney General John Ashcroft for more and worse? The administration has been given, or sometimes simply asserted, new authority to act in secret and without normal congressional approval or court supervision. Will this be abused?

Most of these red flags concern government "data mining": gathering financial information, intercepting e-mail, and so on. Also, centralizing and cross-referencing data that the government already had access to. The Camp of Complacency argues that pushing previous information-gathering powers to their limit, and analyzing that information more intelligently, should not be considered a new infringement of anyone's freedom. But I know, as someone who Googles for a living, how much you can learn by bringing together information that is already public but scattered. The diffusion of information about you probably protects your privacy as much as your right to keep some of it secret.

Nevertheless, the hard core of American civil liberties—your right to speak your mind, especially to dissent from government policy, without looking over your shoulder—still seems pretty robust. Counterexamples exist, but they are pretty rare and mild.

This does not mean there's nothing to worry about. Incipience is legitimately scary. To return to the original question, Americans are not so innately freedom-loving that we would never let it dribble away without noticing. I can prove this because it actually happened, within the adult lifetimes of anyone over about 50. On August 15, 1971, more or less out of the blue, President Nixon declared a freeze on wages and prices. Legislation authorizing this had passed Congress the year before, with little controversy. The freeze evolved into a system of formulas about who could get paid what, requirements about filing forms with the government and keeping records and posting notices, all enforced by a growing bureaucracy of wage and price cops. The controls lasted a couple of years at full strength and then faded away over the next couple.

The notion that the government could tell everyone from General Motors to a baby-sitting teenager what they could charge—and did so—seems shocking in retrospect, at least to me. There was no real national emergency. It was part of a cynical re-election strategy to gun the economy while holding inflation temporarily in check. But at the time, controls were not just accepted but popular. When they disappeared, even those (like me) who had opposed them found it strange and, at first, unnatural. You mean, anyone can just charge whatever they want? How does that work? The analogy isn't perfect. The right to set your own price isn't as profound as the right to express your own political opinion. But it is, if anything, even more a part of every citizen's daily life. And yet when they took it away, we freedom-loving Americans didn't even miss it.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.