Federalist No. 8

I found Federalist No. 8 to be simply prophetic about the dangers a country faces when subjected to the intersection of human nature and the constant perception of external threat.

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. . . . the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.

This is exactly the danger that libertarian minded pundits have been vocally warning against since September 12, 2001. Though Alexander Hamilton is speaking about real external dangers the truth is that the public perception of external danger can be used to these ends with equal effect.

. . . weaker States or confederacies (or even nations) would first have recourse to [standing armies] . . . They would, at the same time, be necessitated to strengthen the executive arm of government, in doing which their constitutions would acquire a progressive direction toward monarchy. It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.

This is precisely the effect that we have seen throughout the Bush administration with the constant harping on the dangers posed by terrorists from around the world. To be sure, the technological advances of the last century have reduced the geographic cushion that had contributed to our national safety for the earlier part of our history. Despite the greater range available to anyone who would threaten us, we must stand vigilant against attempts to reduce our freedom in the name of safety when the safety being offered is against a threat more imaginary than real.

I don’t mean to say that the events of 9/11 were imaginary but those events, devastating as they were, did not constitute a real threat to our national survival except insofar as we respond to them by changing our society so that we become a different nation than the one which has been a beacon of liberty to the world. That idea cannot be killed by terrorist acts, and that idea is the American that is enshrined in our constitution.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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7 Responses to Federalist No. 8

  1. Mackenzie says:

    You are overlooking the fact that, were it not for modern communication and the actions of a few brave people, the terrorists attacks of 911 could have succeeded in killing our heads of government. I do not know that this nation is prepared for the event that an attack could leave us without a president, vice president, members of cabinet, and many other members of government. The result would be chaos if there were not definite system in place for the line of command in the face of such an event. We came too close to that not to take such a threat seriously.

    The events of 911 were “unimaginable” to most Americans before they happened. How many on 9/10/2001 would imagine that commercial airlines would intentionally fly into buildings? We were not prepared because we could not imagine such acts. In fact many of the victims had almost exited the buildings but went back to their offices because they were instructed to do so. Even as they were being attacked, they could not imagine it.

    We have not had any terrorists attack on our country since 911, which is an invisible success, receiving little credit, while our defense efforts receive overwhelming criticism, even when succeeding.

    I’ll read Federalist Paper 8. I have understood from historians that defense was a decisive factor in forming the Union. At that time the colonies were very wary of any external government but were nonetheless aware of the defense advantage that the Union provided over a non-union. Defense was a big selling point for the formation of a Union of States.

    But the fact that the need for defense is counter-balanced against the protection of freedoms shows how well considered is our constitution.

    However, the constitution also provided special measures for times of war. Bin Laden openly declared war on the United States prior to 911. There is abundant America hatred openly expressed thought out the world, including in our own country. Terrorist training camps exist. They are not imaginary.
    I agree with your point about protecting our freedoms, but not about your belief that terrorism is an “imagined threat”. We do need to be prepared for the unimaginable. The enemy that we confront today seeks out our soft spots, seeks the unexpected and the unprotected.

  2. Mackenzie says:

    In the arena of public opinion, it’s a lose-lose prospect for any administration. If the administration deals exclisively with “real and actual” attacks, it is criticized for being unprepared. If it prepares for potential attacks it is accused of using “imaginary threats” to control the people. The fact of the matter is anyone in public office knows that if attacks like 911 occur on their watch, they are responsible, and protecting the public against unforseen attacks is the only defense that the reponsible person has against being responsible for the catastrophe if an attack occurs. I would hope that anyone in the Oval office would accept this in reality, no matter what promises they may have made in order to get there.

  3. David says:

    You make some good points. I do not believe that the threat of terrorism is imaginary, just that it has been blown out of proportion. I don’t expect to change your mind on this – your position is understandable – but I do hope to make my perspective understandable as well.

    You are overlooking the fact that, were it not for modern communication and the actions of a few brave people, the terrorists attacks of 911 could have succeeded in killing our heads of government. I do not know that this nation is prepared for the event that an attack could leave us without a president, vice president, members of cabinet, and many other members of government. The result would be chaos if there were not definite system in place for the line of command in the face of such an event.

