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Wartime's Lost Liberties

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 12, 2001 by

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The terrorist attacks of September 11 along with the continuing attack on Afghanistan have softened many people's stance on our cherished freedoms and have emboldened almost every politician in Washington to embrace new laws that severely curtail our liberty and right to privacy.  

Of course, all of these new laws and executive orders have been passed in the name of  "the war on terrorism."  Some of these new laws include the ability to hold a person suspected of any type of terrorist activity without charges and without showing any evidence.  

Secret military tribunals can now be used whereby a suspected enemy of the state can be tried by five jurists and sentenced to death by a simple majority ruling.  In a final blow to everybody's rights, the Bush administration proposed that law officials should be able to listen in on a suspect's conversation as he speaks with his lawyer.   

When defending these new measures, many in Washington are using a standard defense for these actions.  Fearful that the American people will not stand for a loss of their hard-won liberties, many pundits and politicians have begun to look to historical precedent.  

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial piece with the very unnerving title, "Security Comes Before Liberty."  In this editorial, Jay Winik looked to the historical actions of Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, Franklin Roosevelt.  His basics argument is that these presidents severely curtailed freedoms and suspended civil liberties in the name of national security and that the majority of these actions did not have any long-term effect on society.  

In reality, Abraham Lincoln, the president who began the trend of more federal power and diminished states' rights, set a precedent of dictatorial actions that is still being looked to today as an excuse for more federal power.  During his reign as president during the Civil War, Lincoln made the unprecedented move of suspending, through an unconstitutional order, the writ of habeas corpus, or the protection against unlawful imprisonment.  

Also during this time, Lincoln had an estimated 13,535 people detained for merely expressing opposition to the war itself.  None of these people ever even heard evidence against them and were never brought to trial.  In possibly his most noticed act of despotism, Lincoln had U.S. Rep. Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrested for "disloyal sentiments and speeches."  

When the public finally rose up against this action, Lincoln released Vallandigham from prison and had him banished from the country.  Even in death, Lincoln's repressive spirit lived on, as anybody who was even remotely connected with John Wilkes Booth's attempted escape after assassinating the president was hung in public or sentenced to life in prison. 

President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress of the time used World War I as their excuse to curtail freedom and arrest dissenters.  In 1918, the Sabotage and Sedition Acts were passed, which allowed the federal government to punish anybody who had an expression or opinion that was "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive."  Using this act, the feds at one point actually forbid the Postal Service from delivering publications that were antiwar.

Of course, no person in American history has succeeded in expanding the powers of the state more than Franklin Roosevelt.  Even those who believed whole-heartedly in expanded state powers during World War II were shocked when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the government the power to force anybody of Japanese descent out of their homes and into primitive internment camps.  Over 110,000 Japanese civilians were detained in this way.  Not one of them had been accused of any crime.  After the war was over, the majority of those detained went home to find their property looted and destroyed.

In uncertain times such as today, it is too easy to look the other way when the federal government expands its power and curtails our freedoms. The attorney general himself told a Senate panel: "to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

Many others say that any lost liberties will be restored once the war is past us, or once terrorism has been eradicated.  Although history has shown us that the most egregious laws and orders are usually rescinded eventually, each bold step by the government has led to even bolder steps in the future. 

"From the beginning," wrote Mises in 1919, "the intention prevailed in all socialist groups of dropping none of the measure adopted during the war after the war but rather of advancing on the way toward the completion of socialism." [Nation, State, and Economy]

In Mises's view, only the resistance of public opinion has prevented wartime measures from becoming permanent. Regardless of what a person's opinion is on the recent expansion of federal power, simply stating that it's been done in the past is certainly not a legitimate argument to do the same thing today.


Douglas Carey is editor of The Burden.  See his Mises.org Articles Archive and send him MAIL.