Friday, January 13, 2006

Civic Skepticism

I'd like to, but I'll refrain from belaboring the argument against the current expansion of executive power in the government of the United States. Suffice it to say that we have a President who believes he is free to interpret laws even as he signs them, and free to break them when it suits his convenience as Commander in Chief. The President has a long and very public history of not paying attention to evidence or arguments that might count against his own beliefs about the world. He has also nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who has advocated for something called "the unitary executive."

All of this is a matter of public record.

Watching the trend toward greater executive power as it has unfolded over the last four or five years, all the while teaching and thinking about the bases of a legitimate political order, I've been struck by the degree to which the Constitution of the United States - and perhaps liberal democracy itself - is grounded in a kind of civic skepticism.

Consider the largely tacit argument for allowing the President to have more power: George W. Bush is a decent man, the argument runs, a fine and upstanding Christian conservative; we should trust him. In short, we should give him the benefit of the doubt. The President's opponents, on the other hand, are supposed to bear all the burdens of doubt: doubts about their intelligence, their claims to knowledge, their moral standards, their integrity, their support for the troops, their patriotism.

As an example, consider the ease with which the Adminstration appeals to strategic skepticism when it suits their purposes - shifting the burden of doubt onto others in the case of climate change, for example - all the while labeling as an enemy of liberty anyone who disagrees with the President on any other matter of policy.

It doesn't matter how trustworthy the President says he is. It doesn't even matter how trustworthy he seems to be. We have the right and the responsibility as citizens to doubt him on this point, and to keep him from overstepping the constitutional bounds of his office.

The whole point of our system of government is that we should not have to trust one individual, whether it's George III or George W. Bush. The United States is supposed to be a nation of laws, not of people, precisely in order to avoid the imposition of arbitrary power of any individual or group over any other individual or group.

I would certainly not be the first to say that dissent is the first right of a citizen in a democracy. I would add that a moderate sort of civic skepticism may be our first duty.

No comments: