Senator Rand Paul’s speech at CPAC 2014 was strongly oriented toward his signature issue over the past year: privacy rights versus broad-based electronic surveillance. Paul presented his case with numerous quotes from thinkers and leaders across American history, such as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. I will be in earnest. I will not equivocate, and I will not excuse. I will not retreat an inch, and I will be heard.”
Using these references helped Paul to ground his speech in history, and demonstrate his erudition. I think he was also trying to make the point that despite the high-tech 21st-century trappings of electronic surveillance, the issue is not some entirely new science-fiction dispute that our founders, and heroes from centuries past, could not possibly have anticipated. On the contrary, peer through the Matrix waterfall of data and you’ll find elementary and timeless issues of privacy, dignity, and the tension between liberty and national security. On that last point, Paul could not have been more clear. “We will not trade our liberty for security, not now and not ever.”
The surveillance-state issues that Paul covered extensively in his speech provide a good overall measurement of the relationship between government and its citizens. Paul asked his audience several times if they were prepared to stand up for liberty, extending that call into other areas besides the zone of privacy against unwarranted data collection. If we’re willing to let our government treat us all as presumptive criminals in the quest to fight terrorism, might we not also become far too comfortable with the presumption of guilt in other areas? Will we quietly endure presumptions that the sons of liberty refused to accept from the British crown? Paul had some lively ideas for how the revolutionaries of 1776 might have felt about having their email meta-data harvested.
“If you have a cell phone, you are under surveillance,” Paul told the packed crowd, which gave him rock-star applause throughout. “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business.”
He dismissed the argument that individual citizens have no claim of ownership over the records government agents are trawling through. “The Fourth Amendment is very clear,” he said. “Warrants should be issued by a judge. Warrants must be specific to the individual. A single warrant for millions of American phone records hardly sounds specific to the individual. Warrants are supposed to be based on evidence, and probable cause that the individual has committed a crime. Generalized warrants that don’t name the individual, and seek the records of millions of individuals, go against the very fabric of the Fourth Amendment.”
Paul urged all Americans to “stand like men and women of character and say, ‘We are free, and no man, no matter how well-intentioned, will take our freedom from us.” That motto could apply to a lot more than NSA surveillance.
He said that history would judge President Obama harshly for his “timid defense of liberty.” For example: “When Congress passed legislation allowing for the indefinite detention of an American citizen without a trial, he shamefully signed it, while promising not to use such a power. A great president would have risen to the occasion; instead of merely suggesting that he wouldn’t use this dreaded power, a great president would have taken pen in hand and vetoed this abomination.”
Paul cited the false conviction-by-media of Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombings in Atlanta as an example of the importance of proper accusations with evidence and jury trials. “Had he been a black man in the South, in 1920, he might not have lived to prove his innocence. Anyone with a memory of the times in our history when we didn’t adequately defend everyone’s right to a fair and impartial trial should stand now and be heard. We must defend our rights!”
One of the most important reasons to reject good intentions as the excuse for infringements upon liberty is that some of those claims of good intent are rather dubious. “Madison wrote that we would not need a Constitution to protect us if government were comprised of angels,” said Paul. “It isn’t so much what President Obama has done – although he’s done a lot, very little good – with his usurpations of power, so much as it is the precedent that he sets for lawlessness that may follow.”
And, as he poignantly noted, “government unrestrained by law becomes tyranny.” There is no exception to that rule for having a big heart, really good intentions, or a pack of advisers with top-notch academic credentials.
Paul also warned against allowing our Constitutional defenses against the tyranny of the majority to lapse, portraying progressive “living Constitution” theories as effectively saying the majority gets to redefine our inalienable rights on the fly. But as he explained, those rights were not meant to be bargaining chips in passing political struggles, the spoils of an electoral victory. They are meant to be “inherent to our person,” which means they cannot be given away, traded, sold… or confiscated.
Paul presents the embrace of liberty as an evangelical crusade, warning against small compromises in the name of reasonable causes – such as battling terrorist threats – that can pave the way for larger and more terrible concessions down the road. He makes an interesting case that the atrophy of liberty begins when law-abiding citizens allow themselves to be treated, in a variety of ways, as if they were criminals – tried without jury and found guilty for living their lives in ways their rulers find unfair or unsanitary. Imagine what a different nation we would have, if all deployment of government’s crushing coercive powers required specific accusations, followed by an impartial trial! But instead, we tolerate statists declaring broad cross-sections of the population guilty of nebulous “crimes” such as “income inequality” and assessing steep penalties. Who knows what they’l find us all guilty of next, unless we follow Senator Paul’s advice and call an end to the eternal prosecution?