America: The Home of the...Compliant?

If you want a quick measure of the state of American society, you might consider the federal government's use of unmanned aerial drones to monitor U.S. citizens, and in particular the EPA's matter-of-fact defense of its use of drones over the Midwest as necessary to "verify compliance" with environmental laws.  And as the EPA's "environmental justice" agenda is quickly becoming the government's official overarching priority (see here), we might describe the Obama era as the dawning of the Age of Compliance.

The priorities of civilizations can be gleaned from a consideration of the virtues they cherish most.  For example, Homeric Greece valued honor, so their crowning virtue was courage.  Later, the Classical philosophers attempted to change Greece, emphasizing the rational life over the warlike, and hence upholding wisdom as the definitive virtue.  Achilles vs. Socrates became Greece's great civilizational debate.

"The Star-Spangled Banner," though written in reference to a battle, perfectly sums up a broader aspiration of America's past in the final line of its famous first stanza: "the land of the free, and the home of the brave."  It was courage again, but not merely the warlike courage of the Homeric era.  Rather, America embodied the courage of the free individual, specifically the bravery to face life and its vicissitudes -- including, initially, its geographical unknowns -- independently, and without excessive "protection" by government.  That is to say, courage was the prime virtue because freedom was the most valued social priority.  It takes courage to resist the temptation of the security that forfeits liberty -- to resist its imposition from without or from within.

Perhaps every era's elemental debates are reducible to competing clichés which, while lacking some of the nuances inherent in the relevant issues, are often a good distillation of primal responses.  When I was a lad, the general debate on matters of government authority vs. personal liberty was represented by two simple arguments. 

Whenever some apologist for communism commented that crime rates in Russia were lower than in the West, a critic would quip, "Sure, we could have fewer crimes if we put a policeman on every corner." 

On the other hand, if someone objected to a nanny-state intrusion upon his rights and privacy, he was sure to be told, "But if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear."

This clash of clichés sums up pretty neatly the two basic trains of thought on the government's role in providing for public order.  The first cliché begins with the assumption that government is not to be trusted.  The second begins with the assumption that private citizens are not to be trusted.  In other words, the first assumes that unrestrained government is the greater threat, the second that unrestrained citizens are the greater threat. 

A key difference between the two views can be seen in the undefined, and therefore unlimited, nature of the second.  "If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear."  What is the outer limit of this statement's applicability?  Random pat-downs of your wife, daughter, or grandmother at the airport?  Closed-circuit cameras at every intersection?  Unmanned drones monitoring your movements and filming your private property?  A policeman on every corner? 

There is no built-in limit.  You are merely to accept that as long as you are following the rules, the constant surveillance and restrictions need not concern you.  In other words, the permanent presumption of guilt, requiring endless daily proofs of innocence, need not concern you.

And how does one provide proof of innocence in a context of permanent, unprovoked suspicion?  There is only one way: you must invite -- or at least be prepared to allow -- the authorities to watch you at all times, and at their discretion.  At the end of the day (and of each day), their surveillance cameras will presumably reveal that you have done nothing wrong.

The willingness to be surveilled, asked questions, photographed, and groped by the state has effects beyond the obvious loss of privacy and dignity.  It also substantially alters a man's relationship with the law.  In a free society, mutual trust is, and must be, the prevailing condition in the relations among citizens.  Each person has his own private relationship with the law, which sits off to the side of his life as a closed book, but one the contents of which every rational adult is expected to understand.  The book is impersonal and is generally a matter of indifference to him, unless he chooses to violate the law, thereby inviting others to "throw the book at him."  (What an apt, and perfectly American, expression.)

In a free society, then, each man is expected to keep up his end of the social bargain, following his own best judgment, and knowing full well that to break the law is to forfeit the independence of thought and action that defined his liberty.  The law belongs to him, by way of the social contract; his relationship with it is similar to his relationship with his own conscience, and it is basically an externalized model of his conscience.

In a regulatory state, by contrast, your dignified, contractual relationship with the law -- the empowering sense of independence and responsibility intrinsic to citizenship in a free country -- is destroyed.  The law is in the hands of other men, and you interact with it only, or primarily, through them.  They will watch you and then let you know when you have done something wrong. 

As a result of this altered relationship, you cannot always know when you are in violation.  The natural connection between your own private conscience and society's rules is broken.  (What law of conscience tells you not to sell muffins in the church basement, to set up a lemonade stand, or to use a stronger light bulb in the kitchen?)  The law becomes both too abstract and too personal -- abstract in that it often seems unrelated to anything for which conscience and good breeding could have served as a guide, and personal in that the deterioration of law into endless "regulations" necessitates endless individuals, agencies, and offices to interpret and implement these measures -- i.e., to ensure compliance.

The result is that the law is no longer an objective and morally comprehensible set of limits to voluntary action, but rather, it has the force and effect of an irrational parent's angry outbursts upon his child.  You are forever walking on eggshells, nervously glancing at the faces of the authorities with each step, to verify that you have not displeased them -- that you remain compliant.  Initiative, ambition, and hope are crushed under the weight of the confused self-monitoring required by life in the regulatory state.

You are on trial without charges, and the trial never ends.  You begin each day in a "pre-convicted" state, as it were.  You are at all times viewed and treated by the government as a potential lawbreaker.  The tone and the practical reality of this approach to "security" and "law enforcement" are perfectly Kafkaesque.  You are not merely to resign yourself to the injustice of being presumed guilty by the authorities; rather, you must accept that you deserve to be presumed guilty, although you have done nothing wrong.  "After all, I could have committed a crime, so why shouldn't I be treated as a criminal?"

The net effect of this new relationship between the individual and the law, the citizen and the state, is that you cannot act with a free mind, secure in the knowledge that you are acting legally and should therefore remain unmolested.  On the contrary, you must be in a constant mode of self-regulation, checking your own behavior against the vague standard of compliance.  Compliance becomes almost an end in itself, and the chief quality of good citizenship. 

Every virtue has its corresponding benefits, which justify acting virtuously.  The regulatory state's cardinal virtue, compliance, has always promised the benefits of safety and security.  Today's authoritarians, mindful of the way human nature and its higher aspirations tend to resist the slavish "virtue" of compliance, have recently added the neo-religious promise of saving the planet to the list of alleged benefits. 

Furthermore, by reframing regulatory issues as "justice" issues -- environmental justice, social justice, racial justice, and so on -- the Obama left ties the virtue of compliance to the entitlement mentality.  The "non-compliant" are, by implication, the one percent, the fat cats, the millionaires and billionaires, the polluters, the Tea Partiers, the capitalists.  Thus, while no one escapes the tendrils of the regulatory state, the ever-expanding dependent class can be marshaled as a voting, protesting army of advocates for compliance -- that is, for their own, and everyone else's, enslavement to the state.

In the great clash of clichés noted earlier, I was always partial to those who responded sarcastically to the Soviet crime statistics by saying, "Sure, we could have fewer crimes if we put a policeman on every corner."  And yet I've always thought even that point concedes too much, as it artificially limits the purview of the word "crime." 

The greatest crimes of history have never been, and can never be, perpetrated by private individuals.  The regulatory state's "policeman on every corner," whether literal or figurative -- and whether defended in the name of "public safety" or "saving the Earth" -- is itself the greatest and most manifold crime. 

The difference between law-abiding citizens and compliant masses is more than semantics.  It is the distinction between the life of men and that of slaves.  It is not unreasonable to speculate that four more years of America's current trends will see freedom's last refuge drift inexorably, and perhaps irreversibly, into "full compliance."