September 11, 2011: A day that changed this nation forever. America woke up that day to see a loss of life and destruction of property on its own soil unlike any other. The powerful defenses of the nation had been penetrated by terrorists, and the citizens were shocked about how it had had happened and more importantly could it happen again. In this crisis, policymakers decided to take preventative action by passing the USA Patriot Act. A legislation that allowed the government and its agencies more autonomy in conducting surveillance and investigations of U.S. residents. The goal of this analysis is to look at how this legislation has impacted the social contracts of Americans in the context of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.
Policymakers after 9/11 felt that there was a great need to maintain surveillance over, as NY Times writer Nathan Sales calls them, lone wolves. These were American citizens or residents who had symbiotic ties with terrorists, and had assisted in the development of attacks on our soil. This follows exactly from Hobbes’ belief that natural passions, the lone wolves’ ties, need to be controlled by the “terror of some power”, the Patriot Act. In Leviathan Hobbes also advocates the concept of people giving up their rights of self-governance to an “absolute sovereign.” As we saw in Ben’s portrayal during lecture, this methodology also gives the sovereign the right to make decisions that may be only in his/her interests.
In 2010 the Federal Bureau of Investigation subpoenaed the phone records of millions of Verizon customers, using the Patriot Act as legal justification. There is some tension relating this story with Hobbes’ as the United States government does not have an absolute sovereign, but in this case we can say that the FBI and thereby the Executive Branch are pretty close to this role. And so even as many citizens were unhappy, since Hobbes’s sovereign thought it was for the better of the nation the subpoena went through.
John Locke wrote that the goal of citizens uniting into governments is the “preservation of property.” 9/11 was an example of a serious loss of property for many Americans. The impetus of the legislation that followed was to make sure that the citizens’ property was protected. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Anderson writes that since the act was introduced multiple terror plots and terror cells have been bashed, so yes in one view our property is being protected. Now in Locke’s time property was largely land and wealth, but in a 21st century context we can extend this to intellectual property as well. This is where the controversy rises. Phone records and conversations are part of intellectual property, which is why most citizens called fowl play when they were notified that Verizon was allowing the government to access them.
Rousseau of all our theorists feels the most limited need for government intervention. His ideal contract would be one in which there is protection but the each individual still keeps his/her own freedoms. Yet, even the proponents of the Patriot Act believe that there needs to be some sacrifice of freedoms for the insurance of privacy.But even if we say that Rousseau was probably a bit idealistic about this point, and we assume for a second that the Patriot Act is part of the social contract it still falls short of another part of Rousseau’s interpretation.
He writes that even the “least modification renders” social contracts “vain and ineffectual.” In 2010 Rep. Senenbrenner, the very same many that introduced the Patriot Act to Congress came out and said that the government had gone past the norms of the legislation in practice. So by Rousseau’s metric the government’s actions have effectively broken the social contract.
The times may have changed a lot since these men first introduced their theories, but it is still possible to draw some parallels between their logic and our world today. And the differences in these three opinions are a clear indication of the difficulty in arising to a conclusion regarding the correct balance between freedom and security, if there is one at all.