Edward Snowden was brought to the attention of the world by Glenn Greenwald, reporter for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. From him we learned that the government has been keeping what’s called “metadata” from every phone call made in the United States. By way of explanation, metadata is basically data about the data. If the phone call is the data, then its metadata would be the number calling from and to, the length of the call, the time of day, things like that. The data – the call itself – is not kept; just the metadata.

I’m of two minds on this subject. First, there is the idea that the government is large enough, and computerization is to the point where, all this data can be compiled and stored, in preparation for a search term to be named later. Something like that strikes a chord in just about anybody. Is it legal? But more than that, is it something the government ought to be doing in the first place? Part of me says, no, this is too much. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who wrote the 2001 Patriot Act, said that something like this was excessive and not the intent of the law. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, he pointed out that the key section of the law that allows the government to obtain business records requires the information to be relevant to an authorized investigation. And clearly, not every single phone caller in the US is part of an authorized investigation. The Patriot Act is a favorite target of some, a whipping boy to bring out every time there is a privacy issue, but you can’t blame it for this. This is government overreach.

But the other “mind” I have on this goes along with someone who was interviewed on some news show that I can no longer recall. He said, basically, that when the time comes that you need to find a needle in a haystack, first you need a haystack. If we recover a throw-away cell phone from a terrorist, how do we find out what other numbers it called or called it, to track down leads? Well, we need a database of all phone call metadata to find that out.

There’s a term from decades ago called the “pen register”. That’s really what we now call phone call metadata. A Supreme Court ruling from 1979 (when I graduated from high school to give you an idea of how old that is…well, and I am) said that the use of a pen register is not an invasion of privacy. In fact, did you know that, under the Freedom of Information Act, you or I could get this information from any government phone? Well, except the classified ones. But we have access to it. It’s not illegal, and at least for the government’s part, their data is just as available as your data. How big a deal can it really be?

Overtop of all this is the question of the proper role of government, and what should it be allowed to do; the question of what should be legal vs. what is. But I would say that there’s an even deeper question that needs to be asked. Regardless of what should be legal, do we trust our government? Will it stay within the confines that we, through our representatives, have set for it? Moving more to the personal, will the individuals, the people, in our government execute their powers in a responsible fashion?

Ultimately, any action taken by a government is taken by people, and therefore government abuse of power is a function of the morality of the men and women in power. John Adams said it this way: “Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And since the people we send to Washington, or any state capitol or county seat, come from us, dare I suggest that we, therefore, must fit this description as well?

And if the people in government can be trusted, we must realize the one constant in the universe, and that constant is change. Lord Acton, the British historian, said: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Which is why, even with the most perfect intentions, people in government tend to overstep their bounds and get corrupted by the power. And not necessarily to do evil, but to do all that is good in their eyes, including give conservatives more scrutiny than liberals when applying for tax exempt status. Someone thought that was a good idea. And thus we have the checks and balances that are supposed to restrain government.

The primary one, of course, being the Constitution itself; enumerated powers that the government was not supposed to step beyond except for a change to that Constitution. The founding fathers knew the principle of how power corrupts, even if Lord Acton wouldn’t say it just that way until a century later. We were given a strong but not overbearing federal government, with all other powers assumed for the states or the people. A distributed government like this would limit the damage a corrupt federal government could do, and corrupt state governments would be held in by their borders. But over the years, we have ceded state power, and given new powers, to Washington, and rolled them in on a road paved with good intentions. Given where that particular road ultimately leads, is it any wonder we have a government out of control?

So we come back to the broken record of big government, big government, big government. Conservatives have been beating that drum for decades. And coupled with the problem of big government is the morality, or lack thereof, of man.

We have ignored Lord Acton’s warning (even though, I believe, most of us can quote it), and we have voted in the government we deserve. We’ve done away with the distributed version that our founders designed, and have replaced it with more and more centralized authority, where one bad decision can affect hundreds of millions for generations.

What we need is a government we can trust, in what we see it doing, as with the IRS issue, but also what it does in secret, as with the phone metadata issue. There are valid reasons for secrets, one of which is not wanting to tip our hand to people who would do us harm by telling them how we’re looking for them. Do you trust this government with that kind of power, regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office?

If not, then we need to reconsider everything we have been insisting it do for us. The Occupy Wall Street movement was trying to take back the government. What really needs to happen is that we need to take back the power, and the responsibility that goes with it, from Washington, and return it to the states, or to the people. That will require some radical new thinking about what the government does for us. Well, actually, it’ll take some radical old thinking; the kind of 200-some-year-old thinking that founded this country.

    Filed under: Government

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