Why the politics of national security means that we’re all living in failed Hobbesian states.
By Corey Robin
December 31, 2012 “Information Clearing House” – Political fear is universal, but its language is particular. Racism is one language of fear; risk assessment is another. There is little doubt, however, that security — whether national or domestic — is the most potent and pervasive language of all.
Security is the one good, political theorists like John Dunn and Bernard Williams agree, that the state must provide. It has the ability, like no other argument, to mobilize the resources and attention of the state and its citizens. It has arguably inspired — and, in the case of nuclear deterrence, certainly threatened — more devastation and destruction than any other ideology of the modern era.
It has also provided the single most effective and enduring justification for the suppression of rights. Why that is so — why security has furnished what appears to be the strongest reason for eliminating or otherwise limiting rights — is the question I’d like to address here.
At first glance, this may seem like a question that answers itself. When people are afraid for their lives, they will do anything to protect themselves and their families. And when the safety of the nation or the state is threatened, it too will do whatever it takes to defend itself. Limiting the rights of its citizens is the least of it.
That is the theory, at any rate, and it is commonly associated with Thomas Hobbes, whose name is often invoked as the guiding intelligence of our times. But if we look closely at what Hobbes said we find a more interesting and revealing argument about how fear works to abridge rights and limit freedom.
Contrary to popular understanding and scholarly accounts, Hobbes does not argue that the state of nature is a condition where people are naturally driven by their instinct for self-preservation to submit to an all-powerful sovereign. What he does argue is that the state of nature is a condition where people cannot agree upon the basics of morality — about what is just and unjust, good and evil, and so on — and that this disagreement about morality is a leading source of conflict.
The one thing — the only thing — people can agree upon is that each person has the right to preserve his own life and to do whatever he believes is necessary to preserve it. No one, whatever his beliefs, can condemn another person for fearing for his life and trying to preserve it. Acts of self-preservation are blameless and thus are acts we have a right to do.
But as soon as we acknowledge this right, we confront a problem: not only do we have the right to preserve ourselves, but we also have the right to do whatever we think is necessary to preserve ourselves. In the state of nature, each individual is the judge of his own situation, the judge of whether or not he is in danger and of what he must do to protect himself from danger. “Every man by right of nature,” Hobbes writes in Elements of Law, “is judge himself of the means, and of the greatness of the danger.”
But when each of us is the judge of whether we are in danger and of we must do to protect ourselves, we inevitably find ourselves, for reasons unnecessary to explore here, in a state of war. What seemed initially to offer the basis for agreement and the resolution of conflict — the right of each person to seek his own preservation — turns out in the state of nature to generate more conflict, more instability, and less self-preservation.
Though this is by no means what Hobbes had in mind, think of the public controversy in this country over “Stand Your Ground” laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. Though these laws presume to draw upon an intuitive appeal to the notion of self-defense, that notion, in practice, can rest upon a highly specific, and by no means universally shared, understanding of a threat: for some, an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie is a self-evident danger; for others, he’s an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie. Whatever side one takes in that controversy, the mere fact that it is a controversy suggests — with Hobbes — that the right of each people to seek his own preservation does not settle a conflict; it is the source of conflict.
The only solution to this problem, Hobbes concludes, is to create an all-powerful sovereign to whom we cede this basic right — not the right to defend ourselves from certain and immediate danger (a right no one can rationally cede) but the right to be the judge of what might threaten us and of what actions we will take to protect ourselves from what might threaten us. When we submit to sovereign power, Hobbes says in Elements of Law, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of our security, for the sovereign, Hobbes adds in Leviathan, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”
Returning to the language of fear, we can say that in the state of nature, the fear of death or bodily destruction entitles us to do anything we think might protect us from real or sincerely perceived dangers (as the defenders of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, essentially claim). Under the sovereign, however, that fear does not so entitle us — unless, again, we, as individuals, are immediately and incontrovertibly threatened. Once we agree to submit to the sovereign, he becomes the decider of our fears: he determines whether or not we have reason to be afraid, and he determines what must be done to protect us from the objects of our fear.
