One aspect of my model, however, has received relatively little notice, although I have always regarded it as especially important. That is the notion that episodes of crisis and abrupt growth of government leave legacies after the crisis has passed, and these legacies, which may be institutional or ideological, sometimes lie dormant for long periods before they exert effects on the course of events.
I never thought, before 9/11, that I would ever have to explain to conservatives, classical liberals, and some libertarians the dangers of granting large amounts of emergency powers to the government even on a temporary basis.Â Human history is so full of examples of why this is patently stupid that I would’ve thought people would know better by now.Â The line of argument typically goes something like this:
‘We’re in a war with terrorists who could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.Â I know this power wasn’t originally allowed in the constitution, but the constitution isn’t a suicide pact!Â And anyway, the government almost always gives back all of its emergency powers after the crisis is over.Â Look at WWI or WWII.Â There were lots of wartime powers that the government willingly relinquished after the fighting was over.’
Now, while this may appear persuasive, Robert gives a good example of the danger of setting precedent.Â Once you’ve allowed a president to usurp a power, or once Congress has been cowed into granting such a power, it never is fully off-the-table again.Â In Roberts example, a power the Fed was allowed to excercise 70 years ago that nobody knew about was flexed again in this AIG bailout.Â While that’s far from the worst precedent to be followed-up on, it illustrates the point.
The Presidency will not always be occupied by people we feel are trustworthy, or good.Â Having the safety of our liberty depend on the “continued” saintliness of our political class is a recipe for disaster.Â The ability to claim that someone is an enemy of the state, and indefinitely incarcerate them with no due process is a terrifying power.Â While some may claim that President Bush hasn’t abused this power, and has only used it for good things, can we always trust that such an unchecked power will never be used improperly in the future?Â No we can’t.
And by not sanctioning President Bush for this and other abuses of power, we’ve pretty much guaranteed these powers will be used again.Â It’s only a matter of time before a President uses this precedent and some precedents set by Abraham Lincoln in the civil war to start disappearing opposition politicians or adversarial reporters.
While it’s true that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, unfortunately the rest of us get to enjoy the remedial lessons as well.
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