U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster was not only enormously fun to watch, but demonstrated a piece of political genius to boot. If nothing else, the filibuster was a symbolic victory for conservatives sorely in need of a public show of resistance against an increasingly engorged leviathan.
On the merits of Sen. Paul’s arguments, we enter more muddled territory, which made the episode all the more fascinating to watch. It recalls one of the historically central arguments in American politics — that of the ontological role of the state in general and the limits of executive power specifically.
Now, the question can be burlesqued by posing it at its extremes — by asking, on the one hand, whether the president has the right to order a drone strike on an innocent journalist for writing a piece criticizing this or that policy of the administration, or on the other by asking if the president needs to get a court order, reviewed and signed off by the ACLU, to order the shooting down of an explosives-laden airplane piloted by a seriously disgruntled American citizen that’s hurtling towards a packed football stadium. Little is gained by such acts of reductionism, as the answers to either question are obvious to most. The struggle lies in between.
Conservatives rightly harbor a natural skepticism of executive power. This skepticism has come under strain from time to time, particularly when Democrats controlled Congress and the executive branch was held by Republicans. The natural tendency was to gravitate towards an affection for executive power. This is dangerous ground for a conservative to tread on, both philosophically and practically. Philosophically, the underpinnings of conservatism have always been geared towards a diffusion of power away from a central authority and practically since, well, our guy might not always be at the helm. Like, for instance … now.
The Supreme Court has much to teach us in this regard, if not in the homiletic manner to which it’s accustomed. It has long been a favorite sport of the right to lament upon the creeping authority of the high court. As much as it is proper to guard against usurpation by the Supreme Court, it ought to be equally proper to guard against the same on the part of the executive.
This is not to say, mind you, a strong executive has no place. We live in an era where decisive military (or paramilitary) force could be required, and where the failure to properly use such force can result in consequences too terrible to bear much contemplation. Such action can only come at the direction of the commander-in-chief. And to deny him that ability is both wrong and supremely dangerous. (This, incidentally, is why the election Americans hold every four years is kind of important.)
Adam Smith perhaps put it best when he described the first duty of government as protecting society against violence and invasion from other societies. I dare suggest that if an individual chooses to visit great harm or death upon his society in the name of an organization dedicated to destroying that society, then that individual effectively forfeits his rights to that society’s protections. The question that has badgered and gnawed at those who think and argue on the American political structure since before the republic’s inception, is some version of this: “Where is the line drawn between adequately protecting society and tyrannizing it?” The United States has historically done rather well at answering that question by identifying certain ideas and principles, inherited and honed, that place checks on the power or authoritarian overreach of any one branch of government and then codifying them in the Constitution.
That’s where the problem lies with the current administration. Do I think President Barack Obama would like to order a missile hit on, say, Bill O’Reilly or some of the Tea Partiers? Probably. Just as I am confident Richard Nixon from time to time harbored violent daydreams about Bob Woodward or the hippie infestation, or that President Reagan did about the obnoxious Green Peace nuts. Do I think he will? Of course not. In fact, I often worry the egalitarian-in-chief would be more inclined to deploy the ACLU than the USMC in the face of a threat. But his demonstrated statist affinity for promiscuous use of executive orders, coupled with the fact that he holds most of the Constitution — and many other American and western traditions and institutions — in obvious contempt makes one very uneasy.
Which is why, if for just a moment, I too found myself standing with Rand.