Hobbes’s argument has three implications that are relevant to contemporary politics. The first is that it is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.
Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations. The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.
Hobbes also assumed that the sovereign would be so removed from powerful constituencies in society — in his time, the church and the aristocracy — that the sovereign would be able to act on behalf of an impartial, disinterested, and neutral calculation of what truly threatened the people as a whole and of what measures would protect them. Because the sovereign’s power depended upon getting these calculations right, he had every incentive not to get them wrong.
The reality of modern state power, however, is that we have inherited some of the worst aspects of Hobbesian politics with none of its saving graces. Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.
To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.
In the Hobbesian account, this constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action. At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.
Or consider the US government response to the threat of terrorism. According to the two official commissions appointed to examine what led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one of the major reasons US intelligence agencies did not anticipate 9/11 was that turf wars and government infighting prevented them from sharing information. The “obstacles to information sharing were more bureaucratic than legal,” write David Cole and James Dempsey in Terrorism and the Constitution, and had little to do “with the constitutional principles of due process, accountability, or checks and balances.”
But while the government has run roughshod over constitutional principles since 9/11, it has been slow to remove these bureaucratic obstacles. Even the Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to unite competing agencies under one aegis, “is bogged down by bureaucracy” and a “lack of strategic planning,” according to a 2006 wire report.
Thus, it is not just threats to the well being of citizens — or even the citizenry’s fears of those threats — that compel governments to take action against those threats and certainly not the rights-abridging actions government officials so often do take. It is threats that the government deems worthy of public attention that will be acted upon. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu gave us a sense of this when, in the course of condemning the Bush Administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, she said, “I often think we would have been better off if the terrorists had blown up our levees. Maybe we’d have gotten more attention.” In acting upon threats, government officials will be inspired by a range of considerations — ideological, political, economic, and so on — that have much less to do with the threats themselves than with the specific constituencies and interests for which the government speaks.
The problem is not that we live in a world of Hobbesian states; it is that we live in a world of failed Hobbesian states.
The second implication of the Hobbesian argument is that if security is the foundation of political legitimacy, people will only believe themselves obliged to obey if they think that their security is imperiled or potentially at risk. Once people stop worrying about their security, they may forget the reasons why they should obey. “The end of obedience is protection,” Hobbes writes in Leviathan, but if people don’t feel themselves in need of protection, they won’t sense the need for obedience.
That is why, late in life, Hobbes decided to write an account of the English Civil War. It had been nearly three decades since the conclusion of the war, but Hobbes thought it critical to record and recall its evils, he explained in Behemoth,there being “nothing more instructive towards loyalty and justice than…the memory, while it lasts, of that war.”
Relying upon a simple fear of danger to underwrite obedience, in other words, is not enough. Dangers can slip from view, and when they do, obligation is thrown into question. Hobbes was quite attuned to this problem, and hoped that it could be solved by the sovereign supplying the people with “prospective glasses” by which they could “see a farre off the miseries that hang over” them but which they did not immediately perceive.
But how does a state make a particular danger or disaster that lies far off appear up close? How does it turn hypothetical dangers into immediate threats? By developing an intellectual apparatus that dispenses with the ordinary requirements of evidence and proof, by articulating a set of arguments, and pithy slogans, that enables the state to take extraordinary measures against postulated perils: fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here; the Domino Theory; MAD and other theories of nuclear deterrence.
It was Cardinal Richelieu, of all people, who declared, “In normal affairs, the administration of justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state….There urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.” The more severe the threat, the less proof we require that it is real in order to take action against it; the less severe the threat, the more proof we require of its reality in order to take action against it. If we underestimate serious threats, the consequences will be great — so great, suggests Richelieu, that we may have no choice but to overestimate them.
In 1950, Learned Hand invoked a similar rule in his decision in United States v. Dennis: in or order to decide whether or not to suppress the rights of the leadership of the Communist Party, Hand wrote, government officials must first weigh “the gravity of the ‘evil’” — and then make sure that that gravity is “discounted by its improbability.” The graver the evil they (or any other threat) pose, the higher degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. Or, to put it another way, if an evil is truly terrible but not very likely to occur, we may still take preemptive action against it.
