The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
September 2002; Volume 20; Number 9
The Security Leviathan
by William L. Anderson
Whether to distract the American public from the current set of hearings into the national security breakdowns that led to the September 11 attacks or just to be doing something, President George W. Bush has announced plans to create a new Cabinet-level monstrosity ostensibly aimed at making all of us safe from terrorist attack.
Just as Ronald Reagan came to Washington to reduce government and left creating a new Cabinet office, Bush has managed to expand the state to levels unimagined by liberals who think of the president as a "small government" Republican.
And as any Austrian economist will tell you, this plan is doomed to fail. In one of his few truthful moments, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) said that creation of this new monstrosity is akin to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." While Kennedy—as "eloquent" a voice for the Leviathan State as exists today—may not understand just why his statement is on the mark, it is not difficult to know why this is the wrong move at the wrong time.
First, we need to be brutally honest: The government cannot and will not protect Americans from future terrorist attacks. The hearings in Washington, while bordering on the usual dog-and-pony show that DC produces, did point out that a number of FBI agents were alarmed that young Middle Eastern men were enrolled in US flight schools and showed little desire to learn anything but how to steer a plane already in flight. However, upper-level bureaucrats and political appointees, apparently scared of being accused of engaging in "racial profiling," told the agents to ignore their fears. We know the rest of the story.
The September 11 assault did not occur because the FBI or the CIA or any other government agency lacked legal power to stop it, despite what one might hear from the neoconservatives who have dominated the national dialogue since the attacks. Federal law enforcement officials, not to mention the huge army of careerist federal prosecutors, have had carte blanche for the last two decades, at least when it comes to abusing ordinary citizens, and one cannot see why the Mohammed Attas of the world would be any different.
The combination of the characteristics of a bureaucracy and the sheer size of this proposed new behemoth stand as obvious testimony that Bush's proposed department will work no better than the current arrangement. Wall Street Journal editorial writers and politicians up for re-election this year can prattle on about "the need to take the shackles off law enforcement" all they want, but it won't change the fact that bureaucrats behave in very predictable ways, whether they be employed by the Roman emperor or the Department of Homeland Security.
Early in his career, the bureaucrat learns to protect his turf. When FBI agents recently testified to Congress that turf battles in that agency led to the intelligence breakdowns that helped bring on the WTC disaster, congressmen and the media feigned shock that such things could happen in government. Yet, we know that bureaucrats are rewarded, not for taking risks, but rather for keeping the status quo.
While current US laws and policies prohibiting any form of "ethnic profiling" in pursuit of criminals obviously played a role in the WTC attacks, it is ludicrous to say that such "profiling" is the solution to stopping terrorism. The government cannot monitor all potential terrorists that might be planning something.
Furthermore, even with the new powers Congress has given the FBI and CIA to watch people here and abroad, it will not be long until opportunistic bureaucrats and politicians realize they have been given tools that can be used against ordinary citizens. At that point, everyone will be considered a terrorist, or at least a potential terrorist. (That is the mentality of near-strip-searching elderly ladies and young children at airports; supposedly, no one knows the face of terrorism.)
An example is the expansion of RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. When the measure passed in 1970, law enforcement people hailed it as an effective tool in fighting organized crime. The first of a long line of federal "crime bills," RICO supposedly was going to protect average citizens from the "predatory" Don Corleones of the world.
Within a decade, however, prosecutors found they could apply RICO to all sorts of regulatory violations committed by people in the securities markets or other lines of business where they had to deal with federal laws and policies. As the number of federal prosecutors nearly doubled (to "fight" the "drug war" and other such evils), they found they could rack up convictions and career points by going after people like Michael Milken, who were no more criminal in their behavior than any other citizen.
Rudy Giuliani was able to use RICO laws to go after political opponents, savage Wall Street traders, and other prominent people; it ultimately netted him the mayorship of New York City and being named Time magazine's "Man of the Year."
Nor have the RICO prosecutions been limited to high-profile business people. Thousands of everyday citizens who no more fit a criminal profile than Mother Teresa have been swept up in RICO prosecutions, and, unable to defend themselves in court (RICO indictments permit the government to freeze all assets held by the accused), they have done time in federal prisons. In the aftermath, we see legitimate businesses ruined, families wrecked— and prosecutors who have advanced their careers.
As law enforcement personnel come to understand that it will be extremely difficult to catch potential terrorists in the act of planning or carrying out their attacks, it will become more and more attractive to go after regular people who may be in technical violation of an "antiterrorist" regulation or who simply are in the wrong place at the wrong time. More and more ordinary people will be arrested and branded as "potential terrorists," as law enforcement people discover they can advance their careers the easy way. Moreover, as the wrath of the federal government is loosed upon them, these new "terrorists" won't have a clue how to defend themselves.
For all of the hoopla in creating this new security department, we can be assured that bureaucrats will always act like bureaucrats, no matter where their offices are located. That means that if we really wish to defend ourselves against potential terrorist attacks, we must look to ourselves, our families, our friends, and our communities for help. .FM
William L. Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University (banderson@ mail.frostburg.edu).