True believers in Big Government can buy this line. Proponents of “limited government,” however, can only greet it with mocking laughter. More than anyone else, the lover of liberty knows that regardless of the individual politicians or party in power, power, as the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once remarked, exists to be abused. And the larger the concentration of power, the more susceptible to abuse it is.
Second, let’s just assume that, not implausibly, the NSA has indeed saved lives. Does it then follow that its existence is justified?
It does not.
If the NSA is justified because it has saved lives, then any course of action or expansion of government is justified if it saves lives. Consider, how many women’s lives could have been spared the fatal ravages of domestic violence if only the government had installed surveillance devices in every home shared by partners or spouses throughout the country? If the ends always justify the means, as NSA supporters imply, this hypothetical program would be no less justified than the NSA, for it too saves lives.
Or consider that for years we’ve known that the threat of death does not deter Islamic terrorists who eagerly anticipate martyrdom. What if we could save lives by abducting, mutilating, and raping these terrorists’ female relatives, from their great grandmothers to their daughters? That this will serve as at least a far greater deterrent than that served by the threat to terrorists of losing only their own lives seems certain enough. More lives will be saved by way of this policy. Thus, such a policy, the NSA supporter must concede, would be justified.
If we could deter the murder rate—i.e. save lives—by arbitrarily selecting innocent people, framing them for murder, and then executing them, would this then be permissible?
The point is this: very few of us actually believe that the ends always justify the means. Some actions we find unacceptable even if they do save lives, for we realize that while life is a good, it is not an unqualified good, a good that we must pursue at the cost of all other goods—including and especially the good of liberty.
Those who insist that the NSA has not abused our liberty, or, like a caller to Gallagher’s show during my segment, claim that as long as one has nothing to hide, there is no cause for concern, are clueless as to the meaning and significance of their birthright.
It doesn’t matter in the least whether the NSA ever checks my phone lines or that of anyone else. It doesn’t matter in the least whether ours is a nation of saints or whether terrorists and all dangerous people vanished from the planet tomorrow.
That the NSA possesses access to this infinitude of citizens’ information alone endangers liberty.
In their heart of hearts, I think everyone must know this, for unless we all discerned the tension between the NSA’s ends and its means, none of this would be an issue.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.