As I have argued in the London Review of Books and elsewhere, the run-up to the second Iraq war — and the statements of Bush and Richard Perle in particular — shows that these are not ancient or academic formulations. And the support many liberal Democrats gave to the arguments of the Bush administration demonstrates that this is by no means an exclusively conservative phenomenon.
The language of security, and the discourse of imminence, is a bipartisan idiom, providing the state with the means to exaggerate threats, and to take preemptive action, including the abridgment of vital rights, to avert those threats.
It is not the people’s simple, unmediated fear of danger — or their conservative leaders’ interpretation of that danger — that compels this exaggeration and the turn away from evidence and proof. It is a highly elaborated political argument, which is based on the principle, in the words of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, that it is “better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions than ruined by too confident a security.”
The third and final implication of Hobbes’s argument is that the sovereign can be the judge of our fears and of how we are to respond to those fears only if it possesses a unity of will and judgment. If the sovereign is to be the decider, it must be able to decide; if it is to decide, it must come to a determinative judgment and a single, unified will. There can be no division or conflict; the sovereign must think and act as one.
As much as people try to resist this authoritarian dimension of Hobbes’s argument, many politicians and scholars, across the political spectrum, accept some version of it. It’s often said that a people hoping to protect themselves from fundamental threats must agree that they are in fact threatened and agree as to how they will meet that threat. According to liberal scholar and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, citizens must “have a degree of solidarity and…believe that everyone is involved in a common endeavor” in order to convince “the enemy that it faces a unified adversary.”
Throughout the first five years of the second Iraq War, to cite another example, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman argued that any disagreement — not only about whether the war should be fought but also about how it should be fought — emboldens the enemy and should be avoided. In 2005 he declared, “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”
Invoking the language of treason, Lieberman wondered aloud during a congressional hearing whether a non-binding Senate resolution opposing Bush’s proposed escalation of American troops in Iraq “would give the enemy some comfort.” On Fox News Sunday, Lieberman declared again that the resolution would “encourage the enemy” and that “war is a test of wills, and you don’t want your enemy to be given any hope.”
When it comes to matters of security, then, we are good Hobbesians, at least rhetorically. I say “at least rhetorically” because the fact remains that all states, even the most authoritarian, suffer from a fundamental lack of unity regarding their assessments of danger and of how to respond to danger; they also lack sufficient coercive power to enforce those assessments.
Many states, particularly liberal democracies, are divided at the center — with different elements of their war-making powers parceled out to a legislature and an executive, and sometimes even a judiciary — and federalist states are divided between the center and the periphery. It is not likely that such states will reach a consensus about what threatens them, and even if they do, it’s not likely that the state’s various and often fractious officials will agree on how to respond to threats.
Even regimes that come closest to the storied vision of unified state power — Hitler’s Germany, say, or Stalin’s Russia — seldom exhibit that unity. Think only of the bitter arguments that divided the SS from other sectors of the Nazi regime about whether Germany’s interests during World War II were better served by using the Jews as slave labor or by exterminating them.
Nor do fundamental threats to the survival or integrity of the state necessarily furnish that unity. Consider the War of 1812, when British troops threatened the American state with the greatest challenge to its existential survival it had ever faced — and arguably would ever face — from abroad. As of September 1814, the British had taken control of Washington, DC, burned the Capitol and the White House to the ground, and sent the federal government into exile. They also had massed a terrifying army on Lake Champlain, blocked ports up and down the North Atlantic seaboard, seized a good chunk of Maine, and seemed ready for an invasion of Boston. Desertions from the army were spreading, and many states were left to defend themselves.