    I think that is a good place to start for describing how I view things. Yes, were it not for modern communication and some extreme heroism we could very well have been without the leaders of our government (ignoring the fact that the President was in Florida at the time). Where we disagree is that I believe that we do have a system in place to deal with this. If Washington D.C. were wiped off the map while every single member of the House, Senate, Cabinet, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch there, I believe that we have a clear path to rebuild our government – elections. We do them regularly. We would simply call special elections. Even before we could hold elections most legislators would be replaced temporarily through gubernatorial appointment, and the National Guard in each state could and would be called into active duty by the governors as well. We have military personnel all over the country who know how to operate our defenses and who know how to work together in the face of a crisis.

    Admittedly we do not talk much about the lack of attacks on American soil since 9/11. The criticism of our defenses comes because it appears that we have done little to strengthen our defenses. What reason do we have to believe that the lack of attacks here is based on any reason other than the fact that we sent a big, obvious target over to the middle east where there are daily attacks.

    I’m all for protecting ourselves from the unimaginable, but it seems that most of what the government is doing is only good for the show value, and not for actual protection. All of the moves that they have made that have any value seem to be centered on what we can well imagine – airplanes being used as missiles. The current Air Marshal program is quite likely the most valuable improvement we have made in our defenses in the last 7 years.

  4. Mackenzie says:

    I think you are oversimplifying the ease with which we could elect a new Federal Government. Look how long our election process takes and look at the current situation. If Washington were to be wiped out, we would be in an extreme war situation to boot! We could not wait for the fair and just election system to take the time needed to get to know all of the candidates. We would need a commander in chief immediately! Not just a military commander in chief but also a leader of the Federal government, which is the entity that creates the union of states.

    There is no way to know absolutely the reason why we have not been attacked. When the President gave his address after 911, he said that some aspects of the war would be covert by necessity and so, as a matter of security, we cannot know all that has been done,

    Yes the war on Iraq created a front in a war that previously had no front- a war in which the threat could emerge anywhere at any time. So you say that the Iraq war is the reason that we have not been attacked here – a point often made by the administration.
    Does that mean, in your opinion, that if we get a Democrat in the white house and they carry out immediate withdrawal as they have been threatening to do (in absolute terms by Clinton and with a hedge by Obama), that we can then expect to see more 911 attacks on American soil?

    To all those protesting the deaths caused by the war in Iraq, we can see as many deaths in one day in another 911-type attack on American soil – probably more, since it is characteristic of terrorists to try to out do themselves. Instead of building the bigger house, the larger boat, the faster car, they seek to do the greatest amount of death and destruction that has here to for been seen.

  5. David says:

    I don’t mean to suggest that it would be easy – just that the pattern has been established for two centuries.

    How long do you think it would take for each party to put forth a candidate? (I would be shocked by anything beyond 2 months)

    How long would it take to hold primaries? Considering that the country would come to a standstill as it did on 9/11 – I think it could be done in a month if we wanted to.

    I recognize that the candidates would not have the current two year vetting/election process, but considering the hair’s breadth of difference that is likely to be seen between candidates positions in such a crisis there would be no reason to stretch it out. Whoever was elected would face re-election at the end of the term they are stepping in to fill (somewhere between 1 and 4 years).

    If we end the war in Iraq will we have an elevated risk of attacks on American soil – probably. The question is, is it worth the risk? Those who say that it is worth any price to avoid that risk have given up on the very foundation of individual liberty which is that we must take some individual risk.

    Playing it safe means letting someone else make your choices for you. I admit that there is a place for that, but nothing is so deadly as to be worth abandoning all liberty. The only question is where to draw the line.

    I think we have crossed the line to where we have given up a bit more than we have gained in safety. You (and many other people) appear to believe that what we have gained is worth what we have lost as well as anything more we are being asked to give up in the name of safety.

  6. Mackenzie says:

    In two centuries there has never been an instance when major elements of the federal administration have been wiped out in one blow. Given such a scenario, would you think that the agency that succeeded in such a mission would not have a stage 2 plan ready to go into operation? Do you think they would just wait around for two months for us to get our government re-established? Maybe they would have a Manchurian candidate all set up and ready to enter the election campaign, which on such a short term notice allows little time to get to know the candidate. How much did we know about Obama two months after he started running compared to what we know now? Two months is not long enough to get to know candidates but it is a very long time to go without a constitutionally established government. A lot can be set into action during such a time frame.

    You are saying that elections can be done in a month but I do not think that you are visualizing the conditions that the country might be in after such an attack. Even in normal conditions a month is not enough for the American public to get to know the candidates, and I don’t know if it is enough time for all the technical details of expediting an election either.

    After 911 I read that congress was taking on planning for such an event. There hasn’t been much follow-up on that story so I don’t know if anything ever came of it.

