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Big government in, libertarians out

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 20, 2002

Conventional wisdom states unequivocally that proclaiming an end to the era of big government is now passé. Big government is a necessary fact of life in the age of terrorism, and we are told we must have more of the former unless we want more of the latter.

As big government has been vindicated, libertarianism has conversely been discredited. Francis Fukuyama appeared to suggest in The Wall Street Journal that history had ended yet again and the libertarians had lost. Even a piece by Charles Kesler lamenting the return of big government conservatism took some shots against libertarians.

Some libertarians have in fact assumed a breathtakingly harebrained posture in the post-September 11 world, opposing any military response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and even going so far as to equate such retaliation with the terrorist attacks that precipitated it. Others have stubbornly clung to cherished ideological abstractions like open borders even though international terrorism has rendered them ridiculous. (Of course, so has the paper that published Fukuyama's article.) But this does not invalidate libertarianism, or for that matter small-government conservatism, per se.

For starters, the very functions of government that critics of libertarianism remind us we would need in a world where we are threatened by terrorists - police protection, fire fighters, national defense - are the very functions that conservatives accepted as legitimate even when they were serious about such things as the Constitution and limited government and that most libertarians accept as legitimate today. It is anti-statists who have rejected the transformation of government from an entity that protects its citizens from aggression to one that seeks to redistribute wealth and remake society.

It should also be noted that while September 11 reminded us of the heroism of those government workers who are involved in protecting the rights of their fellow citizens, the government was still ultimately unable to protect the people from those attacks. It was able to mitigate the damage and rescue survivors - suffering a great human cost among the government workers who participated in these noble endeavors - and also retaliated powerfully against the terrorist network responsible. But it could not stop the buildings from falling or spare thousands of lives.

Of course, it is physically impossible to thwart all terrorist activity and thankfully government has saved many lives by preventing such atrocities in the past, most notably the "millennium plot." Reuters has reported that the government is hard at work uncovering further al-Qaida threats now. But an honest evaluation of what could be done to prevent future attacks on the scale of September 11 doesn't point to bigger government as much as better government.

Lost in the din about what President Bush knew and when, as if bin Laden somehow escaped the caves in Tora Bora to hide in the Oval Office, is how government could have made better use of the information it had, which was gathered using tools and powers already available to it. Scott Shuger recently made a compelling case in Slate that while ground-level sources and methods obtained useful information, there were significant failures in coherently gathering that information by high-level intelligence officers, which in turn inhibited decision-making by political leaders. Shuger said of the CIA, "Its main job is not protecting its turf or its budget against other agencies-it's reaching out to all sources of intelligence and distilling them into a meaningful product for decision-makers."

What if information could have been harmonized better in that August 6 briefing? It is true that all such speculation is done with full benefit of hindsight and some of the questions raised may be practically unanswerable. But the possibilities are at least worth exploring.

The implication isn't that we should find scapegoats but rather that there are productive things that can be done that do not involve diminished civil liberties or expanded government. Large, unwieldy and overlapping bureaucratic entities can stymie the free flow of information. Government doesn't have to be bigger and more centralized to be effective. Nor does it need to be unlimited.

In a dangerous and uncertain world, it is tempting to trade liberty for security. Yet this does not make it necessary or advisable. Attacks that kill large numbers of human beings should only remind us of each individual's intrinsic worth and inherent rights. Concern about protecting these rights isn't something that should be dismissed as a discredited idea when in fact it is central to the existence of a free society.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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