Thursday, September 27, 2007

Power versus Precaution?

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last few years of following the debates about both anthropogenic global warming and what to do about terrorism, it is odd that neither lobby group tends to worry about the erosion of individual liberties. To put it differently, those who want to set up Draconian precautionary public policies to deal with global warming tend to be the ones who reject Draconian precautionary measures when it comes to dealing with terrorism—and vice-versa!. Why? Alarmists about the environment are willing to ignore individual rights, as do those worried about terrorism who tend also to scoff at fears that anti-terrorist hysteria will erode our liberties.

This is odd. If I am concerned about government eroding protection of individual rights, why would I not worry in both the above cases? Why would I not complain that environmentalists are undisturbed when their proposals pretty much mean government regimenting people’s lives inside and outside their homes—dictating to them when they may drive, how much, what fuel to use, how much to consume, etc., and so forth—when I do complain loudly that taking measures against the prospects of terrorism will curtain civil liberties—impose snooping, require getting federal ID cards and the rest? How come that the agendas of the environmentalists may bring upon us major restrictions of our liberties but the agendas of the anti-terrorist lobby may not—or vice-versa? After all, both limit our liberties in very substantial ways.

Once again the answer appears to be that Left and Right are both willing to make use of the power of government if it comes to advancing their own particular agenda; but they oppose using government when the other side wants to deploy it for its own. The one thing both neglect is a consistent concern about our right to liberty.

So, if global warming is to be dealt with, never mind the rights of individuals. It is more important to set up measures to cope with the possibility of environmental threats. Never mind that it isn’t even clear that global warming would be such a terrible thing—certainly it takes no rocket scientist to realize that many people in Siberia and Mongolia, for instance, may indeed welcome that prospect. As to terrorism, the main thing to fear from the terrorists is that they would bring about a religious dictatorship, conscript us all to follow their faith, kill or maim us if we resist. But if resisting terrorism promises something very similar—those who fail to comply with the policies that supposedly thwart the terrorists are going to be dealt with pretty harshly—then it seems that fighting terrorism promises to be nearly as bad as experiencing it.

In a genuine free country the official legal policy should be to solve problems without abridging the basic principles of the system. These principles are individual rights, supposedly unalienable even in times of emergency. So whatever precautions need to be taken to deal with one or another hazard, threat, or prospective calamity must be made to conform to those basic principles. This is probably most evident in how a free society deals with crime. Regardless of urgency, the rights of the accused may not be disregarded. Sure, now and then officials and some members of the public propose to do away with due process, habeas corpus, and so forth. But this tends to be widely resisted as well. Most people seem to appreciate that in a regime of individual liberty—in a free country, in other words—there must be vigilant resistance to compromising the basic principles of the system.

It would be very gratifying and refreshing if both those who worry about global warming and those concerned with terrorism would focus a good deal of their energy on how do deal with those problems without violating anyone’s rights. Then, perhaps, members of these groups could even gain some trust among the general population, trust that they aren’t more interested in gaining power over others than in solving the problems that seem to serve as the excuse for gaining that power.

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