Thursday, May 11, 2006

Jeffersonian Democracy

Salon's Tim Grieve goes on a bit of a rant about the dangers of the government having free reign to look at whatever records it wishes with no oversight or accountability whatsoever. And for the most part he's spot on.

How is the government safeguarding the information? Well, we don't know that, either. Imagine for a moment that an FBI agent investigating a kidnapping wants to see who's been calling you. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act sets forth the safeguards to be observed before the agent can get the records from a phone company. But now that the NSA has all the records, can the agent simply search through them to find what he needs without getting anyone's approval first? Now imagine that the would-be searcher isn't an FBI agent investigating a crime, but a Bush administration official doing some research on a political opponent. Can he run a search through the records, too?

Maybe it's safe to assume that the answer in both cases is no. But the thing is, we shouldn't have to assume. And if we still had a government that operated in the way the framers imagined, we wouldn't have to. The checks and balances would guarantee it. We'd know that the executive branch was obeying the laws that Congress adopted because it wouldn't have its hands on phone records until a court approved a request and a telephone company complied with it.
But I have to take it a step farther, I'm sorry. Even Tim here is operating under the assumption that we will always be a Jeffersonian democracy for the rest of time. I'm sure that's what the Germans thought before Hitler, and if you've watched a single episode of Rome on HBO (which you should), you'll know that's what the Romans thought before Caesar as well. Democracies rise and democracies fall throughout history. We ignore this fact at our own peril.

It's like the steroids debate. If they don't effectively police steroids completely out of the game, eventually it reaches a point where a kid in high school has no choice but to cheat or he absolutely cannot make the team because everyone else is already cheating. If the incumbent administration has unhindered access to an unfair advantage (say the phone records of a political opponent) that he could use to win the most important election of his lifetime, you think we should rely on his integrity and honesty to not look at them? He is going to think "My political life rests on getting this tiny bit of information. And then I promise I'll stop." But then it's just one more. And then one more. And pretty soon the party out of power has no chance of getting back into power. No chance at all. And if that happens, is that democracy? Or is it tyranny?

A vote can provide the illusion of democracy. But in order to maintain a truly democratic republic, you must have much more than just elections. And lucky for us and for the Bush administration, the Founding Fathers wrote all the rest down in a single convenient document. Read it.

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