Saturday, March 01, 2008


An Uncertainty Principle in Governance

You may think, from the title to this opinion, that I have discovered some new and important feature of government. It is not new. What I am going to discuss was well-known to the 17th and 18th century political theorists who provided the thinking behind our federal constitution.

Let be introduce the subject by relating a frequent e-mail argument I have had with my conservative friends H and R and my "moderate" friend S. In particular H has been eager to justify the use of an interrogation technique called "water boarding." He writes that the technique has extracted useful information from several terrorist suspects and implies that the information has been used to foil plans by Al Qaeda to stage another attack on the United States. This attack would have been, I presume, as disastrous at the destruction of tall buildings by flying commercial airplanes into them.

H cites this beneficial result from the use of water boarding and asks whether S and I would condone giving the President the power to authorize its use in future interrogations. S and I have pointed out that we are skeptical that the technique yields reliable information. A torture victim is apt to say anything to please his tormentor. The information provided may or may not be true. H asserts without proof that the technique has indeed yielded useful information.

In recent e-letters to the group (H, R, S, and myself) I have stated the existence of an uncertainty principle that requires us to find a balance between complete security and complete freedom. If we want complete security, we then must permit the President (i.e., the government) to use any and all torture methods in interrogations. We must also give the President the authority to conduct warrantless wire taps to listen in on private conversation to find terrorists who otherwise would escape detection.

I argue that to give the President that much power would enable him to spy on and frame any political opponent. An unscrupulous or ambitious President would be able to establish himself and his cronies in power with no limits on what they could do. Our liberties would vanish. In order to prevent the emergence of a fascist state, we have to place limits on the President. The price of maintaining our liberties is the likelihood of other terrorist attacks that will not be detected in time to stop them. We are governed by other imperfect humans, not by Thomas Jefferson's angels. The imperfection, the corruption, the dishonesty of some public officials requires that we limit the things they can do. The result is that we live in freedom but not in safety. That is the uncertainty principle of governance.

This is not a new idea. What surprises me is that my conservative friends are willing to trust "big government" to torture suspects and listen to private phone conversations and not use the power to discredit political opponents but are not willing to trust the same government to run a program to provide affordable health care for everyone.

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