At that very moment, leading citizens in New England, who had opposed the war, proposed to meet in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss measures the region might take to extricate itself from the war. That fall, antiwar candidates were elected to Congress; secession was favored by at least half of the population of Massachusetts; and influential citizens and newspapers throughout New England argued for non-payment of federal taxes, declarations of regional neutrality, and refusals to cooperate with any federal conscription bill should one be passed. The governor of Massachusetts even sent an emissary to the British to secretly negotiate a separate peace, in which the British would promise to help the New Englanders defend themselves against any federal effort to suppress the rebellion.
Even when there is agreement that the nation is threatened and that it must resist rather than surrender to the threat, there will still be disagreement about how best to defend the nation, and these disagreements can be as divisive and threatening as disagreements about whether the nation is threatened or should resist. As John C. Calhoun wrote of the divisive effects of war, which he ascribed to struggles over the distribution of material resources that accompanies any national mobilization: “The whole united must necessarily place under the control of government an amount of honors and emoluments, sufficient to excite profoundly the ambition of the aspiring and the cupidity of the avaricious; and to lead to the formation of hostile parties, and violent party conflicts and struggles to obtain the control of the government.”
America’s involvement in the First World War offers an instructive example of just how divisive these disagreements about means rather than ends can be. Just after the United States entered the war in April 1917, an official from the War Department testified before Congress about what the military would need to fight the war. When he announced, almost as an afterthought, that “we may have to have an army in France,” the chair of the Senate Finance Committee declared, “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?” Many in Congress and the public had believed that America’s participation in the war would require little more than sending arms to Europe. But what began as an almost charming display of naiveté rapidly became the subject of bitter dispute.
When President Wilson finally proposed a draft, the Speaker of the House declared that “there is precious little difference between a conscript and a convict.” Though the conscription bill eventually passed, opposition to military service remained widespread. Roughly three million men evaded the draft, and as many as sixty percent of the men who registered may have requested exemptions from fighting.
In addition to conscription, Americans argued about the mobilization of public resources. Conflicts within the military were particularly intense. Despite pressure from Wilson and other officials, the army resisted changes to its outmoded procurement systems, making for inefficiencies, redundancies, and obsolescent weaponry. So chaotic were the army’s procedures that its top administrator wound up hoarding twelve thousand typewriters in various government basements. “There is going to be the greatest competition for typewriters around here,” he explained, “and I have them all.” Businessmen consistently opposed wartime regulations of the economy, arguing that private initiative and the free market were sufficient to fight and win the war.
Financing the war was also contentious. While progressives persuaded Wilson of the need to tax wealthy interests in order to fund the war, their efforts were thwarted by industrialists and corporations, leading California Senator Hiram Johnson to complain, “Our endeavors to impose heavy war profit taxes have brought into sharp relief the skin-deep dollar patriotism of some of those who have been loudest in declamations on war and in their demands for blood.”
Forced to fall back on war bonds, the Wilson Administration tried to turn the war into a genuine “people’s war.” But the government’s “Liberty Loan” drives met with lethargy and opposition, leading the Treasury Secretary to declare, “A man who can’t lend his government $1.25 per week at the rate of 4 percent interest is not entitled to be an American citizen.” Hoping to overcome this popular resistance, Congress inserted a provision into the 1918 Sedition Act that made it illegal to “say or do anything” with intent to impede the sale of war bonds — though the legislature exempted from prosecution investment advisers who urged their clients not to buy war bonds for “bona fide and not disloyal” reasons, i.e., because war bonds were a bad investment.
On the one hand, then, we have an ideological imperative toward unity and solidarity. On the other hand, the modern state lacks that unity and solidarity. It seldom agrees upon the threats it faces, and even when it does, it can dissolve over arguments about how to meet those threats.
What do these three implications — states have a great deal of freedom to determine what threatens a people and how to respond to those threats, and in making those determinations, they are influenced by the interests and ideologies of their primary constituencies; states have strong incentives and have been given strong justifications for exaggerating threats; and while states aspire, rhetorically, to a unity of will and judgment, they seldom achieve it in practice — tell us about the relationship between security and freedom? What light do they shed on the question of why security is such a potent argument for the suppression of rights and liberties?
Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights because it combines a universality and neutrality in rhetoric with a particularity and partiality in practice. Security is a good that everyone needs, and, we assume, that everyone needs in the same way and to the same degree. It is “the most vital of all interests,” John Stuart Mill wrote, which no one can “possibly do without.” Though Mill was referring here to the security of persons rather than of nations or states, his argument about personal security is often extended to nations and states, which are conceived to be persons writ large.
Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests. It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest. It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral. That’s the theory.
The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different. The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against. The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless. They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.
Even when it comes to the existential survival of the state, diverse constituencies will respond to that threat in diverse ways, depending upon their proximity to physical danger, their identification with the state, the level of sacrifice that might be expected of them, and so on. And while we might think that a threat to the existential survival of a people — say, from a genocidal regime — would provide an instance of a neutral, universal definition of security around which a people could unify, such threats seldom inspire that unity of will and judgment. Instead, genocidal threats can prompt a return to the Hobbesian state of nature, wherein individuals and families act upon their own definitions of danger and take whatever actions they deem necessary to secure their own survival.
Because the rhetoric of security is one of universality and neutrality while the reality is one of conflict and division, state officials and elites have every motivation, and justification, to suppress heterodox and dissenting definitions of security. And so they have, as Hobbes predicted they could and would. But because a neutral, universal definition of security is impossible to achieve in practice, repression for the sake of security must be necessarily selective: only certain groups or certain kinds of dissent will be targeted. The question then becomes: which groups, which dissent?
Because government officials are themselves connected with particular constituencies in society — often the most powerful — they will seldom suppress challenges to security that come from the powerful; instead they will target the powerless and the marginal, particularly if the powerless are mobilizing to threaten the powerful. So the US government during WWI made it illegal to urge people, like the Socialists, not to buy war bonds — but it did allow a Wall Street adviser to counsel his client not to make a bad investment.
Or, when Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918, which made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government or the military or to bring these institutions “into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute,” the Republicans attempted to insert an amendment that would have protected themselves and their constituencies, who were aggressively criticizing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic leadership of the US government. “Nothing in this act shall be construed,” the amendment read, “as limiting the liberty or impairing the right of an individual to publish or speak what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends.” Suppressing dissident socialists or activists against the draft was fine; suppressing dissenting Republicans was not.
But there is a second reason why security has proven the most potent justification for the suppression of rights. And that has to do with the liberal tradition, which historically has offered the greatest theoretical resource for opposition to the suppression of rights. While liberalism as a theory has given us excellent reasons to oppose the use of coercive state power on behalf of religious or moral orthodoxy, it has given us far fewer reasons to oppose the use of that power on behalf of security. In fact, if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.
Each of these writers tried, in his way, to prevent the state from using its coercive power on behalf of some controversial question of ideology or belief: for Locke, it was religion; for Mill, it was morality; for Holmes, it was politics. And each of them formulated a test or condition for when the use of such power was legitimate: for Locke, it was to protect “the security and safety of the commonwealth”; for Mill, it was to prevent harm; for Holmes, it was to thwart a “clear and present danger.”
The assumption behind the proscription against using coercive power in the first set of cases — religion, morality, and politics — and the endorsement of it in the second set of cases — the security and safety of the commonwealth, harm, or a clear and present danger — was not only that the first set was a source of controversy and division while the second set was not. It was that the first was by its very nature a source of controversy while the second was by its very nature a source of unity. Unlike religion, morality, and politics, in other words, security offered the basis for an uncontroversial exercise of coercive state power.
As we have seen, this assumption has not been borne out by reality. But that failure has not stopped liberals from arguing, as the saying goes, that politics stops at the water’s edge. And so when they have tried to chastise conservatives for using security for political ends (even though they do the same thing themselves), they have often found themselves, particularly since the Reagan years, hopelessly outgunned. Having endorsed — indeed, invented — the idea that security is not, properly speaking, a subject of and for the political arena, liberals cannot possibly hope to beat their opponents at a game which their chief theoreticians claim does not even exist.
This essay is an adapted version of “The Language of Fear: Security and Modern Politics,” in Fear: Across the Disciplines.
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