Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Programs for Citizens

Letters from an Ohio Farmer

Security and Limited Government

September 11, 2012

To My French Friend:

In my previous letter, Jean-Luc, I promised I would write to you again about the necessity of limited government.  I thought I would do so not by reiterating my concerns about our budget deficits and national debt but by discussing security.  It may seem odd to do so, since even the most ardent advocates of limited government acknowledge that government must provide security for its citizens.  This is true but what this means now and in the future must change, I submit.  To persuade you of this, let me offer some history.

Throughout America’s history, concerns about security have varied.  After the war of 1812, except for the years around World War I and the period from 1941 to 1990, our principal security concerns were domestic, not foreign.  But whichever were most important at a given time—domestic or foreign threats—we have responded to them by increasing the power of the government.

Consider our domestic security concerns.  In response to the rioting and disorder of the urbanizing United States, police forces replaced constables first in Boston and then in other cities, slowly but steadily, from 1838 onward.  In response to labor and other violence of the later 19th century, states organized national guard troops and then, beginning in 1905, state police.  Federal police began with the Secret Service in 1865, which fought counterfeiters and other violators of Federal law but also the violence of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War in states then under Federal control during Reconstruction.

The Secret Service was joined about 40 years later by the FBI, which eventually took over the fight against the Klan and other disturbers of our domestic tranquility.  Since the establishment of the FBI in the Justice Department, a number of other Federal agencies have also gained police authority.  Not only did new law enforcement organizations come into existence but new laws did as well, to regulate the conduct of citizens and to authorize the activities of local, state, and federal police.  After the attacks on September 11, we did not create new police forces but we passed new laws increasing the power of the police that already existed.

Each of these increases in the police power created controversy.  Still, our history shows that our concern with security has steadily, if reluctantly, led us to increase the power of government.  I believe that we can no longer follow this path.  In the future, our security will require that we limit the power of government, not increase it.

To see this, I think we need only consider how technology is developing.  I read not too long ago of someone experimenting with DNA in a home lab.  This was being done for reasons of personal curiosity and in the hope of curing disease.  But it could also be done with malicious intent, in hopes of inflicting grave harm.  Or think of all those who spend time online and the few who are led to violence or who lead others to violence through the internet.  In these cases, what must be the power of government, how intrusive must it be into the lives of citizens, to find the few who might do grave harm?  Given these threats can we continue to seek security by steadily increasing the power of government?

An alternative approach is present in our constitutional tradition.  The real issue of the Second Amendment is not whether the right to bear arms applies to all individuals or only those in the militia.  The Amendment is clear recognition that security should not be left only to professional soldiers (and we may now add professional police) but that it is the responsibility of every citizen.  We must encourage that spirit.  I believe that the American people still possess it.  We see it, for example, in the help they give each other in natural disasters.

In encouraging that spirit, the objective is not to replace government and its police power with the activity of citizens.  It is rather to change our historical pattern as regards our security; to look first to increase as much as possible the scope of citizen action, in order to limit as much as possible the scope of government action.  Given the security threats we face, only such an approach will preserve both liberty and security.

No doubt, my friend, you are wondering what exactly are the people to do when they take responsibility for their security.  In truth, I would say that the full answer to that question remains to be discovered.   Vigilance will be important, as will be working with the police, an effort that to their credit many police forces are already encouraging.  This vigilance and cooperation is already occurring to some degree, for example, on the internet.

You will also be worried that in encouraging vigilance, the approach I am offering will encourage vigilantism, or citizens taking the law into their own hands, often for unjust ends.  To this I must respond that vigilantism does not produce only injustice and the judicial system only justice.  But the American judicial system is both competent and just, and the police powers of government will remain significant.  Together they will limit the dangers of vigilantism.  And those limited dangers are worth the risk to give liberty its greatest scope.

So, I hope you will agree that the people have a growing role to play in preserving their security. That is after all the simplest yet most profound lesson of 9-11.  The only attackers who were stopped that day were stopped by citizens who took their security and the security of their fellow-citizens into their own hands.

Ohio Farmer