New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who it is safe to say comes from the paternalistic wing of the Republican party, just told a press conference Americans’ interpretation of their Constitution will “have to change” because of the threat of terrorism.
The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.
He could not be more wrong. Starting with his belief that his suggestion is itself up-to-date.
The notion that a complex world requires us to discard not only specific older institutions but the whole idea of a rule of law that is clear and easy to understand is actually quite an old one. As is a world of terrifying and mutable danger; does Bloomberg suppose Stalinism or Naziism to have been less frightening in their day than Islamism today?
So before you come to a definitive conclusion on the idea he just resurrected as though it were new, I strongly urge you to read Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World. It is a remarkable book in more ways that I could possible address in a short and, I hope, simple blog post. But its single most startling insight, to me at least, is that the more complex the world becomes, the simpler the rules need to be to have any idea what effect they will have in practice or any hope of their creating a world of robust complexity.
Could the Internet, to take a technical example, work at all if people had not developed very simple “transfer protocols” to accommodate the remarkable complexity of the information people wanted to exchange, the bewildering proliferation of ways to exchange it and the unprecedented network of interconnections between all the things out there “on line”? Complex rules might have worked for papyrus or parchment, slowly and painstakingly generated. But only simple ones could manage blogging and tweeting.
Now Michael Bloomberg is clearly one of those people who sees no need for predictability because he’s certain he will always be in charge and really only needs discretionary authority to impose good solutions in any given circumstance. But for the rest of us the world he wants is deeply unattractive. As John Locke said:
Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it, a liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.
To which James Madison adds a vital insight in Federalist #62:
It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.
Which is, I fear, more or less Bloomberg’s vision of an elastic Constitutional jurisprudence that permits today what it did not permit yesterday and might do almost anything tomorrow. Except make us safer.
What we need to combat terrorism in all its bewildering variety is what we needed to combat past threats to our freedom stretching back over centuries: straightforward, older understandings of the American Constitution, our own Constitutional order drawn from the same sources as theirs in Magna Carta and beyond, and such ideas as loyalty, decency and self-respect.