    The price of ending the war prematurely is not just the risk of increased attacks on American soil, it also involves the political cost of failure combined with the political cost on not succeeding, since success would be the establishment of a democracy in a central geographical location in that part of the world, that would be a very powerful thing.

    Both parties want to end the war, No One likes war, but one party wants to end the war now with no concern for sucess, failure or consequences. The democrats talk as though the only consequence of pulling out of Iraq, no matter what, is that we can use the money to invest in homeland projects. Other than that I suppose the Democrats will have us believe that the war that terrorist are conducting against the western world will end because the United States pulled out of Iraq.

    However, given that the risk increases for attack on our own soil, if we pull out prematurely, much of that money we save by deserting the people of Iraq may have to go into beefing up our homeland security. Sounds like a plan!

    You cannot equate the war in Iraq with giving up our civil liberties. The way in which we have to give up our civil liberties intersects with homeland security concerns, which will need to be increased if we leave Iraq prematurely. Anticipate more compromises with civil liberties if we get a democratic administration and they actually carry out their election promises.

    You are talking very generally in terms of gains and losses of individual freedom. You need to identify what individual freedoms we have lost and for what cost. There was recently a discussion about national ID cards. I signed a petition that opposed National ID cards, but with democrats in power I might not do so. What we have to lose are entire cities, or regions of the country, hundreds of thousands of lives, with an untold effect on the national economy and for sure our civil liberties. At the point that we are the victims of another 911, a national ID card would likely become mandatory –and with majority support.

  7. David says:

    True, we would be breaking new ground. The key is that we are accustomed to the process of turning the keys to a new administration. This is not Iraq where the people don’t know what to do with a democracy even if it were handed to them. And no, I don’t think that any group that could attack on that scale would just sit down for two months after the attack and wait for us to regroup.

    If they had their own candidate ready to step into the elections what would that candidate be able to do? Assume they won, are we lemmings that would do whatever we were told? If they want to enforce Islamic law they would have to have hundreds of thousands of people here to enforce it.

    Actually, no matter what a president wants to do (as puppet or legitimate leader) there must be an enormous force supporting that action. Generally that enormous force is simply inaction on the part of the populous. Do you believe that the American people would be passive if a leader were undermining the Constitution? If so, we have already lost America and must work to reclaim her.

    The only real threat to America is not external, it is internal – in the hearts and minds of the American citizenry.

    Without a national government in place we still have state governments that are fully functional. Each one would run their individual states and contribute to the national stability necessary to carry out elections.

    I agree that a month is not enough time to really get to know a candidate, but I contend that two years isn’t enough either. In the end we never really know until well after they are elected. That’s why we have a system that is designed to impede really drastic measures of any kind.

    As for the technical details of elections – in the end elections are nothing more than counting votes. A 10 year old with a hand calculator could do it. The real issue is whether we trust the results. The answer to that question is not a matter of time, it’s a matter of perception. A poorly run election that is not rigged will be less trusted than a fraudulent election that runs smoothly and produces a result that seems plausible.

    I am not among those who calls for a premature withdrawal from Iraq but I am one who argues that invading Iraq was a poor choice in the first place.

    The idea that victory in Iraq is defined as a stable democratic government is militarily unattainable. Democracy cannot be imposed. It is a burden that must be taken up by the people themselves. By overthrowing Saddam we helped clear the path, but establishing the government must be done by the people of Iraq.

    What the war in Iraq really did was move the main front in the war on terror to another geographic location but our responsibility to secure our own nation is no less now than it would have been if we had not invaded and no less than it would be if were were to irresponsibly cut-and-run. Anyone who thinks that leaving Iraq would make the terrorist danger magically evaporate is not grounded in reality.

    You are right that I cannot equate the war in Iraq with the erosion of our civil liberties (except for the connection that they are both being driven largely by the same people).

    Implementing a national ID card is a very visible nod toward national security, but it does not actually help make us secure – especially when combined with insecure borders and a foreign policy that provokes the hatred of people in other parts of the world.

    Why should I believe an administration that is not even making steps at real security when they tell me that they should have the right to ignore the rule of law with their warrant-less surveillance?

    Why should I trust my safety to those who focus more on invading my local school and controlling the curriculum there than they they do on governing with integrity and enforcing the laws that have been established?

    Our civil liberties are as much under attack by those who insist on unisex bathrooms and co-ed dorms as they are by those who want to suspend habeas corpus and listen in on my communications without a warrant.

    P.S. I wish you had your own blog Mackenzie so that these discussions could have a wider audience than my comment section.

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