June 16, 2004


Dawn of the Daddy State: If terrorism has made a global trend toward greater state power inevitable, then it's important to get authoritarianism right. Here's how (Paul Starobin, June 2004, The Atlantic Monthly)

Last fall, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded agency chartered to spread liberty around the world, President George W. Bush delivered a speech holding out some "essential principles" as "common to every successful society in every culture." The first of these, the President declared, is that "successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military so that governments respond to the will of the people and not the will of the elite." That was what America had learned in its 200-year "journey" on the road to perfecting its democracy, Bush observed, by way of encouraging less mature works in progress—namely, post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq—to follow this tried and true path.

The rhetoric may seem unexceptionable. But in the context of our age—an age in which certain dark forces, most prominently terrorism, confront the state with the elemental task of maintaining security and civic order—the principles Bush named are not just irrelevant but almost precisely the opposite of the ones we should be dedicating ourselves to. Leaving aside the question of military power, the necessary response to terrorism is not to limit the power of the state but, rather, to bolster it, so as to preserve the basic order without which the defenseless citizen has no prospect of enjoying the splendors of liberty. In the wake of Madrid, in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of suicide bombings in Moscow subway stations and Jerusalem cafés, the state is impelled to become even more intrusive and muscular than it already is. How well today's leaders meet this obligation to construct more-vigilant states is very likely to stand as one of history's most important criteria for assessing their stewardship.

An authoritarian push is often seen as coming from above, forced on an unsuspecting public by would-be autocrats. But today's global trend toward what might be called the Daddy State is propelled by the anxious demands of majority blocs of citizens. The Russians recently re-elected Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, with 71 percent of the vote, handing him a mandate to continue his crackdown on Chechen terrorists. The Israelis are demanding the Fence—envisioned as a sniper-patrolled, electrified national barrier aimed at keeping out Palestinian suicide bombers. Not only do Americans broadly support Bush's Patriot Act, but women—who worry more than men do that they or someone close to them will fall victim to terrorism—tend to view the measure as not tough enough, according to a recent Gallup poll. Europeans are demanding closer policing of their rapidly growing Muslim minority, which now stands at 15 million in the EU.

In short, we are at the dawn of a popularly sanctioned movement toward greater authoritarianism in the domain of what is now fashionably called "homeland security." As Thomas Hobbes explained in his mid-seventeenth-century treatise Leviathan (a work that can be read as a primer on homeland security), there is no real contradiction in the idea of authoritarianism as a choice. In a proverbial state of nature, man willingly gives up some portion of his liberty to a sovereign as the only conceivable protector of his life and property. During times of relative quiet and prosperity it is easy to forget that this sort of bargain exists—but in times of danger, woe to the sovereign that neglects its duty to protect.

"even more intrusive and muscular?" Has anyone ever been affected by the Patriot Act or the entire Homeland Security apparatus, other than the guy x-raying your bag at the airport having a snappier uniform?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2004 8:04 AM

Mr. Judd;

Starobin and President Bush are talking about almost completely different things, but Starobin seems incapable of noticing that. As you yourself have noted, one can have a relatively non-instrusive authoritarian regime. For instance, how does increased homeland security require the government to be more instrusive by complicating the tax code? Bush was clearly talking about things like the latter (and why not becoming another EU is a good idea), but Starobin is talking about the former.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at June 16, 2004 1:08 PM