May 8, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
In a previous letter I commented on our self-regarding character as a people, arguing that this character was the only secure foundation for a constitutional government, a government of limited powers. As we respect ourselves, we will take care of ourselves and those around us. In doing that, we will have less need of the heavy hand of government. We will more fully enjoy the blessings of liberty and the happiness that is their fruit.
The self-regard of the people is essential not just to their happiness, however. It is also essential to their safety. Consider our current situation.
Long before 9/11, we knew that in a free society such as ours, individuals and small groups who mean to do us harm could operate among us, protected by the same liberties that protect us. As this danger has increased, the government has responded, as it has always, by increasing its power to gather information on citizens and by restricting their liberties. How far can this go? As technology puts more and more power into the hands of smaller groups and even individuals (think of the increasing power individuals now wield to manipulate disease-causing viruses), how much more intrusive will government have to be in order to protect us? Is there an alternative?
If the threat we face comes from another state and its military forces, then our government and our military forces are the best response. But if the threat is living among the people, then the people are themselves the best means to meet it. Even if the government pursued security at the cost of all liberty, its agents would not be as well positioned to identify dangers as the people in their various neighborhoods, communities, and workplaces. The people are already doing this, and should be encouraged to increase their efforts. The more the people are actively involved in their own defense, the more likely it is that they will be safe, and the less necessary it will be for them to sacrifice their liberty. The government cannot make the people defend themselves. Still, the self-regarding people I described in my earlier letter, who take care of themselves and others in crises, are the sort of people, we must hope, who will defend themselves, if not prohibited from doing so.
In speaking of a people active in their own defense, we touch on the hallowed American tradition of the militia, of citizen soldiers ready and willing to defend themselves. But as always, we must not flatter ourselves. Citizen vigilance has often led to abuses, to the destruction of the safety and freedom of innocent citizens. Government vigilance has also led to abuses, however, and only citizen vigilance, constrained by the unbiased application of our laws, will increase the capacities and freedom of Americans.
Increasing our safety by restricting the power of government is not what we have done in the past. But as our circumstances are new, so should our thinking be new. Consider another example. Most of the infrastructure in our country—phone and electricity lines, gas pipelines, computer networks, railroads—is privately owned. All of this infrastructure is now, as it has always been, a possible target of attack. But because all this infrastructure was not centrally planned by the government, because it grew in response to individual initiative, it is redundant and complex. No one kind of attack can imperil it. Various utility companies, for example, use different kinds of software to run their networks. Some have modified what they have bought for their own special circumstances. No one computer virus or hacking exploit can compromise all these systems. If the government, in the name of increasing security or efficiency, were to impose one kind of system on these utilities, this would in fact only decrease our security. The uniformity of central control would make the job of attackers much simpler.
The preamble to the Constitution speaks of establishing the government to provide for the common defense. For most of our history, increasing the power of government was essential to that defense. Now, limiting that power is just as important.