Government power grows in soil seeded by crisis. Real, imagined, and conjured threatsdomestic and foreign, economic, political, and militaryare readily used to justify government responses requiring changes in established institutions and limits on traditional freedoms. Civil liberties have been the first casualties of responses to crises.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines civil liberties as Fundamental individual rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, protected by law against unwarranted governmental or other interference. Thus civil liberties is a moral and political category protecting the individual against the state. Civil liberties are what distinguish free and open societies from ones ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian governments. Theoretically, in a free society the individual is sovereign. Each person is recognized as having rights independent of and antecedent to government. The idea of civil liberties thus represents a radical break in the political history of the world.
Civil liberties are typically thought to include freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; and certain other rights related to criminal law enforcement, such as the rights to habeas corpus, against self-incrimination, to a jury trial, and so on. This translates into prohibitions against violations of privacy, censorship, a state church, forced confessions, Star Chambers, and the like. Thus, the concept of civil liberties necessarily limits government power, which is why those who run governments regularly look for ways (“crises”) to ignore them.
In the United States, judges, politicians, and political philosophers have constricted the concept civil liberties largely to exclude property, or economic, rights. Thus property has been accorded far weaker protection than that given to speech, press, and religion. The prejudice against property was formalized during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Since then, economic regulation has been deemed acceptable. This bifurcation of liberty was arbitrary, ideologically driven, and wholly unsupported by the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, it has outlasted the economic crisis for which it was developed.
Virtually all civil liberties have been eroded by war, the preparation for it, and other kinds of crises, such as depressions. These have been particularly effective in de-sensitizing people to encroachments on their freedom. Responses to crises have brought censorship, conscription, new and higher taxes, and control of transportation, industry, and agriculture. When those crises ended, most new controls were removed and taxes were reducedbut government power never shrunk back to its pre-crisis level (the rachet effect). The people were left with new and permanent state impositions in their lives. Whats more, they were effectively trained to accept further necessary assaults on their liberties when the next crisis arrived.
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