In the post-9/11 world, everyone worries that increasing government power in order to fight terrorism will lead inexorably to a loss of freedom and ultimately to a collapse of the liberal (in the classic sense) order of Western society. This concern is not a new one. Britons in the 1700s warned of “insensible loss of liberties” that would occur by the aggregate effects of the accumulation of seemingly trivial individual laws. A vast array of citizens watch with eagle eyes every new power of the state and seek to obstruct most of them. believing that the powers represent a greater threat than the enemy they seek to contain.
History, however, suggest they are looking in the wrong direction.
The history of the 20th Century paints a very clear picture of how liberal orders collapse into authoritarian ones. Contrary to popular belief, liberal orders do not gradually evolve into authoritarian ones by the accumulation of state power. Instead, liberal orders fail suddenly when they cease to provide basic physical and economic security. The functional power of the state decays until conditions reach a degree of disorder that triggers a sudden collapse into an authoritarian order. Ineffectiveness kills the liberal state, not excessive powers.
The major cases of Russia, Italy, Germany and Japan all follow this pattern. In each case, the liberal order lost the ability to provide the basic order and stability required for the economy to function, and simultaneously lost the ability to suppress the violent action of political extremists. A feedback loop arose in which the erosion of state effectiveness created disorder which empowered extremists who further sabotaged the state’s ability to function. The feedback loop rather rapidly increased the power of extremists and destroyed the liberal order.
Terrorism as we know it today did not exist prior to the 1960s. Virtually everyone considered the targeting of random civilians by shadowy unaccountable organizations utterly taboo. No one had any trouble recognizing such tactics as war crimes. Any group who adopted such tactics faced political suicide if not outright extermination. Even in the ’60s and ’70s most major terrorist actions sought to create maximum media exposure with a minimum of civilian casualties. As the liberal West seemed unable to respond effectively to terrorism, more and more groups adopted it as a tactic and their attacks grew more violent and less precisely targeted. Now we face the very real possibility of attacks using nuclear and biological weapons which could kill millions at a stroke.
If we cannot successfully curtail the escalation of terrorism we face the collapse of our liberal order. Today we face Islamist terrorists, but if others view terrorism as successful we will face attacks from other groups as well. Terrorist attacks will undermine social and economic functions and people will increasingly view the liberal order as a failed one. 9/11 illustrates this risk in miniature. During the ’90s the West proved unable to restrain Al-Qaeda and its attacks grew increasingly destructive. People worried more about increasing state power than they did about the external threat. Finally, 9/11 caused a counter-reaction and we saw a sudden expansion of state power. Had we treated terrorism more seriously and had we authorized relatively minor expansions of state power in the ’90s we would not have the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance today.
Political correctness threatens to cripple the effectiveness of the liberal order. For example, we refuse to use proven techniques such as profiling airline passengers and instead use invasive and ineffective searches for any object that might contain a bomb or weapon. We consider profiling, even accurate profiling, unjust. Neither will we use data mining, keyword searching or other modern tools, preferring instead to rely on invasive techniques such as planting informants. In the end we create the illusion of programs that are both powerful and ineffective. If a future attacks succeeds on a grand scale, many may conclude, just as they did after 9/11, that the state (or worse, a successor state) needs vastly more power.
We may be sliding down a slippery slope towards authoritarianism, but I fear we do so facing up-slope and unawares. We fix our eyes uphill on the minor threat while we slide insensibly down into the maw of the beast.
[Update (2006-08-20 13:14:25): Instapundit expresses similar thoughts.]