David Brooks misses the point on Snowden

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice
Font Size:

In a recent piece, New York Times columnist David Brooks attacked Edward Snowden and lamented the trust gap between the American people and their government shown by the NSA leaking scandal and America’s reaction to it. Snowden, according to Brooks, did not give proper respect to the “invisible bonds” that hold society together.

“Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country,” Brooks writes. “Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”

And to think that Brooks passes for an advocate of limited government in the venerated halls of The New York Times!

Striking a balance between liberty and society has long been an endeavor of the collectivist philosophies, but Brooks’ argument goes a step further. Rather than defending the existing balance between individual privacy and government surveillance, Brooks attacks Snowden for informing us of where the balance currently lies. Apparently society, which for Brooks seems to be the fundamental human unit, is so paramount as to justify the subversion of individual rights, but not paramount enough to be informed of those subversions.

At no point does Brooks even consider the possibility that the rising tide of distrust and cynicism is a byproduct of the massive infringements on individual liberty perpetrated by the U.S. government (and the arguments of its sycophants that we should simply ignore them). No, instead Brooks blames that distrust on the information age and its penchant for liberating people from the social institutions that cowed past generations into acquiescence.

Continuing his descent through the looking glass, Brooks drops these gems:

“[Snowden] betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.

“He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.”

You see? Because Edward Snowden decided to undermine the trust between the U.S. government and its citizens (by revealing the U.S. government is untrustworthy), the U.S. government now has no choice but to abuse its powers even more.

This logic evokes the childhood game of hitting your friend with his own hand while demanding that he stop hitting himself. The more we expose government wrongdoing, the more wrong the government is going to do, ergo we should stop forcing the government to abuse us.

Not content to end this demonstration of authoritarian illogic just yet, Brooks finally has the gall to invoke the U.S Constitution to his defense:

“[Snowden] betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed.”

You got that? Shedding light on the unconstitutional behavior of the government undermines the principles of the Constitution.

The founders also did not create the United States so that an omnipotent central government could destroy any semblance of private life in its citizenry. The founders tried to prevent that from happening not only by limiting the government to the powers expressly enumerated in the Constitution (of which warrantless and perpetual surveillance of every American is not one), but also by codifying into the Fourth Amendment explicit prohibitions on exactly the behavior employed by the Obama administration, as revealed by Snowden’s releases.

But I suppose Brooks can be forgiven for missing the mark on America’s founding. After all, the Declaration of Independence was little more than a minority viewpoint, crafted by a solitary 33-year-old who was, as Brooks laments about Edward Snowden, “likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.”

If only the young, solitary, idealistic Thomas Jefferson had shown the proper respect for the social fabric and the institutions of government, just imagine what we could have achieved.

Adam Bates received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Miami (FL) in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan in 2011. Follow him on Twitter.