The Magazine

IRS Bad, NSA Good

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Politics can seem frustratingly complex. It can be a challenge to grasp that the targeting of conservatives by Internal Revenue Service officials over the last few years constitutes a genuine scandal, while the lawful activities of employees of the National Security Agency do not. It can be a strain to distinguish the illegitimate and arbitrary use of government power to harass American citizens exercising their constitutional rights from the legitimate use of government power to protect the nation from our enemies abroad. It can be an effort to differentiate patriotic whistleblowers who expose governmental abuse from anti-American lawbreakers who expose secrets they are sworn to protect.

Federalist Papers

It can be a challenge, and a strain, and an effort. But a serious political movement has to accept the challenge, bear the strain, and make the effort. In the case of the National Security Agency, it’s not that much of an effort. Just listen to two of America’s leading libertarian legal thinkers, no friends to intrusive government, Richard Epstein and Roger Pilon, who explained last week:

Legally, the president is on secure footing under the Patriot Act, which Congress passed shortly after 9/11 and has since reauthorized by large bipartisan majorities. As he stressed, the program has enjoyed the continued support of all three branches of the federal government. It has been free of political abuse since its inception. .  .  . The critics miss the forest for the trees. Yes, government officials might conceivably misuse some of the trillions of bits of metadata they examine using sophisticated algorithms. But one abuse is no pattern of abuses. .  .  . The cumulative weight of the evidence attests to the soundness of the program. The critics would be more credible if they could identify a pattern of government abuses. But after 12 years of continuous practice, they can’t cite even a single case. We should be thankful that here, at least, government has done its job and done it well. 

Conservatives are in favor of government doing its job well, when it’s doing a job it has to do. Conservatives are in favor of limited government, but also good government. 

After all, “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” (Federalist 1). Today, the resolution of that important question depends to an extraordinary degree on the vigor and good sense of American conservatism. For liberalism has unfortunately “progressed” beyond “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government” (Federalist 39). It is the conservative task to vindicate that honorable determination.

This means conservatives have to be the bearers of the wisdom of the American political tradition. And if that tradition teaches anything, it is that we can have limited and energetic government. We can keep America safe and free. We can support reducing the size and limiting the scope of the federal government at home and we can reject weakening its ability to protect us from enemies abroad. We can balance the desiderata of national security and the requirements of constitutional liberty. We can believe the times call for a healthy dose of domestic libertarian populism and a renewed commitment to foreign policy strength and leadership. We can love American liberty and American greatness. We can be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

To put it more colloquially—yes, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Now it’s true that an effective political movement should value simplicity. Such a movement needs reasonably clear guidelines for political judgment and reasonably simple principles for political action. It’s in the nation’s interest that conservatism be an effective political movement. But it’s also in the nation’s interest for conservatism to be a serious political movement, one that grasps the difference between the simple and the simplistic.

Conservatives today, based on years of painful experience, instinctively scorn the equivocating sophistry of pseudo-sophisticated punditry. But conservatives need also to reject the seductive simple-mindedness of unreflective demagoguery. The temptations to both sophistry and simple-mindedness are real. Both are mistakes, and both are dangerous.

The good news is there exists a middle ground between the two mistakes. Or rather, there’s a higher ground. It’s the American political tradition. We can read it in The Federalist and Tocqueville. We can study it in the examples of Lincoln and Reagan. Of course, as we carry that tradition forward we can’t simply look back. New times demand fresh thinking. We need to exercise our own reflection and choice. For the danger remains that the great American experiment in self-government could fail, reduced to merely another instance in the long catalogue of the triumphs of accident and the vicissitudes of force.

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